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Heckuva job you’re doing, Rex Tillerson

The secretary of state has survived. But he has not learned all that much.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland stands with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, center, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the end of a joint news conference in Mexico City on Feb. 2. (AP)

Let’s give Secretary of State Rex Tillerson his due: He is still the secretary of state.

This was not obvious just a few months ago. There seemed to be a whisper campaign emanating from the White House to force him out. Tillerson hadn’t helped himself with a painfully awkward first year in office. Still, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Tillerson has soldiered on despite loud grumblings and social media dissatisfaction from the White House.

The thing is, Tillerson’s greatest success after a year as secretary of state has been … continuing to serve as secretary of state. To be fair, that’s not his only success. Politico’s Nahal Toosi lists some of Tillerson’s other victories:

Tillerson also has won some internal battles within the administration in recent weeks. After months of being blocked by White House aides, including former chief strategist Steve Bannon, Tillerson got his preferred candidate nominated for the role of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. …
Tillerson also defeated an internal rival, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, when he persuaded the White House not to eliminate funding to a U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees. The funding was cut by roughly half instead.
Tillerson’s view of the North Korea standoff also seems to be prevailing: After knocking Tillerson last fall for advocating talks with North Korea over its nuclear program, the president has more recently supported such diplomatic overtures.

So, to review, the secretary of state’s recent successes consist of his ability to appoint an assistant secretary of state, a compromise that cuts funding for Palestinian refugees by 50 percent, and not bombing North Korea for the moment. This is an underwhelming list of accomplishments.

Meanwhile, Tillerson’s own miscues keep on coming. There was his trip to Europe, which the AP’s Matthew Lee suggests could have gone better:

As President Donald Trump declared that “America First does not mean America alone” at a global economic forum in Switzerland, his top diplomat was on a European trip of his own, trying to convince skeptical allies that the oft-repeated phrase is more than just lip service.
Yet a year into Trump’s presidency, his administration has demonstrated that “America First” may, indeed, mean “America alone,” though it remains unclear if that has helped Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s bargaining position on crucial national security and foreign policy matters.

Undeterred, Tillerson is now in the middle of a Latin America swing. With a president who is able to undercut his national security team on a daily basis and with the United States newly unpopular in the region, this was always going to be a challenging trip. According to the Financial Times’ Jude Webber and John Paul Rathbone, however, Tillerson managed to make it even more difficult:

Rex Tillerson waded into controversy as he began his first Latin American tour by touting a return to a 200-year-old foreign policy doctrine used to justify armed US intervention in its backyard. The US secretary of state also slammed China’s growing “imperial power” in the region. …
His characterisation of the controversial 1823 Monroe Doctrine as “clearly . . . a success” is likely to raise the hackles of his hosts. It may also have highlighted the void left by the departure of some of the state department’s most experienced Latin America hands. …
Mr. Tillerson described the policy framework “as relevant today as it was the day it was written” in unscripted questions after the speech at the University of Texas on the eve of his visit. …
“Rex Tillerson arrives in Mexico revindicating the Monroe Doctrine that has served to justify gringo interventions in Latin America and warning that the region ‘does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people’. Translation: “They’re ours,” tweeted Francisco Baeza, a Mexican political observer.

And then Tillerson kept talking. According to Reuters:

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first tour of Latin America got off to a rocky start on Friday with U.S. ally Mexico distancing itself from his suggestion that Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro could be toppled by his own military….
Both Maduro and his defense minister condemned the comments on Friday, and even Mexico, no friend of the Venezuelan government, was at pains to say it did not support any non-peaceful solution in the South American country that is engulfed in a political and economic crisis.
“Mexico, in no case, would back any option that implies the use of violence, internal or external, to resolve the case of Venezuela,” Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said at a news conference, flanked by Tillerson and Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland. “It will have to be the Venezuelans themselves who find a peaceful route, a peaceful solution to this crisis,” he said.

Tillerson’s diplomacy is positively sparkling compared to his management of the State Department. His big redesign hit another snag late last month, according to Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams:

The agency in charge of U.S. foreign aid has put Rex Tillerson on notice about rising frustration over his State Department redesign, the most visible sign yet of the confusion surrounding his bid to reshape American diplomacy.
“Per direction from the Front Office, we are suspending all USAID involvement in the Joint Redesign as of Monday, January 22nd,” Jim Richardson, the redesign chief at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said in a Jan. 19 email to senior staff obtained by Bloomberg News. “You should not work on any Joint Redesign activities.”
… The contradictory signals reflect increasing discord over Tillerson’s redesign, which has been the signature initiative of the secretary of state’s term so far but has been clouded by a wave of departures and a lack of clarity over its goals. The restructuring is intended to modernize the department and eliminate overlap but faces resistance within the department and in Congress, where critics say it has contributed to key positions going unfilled and plummeting morale.

The evidence for “key positions going unfilled and plummeting morale” is pretty strong. Lee broke the news last week that the State Department is losing its most senior diplomat:

The retirement of the department’s third-ranking official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, was announced on Thursday at a time when the administration’s foreign policy and its treatment of veteran diplomats has come under heavy criticism.
While not a household name, Shannon is widely respected by his colleagues, lawmakers and others, and his departure in the coming months will leave another void in the top ranks. He holds the rank of “career ambassador” — the highest in the Foreign Service….
Shannon’s departure is sure to be seized on by critics of the administration who accuse Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of gutting the Foreign Service, particularly its senior ranks. Of five career ambassadors on the job when Tillerson arrived at the State Department a year ago Thursday, only one remains and that diplomat is on sabbatical. Of six undersecretary positions, only two, including Shannon’s, are occupied. The rest are vacant.

Secretary of state was never going to be an easy assignment for anyone, much less Tillerson. James Baker, George Shultz or even a reincarnated John Quincy Adams would have had a hard time being a good secretary of state with such a bad foreign policy president. This administration keeps making boneheaded policy decisions that the State Department cannot control. Other policy principals have proved to be even more ham-handed. And Tillerson’s foreign policy preferences are somewhat more sane than Donald Trump’s.

To put it diplomatically, however, it is a very low bar to praise Tillerson for approaching Alexander Haig-levels of endurance at Foggy Bottom. Most of the aforementioned litany of setbacks have more to do with Tillerson and have less to do with Trump.

The news coverage credits Tillerson’s stubbornness as the source of his endurance. That can be a valuable trait in diplomacy. A blinkered insistence on following the wrong path, however, is far worse than admitting error. Tillerson’s obsession with his redesign at the expense of almost every other priority in his ambit remains one of the most puzzling aspects of Trump’s foreign policy.

The secretary of state has survived 2017. But he has not learned all that much. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that either assertion will change in 2018.