The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been pretty firm on the notion that Rex Tillerson should have resigned as secretary of state months ago. Nothing has changed for the better since those words were written, and much has gotten worse.
Here’s the thing about this kind of punditry, however: If you call for someone to resign, and they do not resign, what is there left to say? Even in the Age of Trump, I cannot escalate from a call for resignation. I do not want Tillerson arrested for treason; I just want him to exit the foreign policy stage.
What is a pundit left to do when Tillerson hangs around the corridors of power like an inert, lifeless mass? There are two things. The first is to push back on any attempted counterintuitive take that Tillerson is a good secretary of state. The second is to highlight the recent instances in which Tillerson functions as the negative space of President Trump’s national security team.
First, the counterintuitive takes. The 11th commandment in the foreign policy community is that if one has defied a foreign policy consensus, the transgression itself is proof that one is speaking bold truths. In Foreign Policy, both Stephen Walt and John Hannah have recently defended Tillerson against his critics. Neither defense holds up terribly well to scrutiny.
Walt defended Tillerson because the State Department needs reform, and Tillerson is willing to reform it:
Tillerson’s more controversial actions — such as his efforts to reorganize the State Department — were long overdue. The cruel fact is that the State Department, and especially the foreign service, has been a neglected institution for a long time and has not been adapted to the realities of 21st-century diplomacy. The United States is still the only great power that routinely assigns about a third of its ambassadorial positions to unqualified amateurs, simply to reward them for their campaign contributions. Meanwhile, career foreign service officers rarely get the opportunities for career development that their counterparts in the armed services or in other countries’ diplomatic corps enjoy. That’s not their fault, of course, but its another sign that serious reform is needed.
It’s also being executed incompetently. Things are so bad that Maliz Beams, the senior State Department official in charge of the State Department’s reorganization, left the job after only three months. As Buzzfeed’s John Hudson chronicles, the reorganization program has been, um, reorganized numerous times:
Tillerson’s overhaul effort has often resembled a game of musical chairs, with new senior officials stepping in to lead the effort from one month to the next. An early leader of the overhaul was William Inglee, a former Lockheed Martin executive, who quickly moved on. Then came Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who was confirmed by Congress in May but stopped leading the effort after a listening tour involving 300 interviews of diplomats and civil servants. Then Beams stepped in to begin distilling the various ideas and recommendations of the overhaul into a workable concept, but in her three-month tenure, she never finished the job — a responsibility that now shifts to Ciccone. Another cook in the kitchen has been Brian Hook, the director of policy planning, who has inserted himself into the overhaul process at different times over the last several months.
“It’s hard to keep track of who’s actually leading this effort from one week to the next,” said Hill.
Another attempt to defend Tillerson came from Foreign Policy’s Hannah. Hannah acknowledges that “the State Department has been going through an extremely rough patch of late. Much of it, no doubt, is of Tillerson’s own making.” But Hannah notes that much of this is because of Trump and that foreign policy pundits are just being super-mean to Tillerson because we’re a mean bunch of people:
Tillerson’s actual path at State has been far bumpier than many anticipated, myself included. Even so, has it really been the unmitigated disaster that so much of the press corps and chattering class seems hell-bent on portraying? There’s a relentlessness to the media coverage, a piling-on if you will, that does seem to me unbalanced and unfair — at least insofar as it consistently overlooks some of the genuine policy successes that Tillerson has helped shepherd during his brief tenure at Foggy Bottom.
Two, in particular, deserve highlighting. The first concerns the Trump administration’s escalating pressure campaign against North Korea….
In the same league I’d put Tillerson’s yeoman efforts to rebuild relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, part of a larger strategy to compete against Iran’s expanding influence in Baghdad.
Fair is fair, and Hannah is right to argue that Tillerson deserves credit for the two areas. But man, two modest successes do not compare with the mountain of clusterf—s that the secretary of state has midwifed. As secretary of state, Tillerson cannot point to any clear diplomatic wins. Don’t take my word for it — take Tillerson’s:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told U.S. diplomats in Brussels today that the U.S. State Department has yet to achieve foreign policy “wins” since he took over nearly a year ago.
“While we don’t have any wins on the board yet, I can tell you we’re in a much better position to advance America’s interests around the world than we were 10 months ago,” Tillerson said….
The “quick wins” referred to a planned reorganization of the department, including updating the IT system and streamlining the operation, a State Department spokesman said later.
If that is what the State Department thinks are “quick wins,” then Tillerson is in even bigger trouble than I thought.
And let’s be clear, Tillerson is in big trouble. Axios’s Jonathan Swan noted last week, “Tillerson has been politically dead for months; the only question is when they’re going to hold his funeral.” Morale at State continues to plummet. According to NBC’s Carrie Dann, “The State Department, which has been buffeted by understaffing and a strained relationship between Trump and Secretary Rex Tillerson, has seen the largest single-year falloff in employee satisfaction of any large agency.”
Then there were the orchestrated leaks about Tillerson’s departure last week. They were clearly designed to shame Tillerson into resigning as soon as possible. While Tillerson denied them, Politico’s Nahal Toosi noted that there were not a lot of Foggy Bottom denizens upset at the prospect of his departure:
Mike Pompeo may have a partisan reputation, hawkish instincts and little diplomatic experience, but morale at the State Department is so low that many career diplomats would be glad to see the CIA director replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Anything, they say, would be better than this. …
“Tillerson has been such a disappointment,” said a serving State Department official. “I’m looking forward to leadership that will support and advocate on behalf of the agency they lead instead of working so hard to undermine our efforts.”
Perhaps the best evidence for Tillerson’s role as the negative space in Trump’s foreign policy came in Wednesday’s Jerusalem announcement. My Washington Post colleague Josh Rogin reports that both Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis opposed the announcement. Nonetheless, it still happened. The Associated Press’s Josh Lederman reports on Tillerson’s precise contribution to U.S. policy in the Middle East right now:
While the decision directly affects his department, Tillerson acknowledged his role was relatively minimal. He said Trump’s Mideast peace team, led by the president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, had shared the decision with him so he could “give them guidance on areas that I thought would be challenging to address.”
It is best, at this point, not to think of Tillerson as the actual secretary of state. He clearly has not been for quite some time. It is more accurate to think of Tillerson as a carbon-based life form who occasionally occupies an office on the seventh floor of the State Department. He mostly sits there, waiting for the end of the day, wondering when he will not have to pretend to be a diplomat any more.
We all hope it’s soon.