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Rex Tillerson: The Pointless Secretary of State

For those who decried Rex Tillerson’s 14-month tenure as secretary of state, who wanted a more aggressive advocate in foreign affairs and more of the empty slots at Foggy Bottom filled, be careful what you wish for. Because you now have Mike Pompeo.

Tillerson will not, as some claim, be remembered as the worst secretary of state in history. He made no significant blunders or gaffes, gave away nothing to the detriment of the United States. He just didn’t do much at all.

Understanding Tillerson’s place in history requires understanding that the State Department is an agency without primary agency. Under Cold War administrations it focused on arms control. During the Bush and early Obama years, it was sent off to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton switched the organization over to “soft power” programs. John Kerry started on Syria as a signature aim but ended up focused singularly on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson never articulated any goals at all beyond some verbiage about structural reform that will never again see daylight. He’ll more accurately be remembered not as the worst of secretaries, but as the most pointless [1].

Tillerson never understood that the traditional way of engaging State’s bureaucracy is for a new secretary to fill key positions with political appointees, who will task the rank and file below them. He left too many slots vacant too long, and found himself without allies inside Foggy Bottom as his relationship with Trump failed to gel [2]. Left on their own, his diplomats found ways to make trouble for him, including leaking [3] dissent memos on the administration’s approach to child [4] soldiers and Trump’s executive orders banning travelers from some Muslim countries. Meanwhile, the media offered Tillerson no rest, proclaiming in near-apocalyptic terms the end of diplomacy and announcing with dulled regularity the loss of U.S. standing in the world.


It’s kind of amazing in a way that Tillerson lasted as long as he did, though the end was the kind of inglorious mess all too common now in Washington. Tillerson was caught flat-footed with the announcement of an impending summit with North Korea, and his clumsy attempt [5] to sound relevant only handed the media another chance to claim chaos in the administration. He made his remarks in the midst of a humiliating apology tour [6] of Africa, where he was tasked with being the punching bag for leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign policy angry over the president calling their nations “shitholes.”

Tillerson—his Africa trip cut short, which denied him even the chance to lay a wreath [6] at the memorial to victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam—took a final shot at Trump on his way out the door. He did so by getting ahead of the more neutral White House statement by saying [7] that the nerve agent used to poison a Russian spy and his daughter in the UK “clearly came from Russia” and that the episode “certainly will trigger a response.” Good times.

But as the old saying warns, be careful what you wish for. Because Mike Pompeo as secretary of state will be no Rex Tillerson.

Pompeo is a West point grad, a Tea Party pro-war conservative, a three-time congressman from Kansas elected in 2010 with the support of Charles and David Koch. He is remembered mostly for grilling Hillary Clinton over Benghazi. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, he supported the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program and opposed shutting down Guantanamo. He defended the CIA in the wake of the Senate torture report, declaring [8] “These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots.”

Among Pompeo’s most significant foreign policy stances is his long-standing opposition to the 2015 agreement between the U.S., Iran, and European and Asian powers, that lifted economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran accepting curbs on its nuclear program. “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo said [9] during his CIA confirmation process. As head of the Department of State, which sees as one of its few Obama-era legacy successes that nuclear agreement, Pompeo will find that diplomats who were displeased with the bland Tillerson will be repulsed by him. Anybody expecting the rehabilitation [10] of the State Department is in for a long wait. A toxic relationship with the rank and file? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

But what his diplomats think of him may not matter to Pompeo. Unlike Tillerson, who as a stranger [11] to Washington failed to understand the need to seed the bureaucracy with allies, Pompeo is likely to move quickly to insert people who mirror his ideological stances into the State Department. His ties to conservative organizations suggest he’ll have a pool of the like-minded to draw from, and his close relationship with Trump means he won’t run into the resistance that Tillerson often did in getting his choices blessed.

While decisions over the Iran nuclear agreement hover in the near distance, Pompeo will find the impending summit among Trump, Kim Jong-un, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in as item number one on his to-do list. Absent a bit of obligatory institutional defense of the CIA’s work on Russia, Pompeo has made a point of locking his public statements in line with Trump’s. His most recent comments [12] on North Korea emphasize this: “We’ve gotten more than any previous administration—an agreement to not continue testing nuclear weapons and their missile program, the things that would put them capable of getting across the threshold…at the same time [Kim] has agreed to have a conversation about denuclearization.”

Pompeo will, however, need to walk back his earlier remarks [13] hinting at regime change in North Korea. Security is Kim Jong-un’s primary goal for negotiations with the U.S., and a guarantee of his own position will be non-negotiable. Trump can expect no progress on denuclearization without deflecting Pompeo’s July 2017 statement that the North Korean people “would love to see” Kim removed from power and that he remained hopeful the U.S. would figure out a way to make that happen.

But those are details. We already know what kind of secretary of state Pompeo will be. Given his firm stances on issues such as the Iranian nuclear deal, informed by a staunch political philosophy formed out of his Tea Party days, and backed up by his Washington experience and closeness [14] to Trump, it is very unlikely he’ll be an inconsequential secretary in the Tillerson mold.

The new worry is that someone in a position that often served previous presidents by presenting dissenting opinions is being filled by a man who will amplify and support Trump’s own views. Don’t forget: it was Pompeo who made [14] the Sunday show rounds to defend the president’s response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last August, even as other administration officials stayed silent. Critics who focus on a perceived lack of consistency in foreign policy hurting America’s global credibility will now need to prepare for a Donald Trump echo chamber.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [15]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [16]: A Novel of WWII Japan. He tweets @WeMeantWell. [17]

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Rex Tillerson: The Pointless Secretary of State"

#1 Comment By kimp On March 13, 2018 @ 1:39 pm

This administration continues to astound with the amount of craven blind loyalty required to hold a position.

#2 Comment By Howlvis On March 13, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

And que up the ‘foreign wars’; if you believed Trump’s anti-interventionist talk you are about to be betrayed.

#3 Comment By Rossbach On March 13, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

With the appointment of Mike Pompeo as SOS, we are assured that the President has no intention of fulfilling his campaign pledge to keep the US form committing to any additional wars of choice.

Trump voters will mind this in 2020.

#4 Comment By Alex Ingrum On March 13, 2018 @ 3:02 pm

Time to get ready for war against Iran led by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel, with Russia backing Iran and China quietly benefiting from all the chaos.

Fun times ahead!

#5 Comment By O’Brien On March 13, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

“With the appointment of Mike Pompeo as SOS, we are assured that the President has no intention of fulfilling his campaign pledge to keep the US form committing to any additional wars of choice.
Trump voters will mind this in 2020.” Trump voters will be elated to get their sons and daughters returned to them in coffins. They will remember with joy how their child died for Donald the draft dodger.

#6 Comment By race to the bottom On March 13, 2018 @ 3:15 pm

@Howlvis – “[…] you are about to be betrayed.”

Come again? “About to be”?

We’ve been betrayed from the get go.

No wall. Immigrants still pouring in. Illegals still here. More H1-B visas than under Obama. Bad trade deals still bad. Continuing or even exacerbating the worst Middle East screw-ups of Bush II and Obama. There’s no “America First”, but there’s plenty of favors for Wall Street, Israel, his creepy family, and an endless conga line of New York cronies.

That there’s a heap of betrayals already.

#7 Comment By Only The Lonely On March 13, 2018 @ 3:38 pm

Don’t like Pompeo, but at least the State Department won’t be using threats and foreign aid blackmail to coerce small, defenseless countries into accepting “the LGBTQA agenda”.

Maybe Pompeo will put State back in the business of diplomacy and out of the business of sicko social engineering.

#8 Comment By Dan Green On March 13, 2018 @ 4:00 pm

Big big day for CNN. Just last night it was all about Mueller and Trumps treason.

#9 Comment By ScottA On March 13, 2018 @ 4:22 pm

I always find it incredible when someone claims to be a Tea Party fiscal conservative and then turns around and supports wasting trillions of dollars we don’t have on fighting endless and unnecessary wars.

The last thing this country needs is a new Secretary of State who is a warmonger who supports war.

Unfortunately, it looks like that in DC, the more things change the more they stay the same.

#10 Comment By Jeremy 2 On March 13, 2018 @ 5:00 pm

@Only The Lonely
Oh, I wouldn’t put it past Pompeo to express false sympathy for gays being executed in Iran to justify another regime-change war.

#11 Comment By greenlibertarian On March 13, 2018 @ 5:31 pm

rttb says: “We’ve been betrayed from the get go.”

Of course. Trump never made a promise he didn’t break, his entire life. This was widely known long before he ran for office. There was always 0 reason to trust Trump. For those who favor conservative SC justices, he did get that one thing.

#12 Comment By Bill On March 13, 2018 @ 5:36 pm

The more I read these comments, the more I am convinced there are a bevy of sick, whining, complaining Americans, who are seemingly never happy with anything. Where were they when the last president sold our country down the river of globalism? When he attacked our individualism as a great nation? When he promised and colluded with Putin that things would be better when he got re-elected? Whew!

#13 Comment By Cynthia McLean On March 13, 2018 @ 5:57 pm

Can we expect to see the likes of John Bolton now brought into this administration to further beat the drums of War?

#14 Comment By ScottA On March 13, 2018 @ 6:41 pm


The last thing this country needs is a new Secretary of State who is a warmonger who supports torture.

#15 Comment By Lenny On March 13, 2018 @ 7:12 pm

So much winning it hurts

Trump was right: We would get tired of winning so fast.

Trump is a coward. He is unable to fire people face to face . Those bone spurs must be acting up.

#16 Comment By Daniel Danza On March 13, 2018 @ 7:46 pm

Rossbach: “With the appointment of Mike Pompeo as SOS, we are assured that the President has no intention of fulfilling his campaign pledge to keep the US form committing to any additional wars of choice. Trump voters will mind this in 2020.”

No they won’t.

#17 Comment By Hexexis On March 13, 2018 @ 8:39 pm

“Maybe Pompeo will put State back in the business of diplomacy and out of the business of sicko social engineering.”

Highly unlikely: State ain’t been in that biz since about 1983, when Pres. Reagan sent envoy Rumsfeld to bear-hug Saddam Hussein w/ sealing wax, for that Am. stamp of approval on his Iran caper. Since Jas. Baker III, SecysState merely tourists, not diplomats.

But for the best in sicko social engineering, visit the DoD, & get fitted for a fine flammable uniform or have your tattoo micrometer measured. All in the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligarish.”

#18 Comment By Raymond Bennett On March 13, 2018 @ 11:46 pm

What a bunch of crap. Trump has done more for the economy than any other president in recent history and he is restoring pride in “made in America”. I you can’t be honest in evaluating the progress made, don’t show your hatefulness with hateful words.

#19 Comment By Realist On March 14, 2018 @ 3:33 am

Only yes men need apply.

#20 Comment By the scales On March 14, 2018 @ 4:06 am

Since Jas. Baker III, SecysState merely tourists, not diplomats.

Word. A few points for Kerry as dip maybe.

#21 Comment By Stephen On March 14, 2018 @ 9:11 am

In regards to Pompeo’s characterization, how do the words “Tea Party” and pro-war go together?

#22 Comment By carroll price On March 14, 2018 @ 9:44 am

Just what America needs; another Israel firster.

#23 Comment By Michael Kenny On March 14, 2018 @ 10:06 am

I always saw Tillerson as being appointed to buy off Putin. Tillerson had done business with him and it would be typically “Trumpian” to think that everyone can be bought off. Pompeo’s appointment suggests that Trump now accepts that Putin cannot be bought off and will have to be stood up to. The emphasis on Iran will bring the US closer to confronting Putin, who will have to fight for his supposed “ally” or ditch Iran, thereby discrediting himself.

#24 Comment By J Consley On March 14, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

On reason why Tillerson could not remain as Secretary of State is that the was not “for sale” as is Trump and the entire Congress. Tillerson with his knowledge of the Middle EAst and Russia could not be forced to abide the propaganda and lies offered to U.S. taxpayers by the Neocons and Adelson types controlling U.S. foreign policy. Tillerson should write a book informing U.S. citizens of the Trump oprations.

#25 Comment By lex salica On March 15, 2018 @ 1:15 am

Tillerson was OK. A decent man who worked hard and was doing his level best in horrific circumstances. He didn’t deserve the intense contempt you had for him.

And after him, the deluge.

#26 Comment By He Blew It On March 15, 2018 @ 10:42 am

“Trump has done more for the economy than any other president in recent history and he is restoring pride in “made in America”.”


After promising to end the H1-B program during the campaign, as president Trump actually raised the caps, issuing more H1-B visas to foreigners than Obama did.


#27 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 15, 2018 @ 7:10 pm

Well, in the “before he was against it, he was for it” political vein, Pompeo once thought WikiLeaks was great. If only he was able to hold that thought.

#28 Comment By jacqueline davis On March 18, 2018 @ 4:38 am

O’Brien let me get this straight…Obama served in the Armed Forces???