Roger Cohen: In faint praise of Rex Tillerson
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press
Rex Tillerson after speaking at the State Department in Washington on Tuesday.
Tillerson's “Rexit” statement was venomous.
He did not utter Trump's name , scorn by omission.
Rex Tillerson was woefully miscast as secretary of state. He was arrogant and taciturn, or just plain introverted. The so-called “God Pod” at the head of Exxon Mobil had accustomed him to rule by remoteness. He operated behind a wall zealously guarded by his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and succeeded in alienating countless dedicated Foreign Service officers who departed.
Busy trying to forge the relationship with President Trump he never had, Tillerson acquiesced to the steady dismemberment of the State Department through budget cuts, unfilled posts and disrespect of expertise. This was unpardonable.
He came in knowing little of foreign policy or how government works in Washington; his learning curve was not quick. He leaves having demonstrated that what it takes at Exxon is not what it takes at State.
Still, I confess to a scintilla of admiration for Tillerson, reinforced by the foul manner of his firing . It's clear that this Texas oilman was, as he got to know Trump, personally offended by his dishonesty and vainglory.
He had enough integrity never to disavow that he'd called Trump a “moron.” “He did not kiss up,” Nancy McEldowney, the former director of the Foreign Service Institute who now directs the master's program in foreign service at Georgetown University, told me.
When he disagreed with Trump — as he did over many issues including the Iran nuclear accord — Tillerson's mantra was: “Well, it's your deal.” To a president who demands absolute fealty and coerces loyalty by terrorizing the people around him, this was shocking lèse-majesté. Tillerson was not about to shred his own honor to please a dishonorable boss. Nor was he ready to bend to Trump's brand of sadism.
This streak of sadism, the other face of Trump's insecurity and cowardice, was evident in the way Tillerson was terminated. The secretary learned his time was up while on a diplomatic mission to Africa, rather in the manner African despots would be deposed when out of the country (Trump operates through coups).
He got official word Tuesday through a Trump tweet (“Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service!”), followed hours later by a phone call from Trump on Air Force One. You wouldn't treat a cur like that.
Foreign Service officers are decent people. As decent people, I hear that they were disgusted by this indecent treatment of the secretary of state, whatever they thought of him. Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director who has been chosen to replace Tillerson, is inheriting a building full of patriots inhabited by the queasy conviction that their values are being flouted by the president himself.
Tillerson's “Rexit” statement was venomous. He did not utter Trump's name , scorn by omission. He said, “The world needs selfless leaders,” when self-obsession defines Trump. He said, “We all agree that U.S. leadership starts with diplomacy,” when Trump is dedicated to the militarization of American foreign policy.
He thanked Americans for their “acts of kindness towards one another” and their “honesty”: Trump is mean and compulsively dishonest. Above all, he reminded State Department employees that their oath is to “defend the Constitution, to bear true faith and allegiance to the same,” at a time when contempt for the Constitution has been a recurrent trait of the Trump presidency.
I salute the outgoing secretary for all that. His was another lesson in the near impossibility of working for Trump.
Now, with an international summit between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ostensibly two months away, Tillerson leaves a State Department where the top North Korea expert, Joseph Yun, has just resigned (in great frustration, I hear), where there is no ambassador to South Korea and where more than a third of the top 152 positions under the secretary requiring Senate confirmation have no nominee. The seventh floor, seat of power, is depleted. The most experienced diplomat still there, Thomas Shannon, an emblem of professional integrity, has announced his resignation.
Pompeo will bring many things Tillerson did not have: a relationship with the president; ideological alignment with him insofar as that is possible with a man driven by gut impulses; knowledge of Congress and the military. He has the energy Trump prizes; perhaps that energy will be used to bring greater coherence to American policy and so reassure shaken allies over time.
I would not bet on it. Morale at State will take a long time to recover. A values-free foreign policy is not what honorable American diplomats signed up for. The Trump-Pompeo convergence could lead to great damage, as it would if a functioning Iran nuclear deal is shredded. Tillerson was also a brake on folly.
As Jake Walles, a former U.S. ambassador to Tunisia who retired last year, put it to me: “The fundamental problem here is not who's in the job. It's that the president does not really value what the State Department does.”
This disdain for diplomacy bodes ill for the North Korean summit, a meeting where the loosest cannon in the room could well be the American — and that's saying something.
Roger Cohen is a journalist and author. A columnist for The New York Times and International New York Times, writes about international affairs and diplomacy. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in fifteen different countries. Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.
This commentary was originally published by The New York Times, on March 17, 2018. A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 17, 2018, on Page A1 of the National edition with the headline: Faint praise for maligned Mr. Tillerson. Petroleumworld reprint this article in the interest of our readers and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Petroleumworld and its owners.
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