Rex Tillerson: More a Washington Victim Than a Villain

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answers questions during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington

Yet his responsibilities to the republic have been languishing.

The key relationship for a secretary of state is with the president. That relationship defines the job. In contrast to a foreign minister in a parliamentary system who may enjoy independent power, an American counterpart serves “at the pleasure of the President,” and is effective only with the confidence and active support of the president. The most successful secretaries were near alter egos of their presidents (Truman-Acheson, Nixon-Kissinger, Bush-Baker). Even secretaries with their own political standing needed visible presidential backing to succeed (Truman-Marshall, Eisenhower-Dulles, Obama-Clinton, Obama-Kerry). A competent secretary with only lackluster presidential support could achieve little (Carter-Muskie, Clinton-Christopher). The “team of rivals” concept simply does not work. Rivals rush to exploit any lack of presidential support at the expense of the secretary (Carter-Vance, W. Bush-Powell). Even a qualified secretary cannot succeed at State if the president is not fully supportive (Nixon-Rogers, W. Bush-Powell). Likewise, active presidential support can boost the effectiveness of a less-able secretary (Clinton-Albright, W. Bush-Rice).

On this metric, Secretary Tillerson was doomed from the outset. He was not the president’s first choice and enjoyed no prior relationship with Donald Trump or any member of the Trump team. Whatever may have been the terms under which Tillerson accepted the appointment, he received no presidential support in his most immediate task: staffing the senior positions in his own department. Thus, even before he began undercutting Tillerson via Twitter and other forms of media, Trump had sent the world a clear message that Tillerson was not in charge of foreign policy nor even of his own subordinates. Not since William Rogers has a secretary of state been so publicly reduced in status as a policy maker. But at least Rogers managed his department and its operations as he saw fit, and he was widely respected within State and in Congress.

This relationship is two-way. It was no secret at State that Cyrus Vance held President Carter in fairly low regard, but in those days “the building” protected the Secretary’s private remarks. That world is gone. Tillerson’s crude assessment of his president makes both his tenure in office and his effectiveness while there fragile, to say the least. It says much about the state of Washington politics that Tillerson is still in office after such a gaffe. Perhaps the President does not want to face a major staffing issue at this time, but he doubtless will neither forget nor forgive.

Tillerson is not alone in the administration in his strained relations with the White House. But the transparent lack of understanding between Trump and Tillerson damages the ability of the United States to pursue its policy goals around the world or even to communicate what those goals may be. This is far less true at the Pentagon, as the president has given Secretary Mattis much greater (although inadequate) freedom of action. Foreign governments are acutely sensitive to Washington power games. Many now concentrate their attention on members of the presidential family and entourage or on Congress, or have abandoned active diplomatic engagement with the United States for the time being.

Obviously, this is not what Rex Tillerson, with his standing as a giant of American industry, would have anticipated or agreed to had he known what was in store. Perhaps by way of compensation, he has devoted considerable attention to restructuring his department, but in a self-defeating manner. There is no question the State Department needs reform. The bureaucratic structure is not just flabby, it is obese. Excessive layering and duplication (indeed, multiplication) of roles among regional and functional bureaus plus scores of “special” offices have created a department of Hapsburgian complexity. (To be fair, both the National Security Council Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense also warrant drastic downsizing.) While secretary of state, Henry Kissinger directed American global policy and programs with a bureaucratic structure roughly one third of what now exists. Rex Tillerson could do a good deed for the State Department by initiating major reform.

Unfortunately, Tillerson treats his department and the Foreign Service as adversaries rather than as partners in the process of reform. Tillerson has effectively walled himself into a secluded suite of offices with a small team of associates which, by most accounts, communicate with the rest of the Department poorly when they bother to communicate at all. Whatever may be the White House demands for staff reductions at State, it is the job of the secretary to lead his institution in making changes, however painful. Unfortunately, a glaring Tillerson deficiency—and one he cannot blame on the President—is in leadership. He is accustomed to command, but what is needed is a secretary who can lead. I can testify that the State Department and Foreign Service respond very well to leadership, even when it involves drastic changes in policy (as it did under Haig) or upheavals to people (as it did under Rusk and Rice). If anything, State is too compliant with new leadership but performs very poorly with none.

Not all managers are blessed with leadership talents. State enjoyed leaders in the fullest sense of the term under Acheson, Shultz and Powell. Other secretaries earned respect within the institution if not always personal regard (Dulles, Rusk, Kissinger, Baker). A secretary of state need not be loved by his subordinates to lead American diplomacy. (Personally, I disliked James Baker, but believe his post-Soviet denuclearization diplomacy merited a Nobel Peace Prize.) However, without even the respect of the institution, a secretary builds on sand. That sand is now the widely-reported morale crisis at State and in the Foreign Service.