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Tillerson’s Perception Problem

David Sanger makes [1] an important point about Secretary Tillerson’s aversion to the media:

But in the modern era, everyone from Dean Acheson to John Kerry has found that superpower diplomacy abhors a news vacuum.

When America’s top diplomats create one, adversaries and allies usually fill it with their own narrative of events, their own proposals, their own accounts of encounters with Washington.

As Tillerson should have learned over the last few days, he can try to manage perceptions and expectations through the media, or he will find himself and his efforts portrayed in a very unflattering light. Two months into Trump’s presidency, Tillerson is perceived to be in charge of a department that is adrift and demoralized, and he is seen as disconnected from his own department and frequently out of the loop on major decisions. Maybe those perceptions are exaggerated, maybe they’re not, but they have started to take hold to make people think that Tillerson doesn’t really know what he’s doing and isn’t seeking guidance from the career officials who would be able to help him learn. All of this confirms that concerns about his lack of foreign policy and government experience were not misplaced. If he doesn’t try correcting this perception of him on a regular basis, he will find that he isn’t going to be taken seriously in foreign capitals, Congress, or even in his own department, and that will set him up for failure. Fixing his perception problem will require speaking to the media, answering their questions, and presenting administration policies to the public. If he doesn’t start doing that, he will quickly become as irrelevant as he already appears to be.

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11 Comments To "Tillerson’s Perception Problem"

#1 Comment By Jay C On March 20, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

When America’s top diplomats create one, adversaries and allies usually fill it with their own narrative of events, their own proposals, their own accounts of encounters with Washington.

Serious question, Mr. Larison: since it is becoming increasingly obvious that neither President Trump, nor, apparently anybody in his Administration seem to give a good flying whatever about “narratives” “proposals” or “accounts” (outside of what they themselves invent) even from American sources, why should they even care about what foreigners think? About anything?

Yes, we can all agree that they should: the bigger question is whether or not they will. And most frighteningly, the answer seem to be trending towards “not”.

#2 Comment By SteveM On March 20, 2017 @ 2:34 pm

I’m thinking that Tillerson is another example of civilian blind submission to the sanctified military Elites. Trump has obviously surrendered to the “Warrior-Heroes” he surrounds himself with. The Pentagon runs the White House, runs the budget* and runs foreign policy. Tillerson apparently has also been seduced by the magnificent and superior wisdom, intelligence and insight of anyone with Stars on their shoulders. Who needs a Sec State when Trump has Mad Dog Mattis, McMaster and Pompeo whispering militarized diplomacy in his ear? And “Haley the Hammer” at the UN is only mouthpiece the State Department really needs.

* Huge Pentagon plus-up with absolutely no audit of current (pathological) Pentagon programs and operations while taking a meat axe to State. A funding policy Tillerson apparently concurs with.

Tillerson is the equivalent of an impotent manager brought in to run the liquidation of a failed business. I.e., just stay in the background and don’t make trouble…

#3 Comment By GregR On March 20, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

I think it’s even worse than he doesn’t care about media coverage, which is a huge mistake. He is taking active steps to ensure the media coverage he gets is from highly partisan sources. The only reporter allowed to travel with Tillerson just happened to be a reporter from a magazine, Independent Journal Review, that is owned by a senior Pence advisor.

It would be bad enough if he only allowed a pool reporter to accompany him, but the idea that the only person allowed works for a highly partisan publication owned by another highly influential government employee is concerning. It means there s functionally no media oversite of the entire trip.

#4 Comment By peanut On March 20, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

I mean seriously, to argue that Trump is just the same old because he surrounded himself with military people ignores the glaringly obvious fact he is the first president to ever have that many generals in his administration.

#5 Comment By Tim D. On March 20, 2017 @ 6:23 pm

Tillerson’s purpose is to procure Trump’s wish to blow up the State Department. Foreign powers already understand Tillerson is not the actual Secretary of State, Jared Kushner is.

#6 Comment By Anonne On March 20, 2017 @ 6:53 pm

Tillerson’s purpose is to bridge Exxon to Rosneft, and that’s it. Everything else, Trump cares not a whit about. Soft power, diplomacy, those are tools of the weak to these people. They don’t care about diplomacy and its role in America’s standing among other nations. They expect to dictate reality to the world, the way Trump dictated reality to the idiots who voted for him.

#7 Comment By Whine Merchant On March 20, 2017 @ 8:32 pm

Tillerson is a 21st century CEO. He is there to do what he does best: cut deals and asset strip.
Trump cares for little beyond the adulation of the crowd. The military brass promised him they will “take care of business” so Trump can play golf and attend another rally.
Why does everyone overlook Trump’s father’s decision to send him to a military school to try to overcome his sociopathy? It didn’t help. Trump now displays a bizarre, contradictory combination of being in awe of generals and hiring them so they all know he is their boss.

#8 Comment By SF Bay On March 20, 2017 @ 10:54 pm

“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “plans to skip an April 5-6 meeting of NATO foreign ministers for a U.S. visit by the Chinese president and will travel to Russia later in the month, a step allies may see as putting Moscow’s concerns ahead of theirs,” Reuters reports.”

I guess there’s no oil dealing with the NATO ministers. Tillerson knows his job. Make deals with Russians.

#9 Comment By Rest For The Weary On March 21, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

“Two months into Trump’s presidency, Tillerson is perceived to be in charge of a department that is adrift and demoralized”

That can be said of most of the executive branch at the moment. Read Bacevich’s latest on the degradation of the military, for example. Clinton, Bush II and Obama did a lot of institutional damage, and they also grossly inflated the size of the government. It’ll be several years after the inevitable downsizing before anything like esprit de corps re-emerges in departments like State and Defense. In the meantime you want a decent, competent caretaker managing the process. Tillerson seems to fit that general description.

@Tim D. “Foreign powers already understand Tillerson is not the actual Secretary of State, Jared Kushner is.”

I don’t get that feeling. Kushner’s probably headed for a fall. To start with, he’s not a very bright bulb, a lightweight whose father had to fork over $2.5 million for his admission to Harvard. In terms of international savvy, he brings a little knowledge of Israeli politics via personal associations with the Israel’s hard right and settler movement. And that’s about it. Not the horse to bet on. He’ll never be in the same league as a former CEO of Exxon, he’s more or less guaranteed to f*** up, and foreign countries know it. I suspect Trump does too.

” They expect to dictate reality to the world, the way Trump dictated reality to the idiots who voted for him.”

As an “idiot who voted for Trump”, I can say that in my case it was in the certainty that he was talking through his hat half the time. My hopes for his presidency boil down to this: get us out of the Middle East, secure the borders, cut immigration, end the H1-B program, re-negotiate bad trade deals, and, with any luck, shrink government down to a more manageable size. There was no chance of that with Bill Clinton’s wife.

#10 Comment By rayray On March 22, 2017 @ 10:52 am

@Rest for the Weary
Agreed on Kushner. According to those working closely, or trying to, with the administration, his influence is waning fast as everything you note is becoming apparent. That includes his influence with Ivanka.

As for your vote for Trump. the idea that Trump could or would do anything that would require principle or competence is ridiculous in the extreme. All of that was apparent during the campaign. To protest Hillary by voting for Trump is equivalent to bringing in scorpions to deal with your ant problem. But those emails…

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 23, 2017 @ 5:30 am

I am not inclined to count out anyone. Speaking as a loser, I am confident the young man will find his niche. And despite the commentary here, will be an asset to the admin., if he hasn’t been already.

I suspect he has and will continue to be.