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.
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. Left on their own, his diplomats found ways to make trouble for him, including leaking dissent memos on the administration’s approach to child 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 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 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 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 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 “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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He tweets @WeMeantWell.