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Why Tillerson Failed

Ronan Farrow’s long article on Rex Tillerson and the chaos he created at the State Department is worth reading in full. I was struck most by this passage:

In April of last year, when the United States initiated strikes on Syria, the Administration skipped the conventional step of notifying its NATO allies. “When news broke, alarmed allies . . . were calling,” the operations officer told me. It was early on a Sunday afternoon, and Tillerson was in Washington and unoccupied. “We were told that the Secretary had a long weekend so he was going to go home and have dinner with his wife and call it a night.” No calls. “That floored me,” the operations officer recalled [bold mine-DL].

Reading the article strengthens the impression I had over the last year that Tillerson never wanted the job, didn’t like doing it, and went through the motions because he thought he had some sort of obligation to accept the role. Tillerson had been hoping to retire, but instead of doing what he really wanted to do he allowed himself to be dragged into a job he wasn’t prepared for, didn’t understand, and couldn’t be bothered to do well. Combined with his misguided determination to “redesign” a department he knew nothing about and the president’s constant undermining of him, the results were predictably terrible.

When Tillerson was first nominated, I thought it was a strange choice because he had no relevant experience. His supporters insisted that his time at Exxon was more than enough to make up for any lack of political or government experience. As it turned out, the real problem may have been that Tillerson accepted the position grudgingly and without realizing what it would involve, and because he really didn’t want to be there he wasn’t going to put in the time and effort to learn what he needed to know from the people that could have educated him. The article continues:

“At first, I thought, Uh-oh, this is growing pains; a private-sector guy, realizing how hard Washington is,” the source close to the White House continued. “And just, what I started to see, week after week, month after month, was someone who not only didn’t get it but there was just no self-reflection, only self-mutilation.”

It was also unlikely that a corporate executive would adjust well to serving as a not-very-influential subordinate, especially when he answered to a president who seemed to delight in making his job more difficult. Tillerson also never seemed to figure out how to deal with Trump:

Tillerson’s Texas swagger, the source close to the White House said, irked Trump. “You just can’t be an arrogant alpha male all the time with Trump. You have to do what Mattis does, which is, ‘Mr. President, you’re the President, you’re smarter than me, you won, your instincts are always right, but let me just give you the other view, sir.’ Then you have this guy coming in,” the source said, referring to Tillerson, “going ‘Well, I guess because I worked for so many years in the oil business, I have something to say. You don’t know much about the region, so let me start with that.’ I mean, honestly, condescending.”

None of this excuses Tillerson’s ineptitude and poor judgment, but it does help explain why he failed so badly.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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