Pity soon-to-maybe-be-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Here’s a man who can’t get to the sports page of his favorite newspaper without wading through a new round of rumors of his own demise. If it’s not a new leak out of Foggy Bottom saying someone cut in front of him in the cafeteria, presaging a palace coup, it is the New York Times, based on unnamed government sources, claiming Thursday that the White House plans to oust him by the end of the year, possibly to replace him with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
As of Thursday night, Fox News, based on its own sources, confirmed that Tillerson would be leaving his post in January, noting the “most likely succession plan would involve moving Pompeo to the State Department and nominating Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton to lead the CIA.” This was flatly, if not glibly denied by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, in a tweet.
When Tillerson is leaving—and whether it is by his own choice—doesn’t seem to matter anymore. He is not long for the job. The real question at this point is who, if not Pompeo, will replace the neutered secretary, and what if anything that means.
From his first day, neither the media nor his own organization offered him a chance. Even before the 2016 election results were in, the State Department’s supposedly non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move opposed by then-candidate Trump. Soon after Tillerson took office, his non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in President Trump’s immigration plans. Yet another dissent memo leaked just ten days ago, this time with Foggy Bottom’s minions claiming their boss was in violation of the law over a decision regarding child soldiers. “Reports” from “sources” claim the Secretary has cut himself off from the organization’s rank and file.
The media offered Secretary Tillerson no rest, proclaiming in near-apocalyptic terms the end of diplomacy, the dismantling of the State Department, and announcing with regularity the loss of U.S. standing in the world. Never one to miss a chance to pile on, Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to Tillerson declaring that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.” In the midst of all this, Tillerson supposedly called Trump a moron, and Trump’s tweets were interpreted as undermining whatever standing Tillerson might have had internationally.
Despite factual evidence to the contrary, most mainstream media also claimed State was hemorrhaging diplomats. With no evidence presented (the department has always been notoriously tight-fisted with its personnel statistics), the New York Times stated that among those Tillerson “fired or sidelined” were “most of the top African-American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women.” The media, who had blissfully ignored when State was hiring below attrition during the Obama years, now seized on every routine retirement out of Foggy Bottom as proof that Tillerson was toast. Tillerson’s very presence in office was, according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a “national security emergency.”
In the face of all this, whether you believed Tillerson’s planned reforms for State were a sincere but misguided attempt at change to an institution already dipping into irrelevance, or whether you believed his reforms were the work of a hatchet man sent in to destroy All That Is Sacred, the bottom line was clear: Those reforms were never going to happen, and Tillerson was a dead man walking. Inside Washington, Tillerson had no friends. Then too, Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.
Reportedly on deck to replace Tillerson is CIA Director Pompeo. In the Politico hagiography of Pompeo, he glows in “favored status in the West Wing.” So what would he be like as America’s 70th Secretary of State?
The signs are not good. Pompeo is a law-and-order, pro-war conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal” (as in committed to the liberal global system of trade and democracy), part of any post-WWII administration. Pompeo is a hardliner on Iran, while State sees as one of its few legacy successes the nuclear agreement with that nation worked out under Secretary of State John Kerry. Diplomats displeased with the relatively bland Tillerson, whose faults extend to apparently not having firm opinions on foreign policy matters, will be repelled by Pompeo’s views.
At CIA, Pompeo’s ideological certainty on issues such as Iranian nuclearization brushed hard against the Agency’s culture, which one official described to TAC thusly: “The CIA isn’t Saudi Arabia; the people there appreciate nuance; they’re married to complexity.” It won’t get better at State, a vast bureaucracy held together by slow consultation, careful discussion, with mumbled what ifs and maybes. Inside Foggy Bottom, the suits are not the only thing favored in shades of gray. Of course, if Pompeo takes the helm at State, Trump will trumpet his successes at Langley. But as it turns out, there aren’t many.
Sources at the CIA explained that to become a successful director “you really have to own the place, which means embracing the entrenched powers, the people on the 7th floor and the one just below it.”
“You’ve got to get them on side, and you’ve got to spend time doing it,” one agency veteran explained to TAC. “I think Pompeo did that for a time and early on people liked him, thought of him as one of them—believed he would have their backs. But that’s changed. He has a temper and he’s used it, and that’s something intelligence professionals frown on. So, not surprisingly, at least recently, he’s started to lose people there.” At State, one does not raise one’s voice.
Looking ahead to a Pompeo tenure, one State Department source told TAC, “There is nothing analysts at State hate more than to have a theory dismissed with ‘But over at CIA they say…’ and Pompeo will walk into the building with that chip on his shoulder.”
As Secretary of State, it is doubtful Pompeo will interact with, or care much about, the organization he’ll head up. As a Trump loyalist, whatever nefarious plans Trump has for the State Department as an institution will find a boss happy to see them carried out. Reports saying Pompeo’s supposed closeness to Trump will be welcomed by the State Department rank and file as empowering are sad gasps in the dark; who wants a boss empowered further against the institution’s interests?
Whatever one believes about the administration’s plans to destroy diplomacy, that belief will more than likely be reinforced during Pompeo’s tenure. It’s doubtful Pompeo will conduct much diplomacy outside the Beltway. But here’s a near-certain prediction: A few weeks after Pompeo takes office as Secretary of State, the media will start writing revisionist pieces claiming Tillerson was a check on Trump’s impulsivity, and is missed at State once they’ve had a look at the ideological ex-CIA chief.
Rex Tillerson has not been the worst Secretary of State and he is far from the best of them. For the State Department rank and file, he was a punching bag, a symbol of what they believe the Trump administration has in store for them as an institution. For the media and some members of Congress, Tillerson was a stand-in for all that they hate about Trump and his view of the world. Rex never stood a chance. It is hard to see anyone seeing Pompeo much differently. He takes office as a dead man walking.
Peter Van Buren, is a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He is also a 24-year State Department veteran, and the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Find him at Twitter @WeMeantWell