Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, widely derided as the weakest secretary of state in recent memory, has only highlighted his marginal status in the administration. His slow-motion reorganization of the State Department, refusal to rebuff the president’s demands for enormous cuts to his budget, failure to reach beyond his close-knit staff, derogatory remarks about human rights, lack of a close rapport with the president and weak press/public diplomacy skills have left knowledgeable foreign policy types scratching their heads as to what Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates and Stephen Hadley could possibly have seen in Tillerson so as to recommend him for the job. (Hint: Follow the money.)
At any rate, Tillerson ventured on to “Fox News Sunday,” perhaps hoping he’d get some softballs. Instead, he made news — which, in this case, was certainly not what he wanted to do.
First, pressed as to how Trump could claim that North Korea is starting to respect the United States and how Tillerson could say that the regime “certainly demonstrated some level of restraint” when North Korea just set off more banned missile tests, he replied:
Well, I don’t know that we’re wrong, Chris [Wallace]. I think it’s going to take some time to tell. This type of launch again, it is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. So, it is — clearly, they are still messaging us as well, that they are not prepared to completely back away from their position.
Having said that, we are going to continue our peaceful pressure campaign as I have described that working with allies, working with China as well, to see if we can bring the regime in Pyongyang to the negotiating table, with a view to begin a dialogue on the different future for Korean peninsula and for North Korea.
Huh? We don’t know that it’s not working, but the North Koreans did violate U.N. resolutions — but hooray for negotiations? That sounds like former secretary of state John Kerry on a bad day. Tillerson manages to look both unduly optimistic and befuddled, not a great combination when your job is to project American determination, sobriety and constancy.
Wallace then asked whether the administration had an “open-ended” Afghanistan policy. Tillerson denied it, and then went on to demonstrate that we have an open-ended strategy:
TILLERSON: We’re going to be here. We’re going to continue to fight for the Afghan government, support the Afghan security forces.
And what needs to happen is the Taliban needs to engage with Afghan government in a process of reconciliation and developing a way to govern the country in the future.
WALLACE: But the point I guess I’m trying to get at is, when you say that they — you were going to be there until they get that message, is that an open-ended commitment? Are you saying whatever the president’s view is, whatever it takes?
TILLERSON: The president was clear that he is not setting any arbitrary timelines. He’s not committing to any deadlines. He did, in his speech, though — you will recall — say that our patience is not unlimited. Our time is not unlimited. . . . I think what the president has indicated is we are not going to set arbitrary deadlines. We’re going to monitor the conditions on the ground and our decisions will be formed around the progress on the ground.
WALLACE: There’s also the question of how this administration defines victory in Afghanistan and you and the president talked about that in somewhat different terms, here you both are. . . . So, Mr. Secretary, which is it? Is it obliterating al Qaeda and ISIS or is it just getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.
TILLERSON: Well, the war against ISIS is quite clear, Chris, and the president has been clear that we will defeat ISIS. We will to eliminate ISIS’ capability to organize, to raise financing, to plan, recruit new recruits to their fight to carry out terrorism acts throughout the world.
That fight is progressing quite well. We are well on our way to defeating ISIS. We have now taken the caliphate from them in Iraq. Over 70 percent of the territory has been recovered. None of it has been lost back to those forces. Almost 2 million displaced Iraqi people have now returned to their homes. . . .
Now, all terrorist organizations have somewhat different objectives. So, whether it’s ISIS, al Qaeda, the Taliban or others, our objective is to deny any terrorist organization any territory with which they can organize, raise financing, recruit new fighters, develop techniques for carrying out terrorist attacks and then deploying those. We know that if we deny them the space to do that, we protect the homeland. We also protect Americans and our allies as well.
So, in the case of Afghanistan, Afghanistan has a history of being a refuge for some of the most devastating attacks carried out. As we all know, the attack of 9/11 was organized and carried out from Afghanistan. So, in Afghanistan, we have to secure Afghanistan in a way that that can never occur again because there’s no territory available to organizations to do so.
I have no idea what he meant. He simply should have said, “Yes, our policy is open-ended, because the enemy gets a vote as to when wars end.”
Tillerson’s most awkward moment came when asked about Trump’s Charlottesville comments:
WALLACE: Does that make it harder for you to push American values around the world when some foreign leaders question president’s values?
TILLERSON: Chris, we express America’s values from the State Department. We represent the American people. We represent America’s values, our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment to people the world over. And that message has never changed.
WALLACE: And when the president gets into the kind of controversy he does and the U.N. committee response the way it does, it seems to say they begin to doubt are — whether we’re living those values.
TILLERSON: I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values or the commitment of the American government or the government’s agencies to advancing those values and defending those values.
WALLACE: And the president’s values?
TILLERSON: The president speaks for himself, Chris.
WALLACE: Are you separating yourself from that, sir?
TILLERSON: I’ve spoken — I’ve made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week.
Granted, Tillerson doesn’t want any part of Trump’s vile rhetoric, but he needs to wise up. The president speaks on behalf of our country, which is why he is doing such damage to our reputation and influence.
Now, maybe Tillerson is trying to get fired, an understandable goal in this administration. Tillerson has alienated his department, failed to bond with the president, been ineffective with the media, clashed with Jared Kushner (for meddling in Middle East diplomacy), horrified human rights activists, lost track of where the president is from time to time (e.g. on Qatar), frustrated congressional oversight committee members and shrunk the influence in the State Department. He couldn’t even get rid of Sebastian Gorka. (After seven months, chief of staff John F. Kelly finally forced him out.) I can’t imagine a single constituency (media, experts, subordinates, foreign leaders) that would be disappointed to see him go.