The New York Times, in a front page piece, took a journalistic machete to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Monday, portraying him as a hapless bureaucrat, slow of action, isolated in his office, lacking in expertise, at odds with his president. That may indeed be an accurate picture of the secretary, and I claim no knowledge or expertise on the subject that would put me in position to gainsay the thrust of the piece. But its timing was intriguing, and some elements seemed to suggest, in a purely journalistic sense, that the Times writers (David E. Sanger, Gardiner Harris, and Mark Landler) were stretching to bolster their central thesis.
Glancing merely at the front-page headline —“Tillerson Finds Role Undercut by Oval Office: Discord Emerges Over Middle East Policy”—the reader wouldn’t get the impression that the story below was a highly negative Tillerson profile. Rather, it seemed to be in the same vein as a piece in these spaces on Tuesday, entitled “Tillerson and Mattis Cleaning Up Kushner’s Middle East Mess.” That piece, by foreign policy analyst and author Mark Perry, portrayed Tillerson (and Defense Secretary James Mattis) as struggling to maintain a responsible Mideast policy in the face of impulsive actions by President Trump.
Specifically, Perry describes Mattis and Tillerson as grasping for sufficient flexibility of action to blunt or reverse the regional tensions unleashed when a coalition of Saudi-led nations (including the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) cut diplomatic, trade, and travel ties to Qatar, ostensibly because Qatar was too close to Iran and helped foster terrorist activity. According to Perry, Tillerson reacted with “shock” and “disbelief” to this action, which upended U.S. efforts to form a unified front in the Gulf against the regional ambitions of Iran. Thus he immediately set about, behind the scenes, to patch up what seemed like an unnecessary and threatening conflict.
But then Trump weighed in with an ill-timed tweet castigating Qatar and a Rose Garden suggestion that the emirate was “a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” A Tillerson friend told Perry the secretary was “absolutely enraged” that the president would undercut the country’s established diplomacy in such a way. He wasn’t mollified when a White House official told the Washington Post that Tillerson’s views on the subject should be ignored. “Tillerson may initially have had a view,” said the official, “then the president has his view, and obviously the president’s view prevails.”
This rendition squares with the early paragraphs of the Times story, which explores the Qatar episode in similar terms. Then the paper adds, “Some in the White House say that the discord in the Qatar dispute is part of a broader struggle over who is in charge of Middle East policy — Mr. Tillerson or Jared Kushner,” the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
And then comes the abrupt change in tone and direction in the Times story. The reporters suggest that Tillerson “has a tin ear about the political realities of the Trump administration,” and that his “uncertain leadership” contributes to a dysfunctional department. The article makes clear that most of the reporting came from the White House.
The piece lays out three primary failures of the early Tillerson tenure. First, his effort to enlist China to force North Korea to give up its nuclear program “has gone nowhere.” Second, Russia disinvited a U.S. diplomat from visiting that country in response to congressional actions to impose new sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s nation. And, third, Congress seems bent on thwarting the Trump administration’s resolve to shrink the State Department budget.
This is weak stuff. First, the China gambit on North Korea was a long shot by any calculation, part of an intermittent effort that has always failed. Second, Tillerson hardly can be held accountable for Russian responses to congressional actions. And, third, do we even know whether Tillerson really wants Congress to gut his department?
Further, the paper faults Tillerson for resisting Kushner’s push to cultivate Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old son of King Salman, who seemed locked in a rivalry with crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef. After the king deposed bin Nayef and installed his son as crown prince, some in the White House concluded Kushner had been right all along, and the Times seemed to agree. But bin Salman’s rise hardly constituted a rationale for abandoning a strict stance of neutrality or avoiding hints of favoritism in matters involving family politics in the royalty of another nation.
After suggesting that Tillerson had brought on some of his problems through his resistance to some White House policy initiatives, the Times cites the counsel of some wise old timers who suggested the secretary should “become more confident in taking initiatives separate from a White House preoccupied by investigations.” So which is it? Should he get with the White House program, thus placing himself more in consonance with the president and his son-in-law? Or should he separate himself from a beleaguered president? The Times seems to want to criticize Tillerson for separating himself from the White House and for not sufficiently separating himself from the White House.
Tillerson is also scored for not articulating much of a vision of where America should position itself in the world. But here again the criticisms seem a bit wan when his lack of vision is compared to the actual vision of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — “empowerment of women”; or Condoleezza Rice — “the spread of American democracy.” If empowerment of women renders a secretary of state a visionary, then perhaps the lack of one isn’t such a vice after all. And the spread of American democracy as a thrust of U.S. foreign policy has caused enough heartache, killing, maiming, and dislocation in the Middle East to suggest that this hardly represents a guidepost for the current secretary.
To be sure, the Times does put forth some criticisms that, if accurate, should stir concerns— that Tillerson doesn’t solicit advice and counsel from experts, that he holds up in his office generally with one trusted adviser nearby, that he seems a bit tone deaf to the humanitarian aspects of his job.
But generally the piece reads like the writers began with a thesis and then dumped into the story whatever they could pull together to support it. Which raises a question: Who in the White House was feeding them this stuff?
Hard to say. But Mark Perry’s subsequent reporting for The American Conservative suggests a bitter rivalry between Tillerson and Jared Kushner. One “close associate” of the secretary is quoted as describing Kushner as “this absolutely vacuous kid [who] was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters.” This person also suggested Tillerson is “just exhausted” from the task of “running around the world cleaning up after a president whose primary foreign policy adviser is a 31-year-old amateur.”
Kushner may be a vacuous kid and an amateur, but he has the president’s ear. His idea of how to run Mideast policy may be dangerous folly, but again he has the president’s ear. This is unlikely to end well for Tillerson, however sound his judgments and instincts may be (and clearly they are far more sound than Trump’s or Kushner’s). But, if you want to understand this drama as it unfolds, follow it in The New York Times — but read between the lines.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, is due out from Simon & Schuster in September.