Rex Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state ended not with a bang but with mass confusion.
This precise personnel move was reported in late November, so anyone who is surprised by this really shouldn’t be. By this point, in fact, anyone surprised by the reality-show nature of this White House’s personnel moves has been living in a secluded oasis that I will very much want to visit after writing this.
But I have five immediate reactions to this piece of news:
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1) Rex Tillerson did not have the worst policy instincts of the Trump administration. Longtime readers are probably aware that I was not Tillerson’s biggest fan, so let’s start with the nice things I can say. Tillerson’s initial impulse to maximize his face-time with President Donald Trump was sensible, given the lack of a prior personal relationship with him. Tillerson acted as a brake on Trump’s worst instincts: The withdrawal from the Paris climate change accords, wanting to tear up the Iranian nuclear deal, a reluctance to give diplomacy a shot on the Korean Peninsula. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is the most competent policy principal in Trump’s Cabinet, and he formed a close relationship with Tillerson. And Tillerson was not wrong in thinking that the State Department could be reformed.
That said . . .
2) This was an absolutely necessary move for Trump. The most important currency for a diplomat is their credibility. If they say something will happen and then they are overruled by their boss, it’s a problem (this, by the way, is one reason that diplomats always seem so cautious and measured in their language). Trump had undercut Tillerson’s credibility on numerous occasions, and the constant leak campaign in the media that Tillerson was on his way out undercut his standing even further. To put this more simply: If you were a foreign head of government meeting with Tillerson, would you have taken his assurances seriously?
Pompeo clearly has a much closer relationship with Trump and has displayed more public fealty to him. That relationship will give Pompeo more credibility as secretary of state when he is speaking with foreign interlocutors.
3) Tillerson’s legacy will be as one of the most ineffective secretaries of state in modern history. I have has written a fair amount about Tillerson’s incompetence and ineffectiveness as secretary of state. He was so incompetent that I called for him to resign in August. I would wager that everything I said in that column holds with greater force today. His influence within the administration waned over time. His proposed redesign of the State Department was botched, and botched badly. His incompetent management helped trigger an exodus of seasoned Foreign Service officers and crushed morale among the remaining diplomats. It seemed as though he could not visit a region without saying something that offended his hosts. There is no signature idea or doctrine or accomplishment that Tillerson can point to as part of his legacy. He was woefully unprepared for the job on Day One and barely moved down the learning curve. His incompetence undercut his ability to advance any worthwhile policy instinct.
Peter Baker and Gardiner Harris pull very few punches in their New York Times write-up of Tillerson’s time at State:
“But perhaps the most puzzling part of Mr. Tillerson’s tenure was his poor oversight of the State Department. As a former top business executive, his managerial skills were thought to be his chief asset.
“But he failed to quickly pick a trusted team of leaders, left many critical departments without direction and all but paralyzed crucial decision making in the department.
“He approved one global conclave in Washington just eight days before the event was to start, ensuring that few leaders from around the world were able to attend. He rarely sat for comprehensive briefings with many of his top diplomats and often failed to consult the State Department’s experts on countries before visiting.
“Foreign diplomats - starting with the British and the French - said Mr. Tillerson neither returned phone calls or, with much advance warning, set up meetings with his counterparts. Strategic dialogues with many nations, including nuclear weapons powers like Pakistan, were ended without explanation.”
We live in a politically incorrect age, so let’s be blunt: Tillerson was an awful, incompetent secretary of state. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something.
4) Pompeo has the opportunity to become a good secretary of state. A competent secretary of state needs to cultivate ties with key stakeholders to succeed at the job: The White House, other Cabinet secretaries, Congress, the bureaucracy and the wider foreign policy community. As previously noted, Pompeo is tight with the president and has served in the Cabinet and Congress. The bureaucracy would ordinarily be wary of someone with his policy preferences (more about that in a moment). But Pompeo has the opportunity to build considerable goodwill just by, you know, properly staffing the agency and defending its budget a little bit better than Tillerson.
As for the foreign policy community, well, that’s a thing, because . . .
5) U.S. foreign policy is about to get even more hawkish.
Pompeo is far more hawkish than Tillerson on an array of policy issues, particularly Iran. Tillerson’s departure follows the exit of Gary Cohn, which means there are now two fewer voices in Trump’s Cabinet advocating for the benefits of the liberal international order.
On one level, it will be impossible for Pompeo to be a worse secretary of state than Tillerson. But Pompeo might still prove to be a more dangerous secretary of state by enabling Trump’s most hawkish instincts.