Rex Tillerson is toast.
The secretary of State, repeatedly humiliated and undercut by President Donald Trump, is clearly on his way to a Rexit, probably by year’s end. World leaders know he doesn’t speak for the president, which reduces his credibility to zero. And Trump will never forgive him for calling the president a “moron” at a national security meeting.
But Tillerson’s downfall signifies something far more dangerous than the latest tick in the “you’re fired” Trump reality show. It reflects the collapse of U.S. diplomacy under a president who thinks he can resolve global crises by bluster and threats.
In other words, under Trump, diplomacy itself has become toast. This leaves only bad options for dealing with North Korea or Iran.
Tillerson brought a fair share of his trouble on himself by adopting Trump’s disdain for the institutions of the State Department, including a decimation of its budget and personnel. Critical positions and ambassadorships remain unfilled, leaving the administration hard pressed to implement key policies in Asia or the Mideast – if such policies exist.
Moreover, it was painful to watch the former Exxon Mobil chief abase himself last week in an extraordinary press conference in which he insisted he hadn’t threatened to resign. In order to keep his job, he lavished words of praise on Trump that sounded as if they’d been dictated by the White House. One can only assume Defense Secretary James Mattis begged Tillerson not to quit in the face of looming challenges on North Korea and Iran, and an upcoming Trump trip to China in November.
Yet Tillerson can be of little use when the president refuses to grasp that diplomacy isn’t about “being nice,” in Trump’s scornful words, but rather about achieving U.S. goals without having to resort to force.
Over and over, the president has contradicted Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts in words or tweets, the latest episode being the most telling. After key meetings in Beijing several days ago, where he was pressing the Chinese to further tighten economic sanctions on North Korea, the secretary told reporters he was exploring lines of communication with Pyongyang.
Upon hearing that news, Trump immediately tweeted “I told Rex Tillerson … he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket man. Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.”
That astonishing public putdown reveals Trump’s utter incomprehension of the options he faces with North Korea. Sanctions alone will not force Pyongyang to denuclearize nor will Trump’s “fire and fury” threats. The only purpose of harsher sanctions is to force Kim Jong Un to the bargaining table, with the goal of containing his nuclear program.
At minimum, Washington needs a serious back channel means of communicating with Pyongyang – something Tillerson apparently was exploring – so each side understands the other’s intent.
Trump, however, appears eager to reduce the U.S. options on North Korea to two: more presidential insults and threats (with the risk that this provokes a paranoid Kim into making a dangerous military mistake) or starting a massive, hugely destructive war.
On Iran, Trump’s detestation for diplomacy is equally dangerous.
Every 90 days, U.S. law requires the president to affirmatively certify whether Tehran is living up to the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord, which mothballed Iran’s nuclear program for at least 10-15 years. Trump, who has repeatedly denounced the deal, will reportedly deny that certification by Oct. 15, the next deadline.
Never mind that U.N. inspectors – along with the other parties to the deal, including our European allies, Russia, and China – all say Tehran is basically adhering to the deal. So does Mattis.
The decertification will not by itself blow up the Iran accord. But it will toss over to Congress a decision on whether to restore sanctions on Iran. If sanctions are reinstated, Iran will be free to restart work on a bomb. The United States will be blamed for the deal’s failure, and our European allies say they won’t reimpose sanctions.
We could be headed for another nuclear crisis just as Trump whips up the rhetorical war with Pyongyang.
So there is good reason why Tillerson, Mattis, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford all say the deal should be saved. Asked last week in Senate hearings whether he thought U.S. national security required remaining in the agreement, Mattis said, “I do.”
There are indeed problems with Iran’s behavior in the Mideast and with its testing of missiles. No one is happy with the sunset clause that lets key provisions of the deal expire in 10 to 15 years.
The way to approach these flaws is to organize a broad coalition that presses Iran to negotiate follow-on accords – that add to the nuclear deal. Our European allies are eager to join in this tough but not impossible effort.
But choosing that path requires a president who has the patience for diplomacy and understands that it requires time and skill in building coalitions behind the scenes.
Trump on the other hand, thinks diplomacy is for sissies, and is open to ripping up the Iran deal (which practically guarantees that there won’t be a future deal with North Korea).
Even if Tillerson stayed in place, it’s unclear that he could counter his boss’s deepest instincts. Nor is it clear that any successor to Tillerson can convince Trump that diplomacy had value.
After Tillerson’s press conference. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Tillerson, Mattis, and Chief of Staff John Kelly were “those people that help separate our country from chaos.” That troika looks to be depleted soon. Who knows how long the other two will last.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be contacted at email@example.com.