I was wrong about Rex Tillerson

The Washington Post, 24.03.2017
Daniel W. Drezner, profesor de RRII (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy-Tufts University)
  • Being the first US secretary of state without any government or military experience, he should shut up until he demonstrates that he knows what he’s talking about


I’ve given United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a hard time, particularly noting his abject failure to communicate his message through the media. So it seems only fair that when Tillerson actually does speak to the media, I should pay attention.

I bring this up because Erin McPike, the one reporter permitted on Tillerson’s plane for his latest trip, filed her 3,300-word story on Tuesday night. Reading it, I have come to one unmistakable conclusion: I was wrong about encouraging Tillerson to speak with the press. Tillerson should shut the heck up until he demonstrates that he knows what he’s talking about.

This interview is terrifying, but not for the reason that Twitter focused on Tuesday night. McPike wrote that Tillerson, asked why he wanted the job, replied, “I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job.” Asked why he said yes, he said, “My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”

Tillerson said he’d never met US President Donald Trump before the election. As president-elect, Trump wanted to speak with Tillerson “about the world”, to get Tillerson’s views on the global issues he’d handled as ExxonMobil CEO, McPike wrote. “When he asked me at the end of that conversation to be secretary of state, I was stunned,” he said.

“When Tillerson got home and told his wife, Renda St. Clair, she shook her finger in his face and said, ‘I told you God’s not through with you’,” McPike wrote.

The scary part is not that Tillerson’s wife talked him into being secretary of state. The scary part is that Tillerson said he had never met Trump before being asked to be secretary of state.

The history of modern foreign policy principals who agreed to serve in an administration just after meeting the president is short and undistinguished. Still, McPike’s reporting also shows that Tillerson recognises his need to build personal relationships, with Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis most importantly. And he seems to want to build his relationship with the president.

No, there are two other aspects of McPike’s story that suggest Tillerson’s path along the learning curve is still long and steep. The first is his rationale for cutting the State Department budget. He thinks that the budget can be cut as the US reduces its military footprint overseas, telling McPike, “Looking at ongoing conflicts, if we accept that we’re just going to continue to never solve any of these conflicts, then the budget should stay at the current level.”

And then we get to this part of McPike’s story:

“On Wednesday, Tillerson will host representatives from the 68 member nations in the coalition to defeat Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] at the State Department to walk through the Trump administration’s latest plans. As he explained it to IJR, it’s a three-step process beginning with a military campaign, followed by a transition phase, and ending with a stability programme.”

Well, gosh, it almost sounds like in this three-step process, there has to be a surge in diplomacy after a military drawdown. Which make sense, what with the failed states in Syria, Libya, etc. So I don’t see how solving conflicts leads to any reduced demand for diplomatic resources. If anything, there should be a surge in resources to make sure the transition and stability phases work as planned.

I’m not the only one who doesn’t get this. Consider this from former national security adviser Steve Hadley, as reported on Devex by Adva Saldinger: Hadley “pointed out that military action alone was not enough to secure that objective. ‘[Daesh] will return in an even more vicious and virulent form if those liberated lands to do not enjoy some measure of political stability, societal reconciliation, and economic progress. And such progress requires the very nonmilitary elements of national power targeted by the recent budget guidance’.”

There’s also a point that’s so obvious and banal that no one has really bothered to make it, but here goes: An obvious function of the State Department is to help shape the lay of the land in countries that are not conflict-ridden, but could become so. Early diplomatic interventions are a great way to preclude later, more costly military interventions. Mattis certainly understood this point when he testified in March 2013, “’if you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Perhaps he should share this observation with Tillerson.

The other scary part is Tillerson’s narrow vision of what the State Department is supposed to do. He staunchly defended his reticence in speaking to the news media to McPike, saying that “in general, the way the last administration operated in being so public with its goals was not helpful to them”. “‘It was a huge mistake and put them at a huge disadvantage,’ he said sternly, the only time his emotion wavered, though it was still a long way from anger,” McPike wrote.

“‘We’ve got a lot going on inside the State Department, and we’re not talking about it until we’re ready, and that’s driving a lot of people nuts,’ he said. He was so cagey when Russia came up, for example, that his answer wasn’t even worthy of inclusion,” she wrote.

“In a way, it mirrors the kind of strategy you might see at a big business like Apple. Tech consumers might know a new version of an iPhone is forthcoming, but they don’t get the details until the day of the release, when Apple is fully prepared for the big reveal,” she wrote.

No doubt, there are diplomatic initiatives that fall under the category of “let’s keep this quiet until almost everything has been worked out”. But if Tillerson thinks that is all the secretary of state does, then he’s rejecting more than half of his job description. Reassuring allies requires some public signaling. Credible commitments require even more public signaling. Promoting ideas like human rights or religious freedom through publicising annual reports is a really super-inexpensive way of sending a message.

None of this is rocket science to anyone who has spent some time in public policy. Tillerson, of course, is completely new to this, being the first secretary of state without any government or military experience.

One presumably does not become the chief executive of ExxonMobil without having some brains and the ability to learn from mistakes. After all, it only took a few days for Tillerson to realise that skipping the Nato foreign ministers’ meeting was probably not the brightest idea. The learning curve is still there.

Until he moves along it further, however, Tillerson’s instinct to not speak to the press seems like a sound one. Because he’s really, really bad at it.

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