Op-ed: Tillerson should go

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, October 8, 2017 12:24pm
  • Opinion

If Secretary of State Rex Tillerson resigned, how would anyone know?

He has become the nation’s least influential top diplomat in recent memory. His relationship with the president of the United States is strained at best, he has no philosophy or signature initiative, he has barely staffed his own department, and he’s alienated the foreign service. The former CEO of ExxonMobil has taken one of the power positions in the U.S. government and made it an afterthought.

Who knows the truth of the NBC story that he was close to quitting last summer over clashes with President Donald Trump? But Tillerson’s strange press availability swearing his loyalty to the president is not the sort of thing loyalists usually have to do.

The secretary of state dodged questions about whether he had, indeed, as NBC reported, called Trump a “moron” — almost certainly the first time in U.S. history a Cabinet official has been asked about personally insulting the president he works for and apparently been unable, in good conscience, to deny it.

Tillerson doesn’t have an easy job. He works for a mercurial and bombastic boss who has a well-developed skill for humiliating his underlings. Even a practiced and slick diplomat — even Henry Kissinger; heck, even Cardinal Richelieu — would find the circumstances trying. But Tillerson is at sea.

He’s an accomplished man who ascended to the leadership of a quasi-state as CEO of ExxonMobil. As such, he had done plenty of work abroad. It was in business, though, not government. Making him secretary of state turns out to have been like selecting the head of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to run a Fortune 500 company.

Usually establishmentarians have the advantage, if nothing else, of a great store of government experience. Brent Scowcroft devoted most of his adult life to public service; Tillerson devoted most of his adult life to ExxonMobil.

Unlike, say, James Mattis advising Trump on defense matters, this is not a professional guiding an amateur; it’s another amateur trying to school an amateur. Is it any wonder that it hasn’t gone well?

Recent Republican secretaries of state provide two models. There’s the Colin Powell approach of attending to the needs of “the building,” i.e., the civil service, and neglecting your relationship with the president. Then there’s the Condi Rice approach of tending to your relationship with the president and ignoring the building. Tillerson has done neither.

In a nationalist administration, he is a man without a country. He doesn’t have a constituency in the foreign-policy establishment, in the media, in Congress or in the bureaucracy. He and his top aides are a thin layer spread atop the org chart to little effect.

Neither of the opposing dispensations in American foreign policy should feel vested in Tillerson. If you’re a liberal internationalist who wants Trump checked, you’d prefer someone better suited to the task. If you’re a Trumpist who wants Trump empowered to transform American foreign policy, you want someone who is in sympathy with that goal.

Tillerson has been on the other side of Trump on big issues like the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. There’s no doubt that Trump’s instincts need to be restrained and channeled. That’s different from trying to frustrate them, which is bound to run afoul of Dean Acheson’s maxim: “The most important aspect of the relationship between the president and the secretary of state is that they both understand who is president.”

Tillerson’s diplomatic skills haven’t yet been tested on anything important. At this point, he probably fails a threshold test: Can he reliably be thought to speak for the United States government?

The former ExxonMobil chief might imagine himself indispensable as a “minder” of the president. Yet Trump is now surrounded by generals who no one doubts are responsible and influential. If Tillerson left, the government would operate as before — except with a chance there’d be a secretary of state better suited to the role.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

More in Opinion

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink promotes getting immunized with the flu shot this winter. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)
Immunize when you winterize

An annual flu shot plus the COVID-19 vaccine protects Alaskans and our health care system, too.

(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Dunleavy’s first act as governor was unconstitutional

That’s according to a ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge John Sedwick.

This Aug. 3, 2021, photo shows Juneau International Airport.  The Federal Aviation Administration shared recommendations on Thursday for improving aviation safety in the state. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: How the FAA will improve the margin of aviation safety in Alaska

Alaska depends on aviation more than any other state…

Central Peninsula Hospital is seen in Soldotna on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Perspective of an educator in a ‘high-risk’ group, part 2

During some of the darkest days of my time in ICU, it was obvious where we all live is a special place.

Lawmakers havereturned to the Alaska State Capitol for a fourth special session. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Revenues should be determined before more PFD spending

The governor believes the dividend drives the entire calculation. Sadly, he has it backwards

Ronnie Leach. (Photo provided)
Point of View: For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, #weareresilient

At the onset of COVID-19, we expanded our services in a way to ensure COVID-19 consciousness.

Rep. Don Young talks during a June 2021 interview with the Empire. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion:Where’s Don Young when America needs him?

Once upon a time, avoiding political controversy was completely out of character for Young.

Peter Zuyus
Voices of the Peninsula: Seniors appreciate vaccination efforts

To those who have worked to encourage vaccination we say: Be proud, you are, in fact, saving lives.

Jackson Blackwell (courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: Carbon dividends are the bipartisan climate solution

By levying a gradually increasing price on carbon, U.S. emissions will be slashed by 50% in 15 years.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Dunleavy: Facts Matter

Political opportunists care more about spreading political untruths than accepting the facts.

Steve Hughes. (Photo provided)
Voices of the Peninsula: We are all victims of COVID-19

It is disturbing to hear, as a triage nurse, the many reasons cited for not getting a vaccine that are based on misinformation.

teaser
Opinion: LGBTQ+ Alaskans deserve respect and dignity

Like every state that lacks equality, we need federal protection.