Rex Tillerson: More a Washington Victim Than a Villain
The crisis is all too real, but has two components. The first stems from the public reaction by some staff to early Trump policy initiatives. As someone who resorted to State’s Dissent Channel twice to express critical views to secretaries of state, I understand that a patriotic professional may disagree with policy and need to say so. However, State mechanisms for dissent are classified and remain in-house. Those who organized public displays of disagreement with the President did not, in my view, behave in a professional manner. Any president and secretary have a legitimate need not to face public opposition from within departmental ranks. In this regard, some of the morale problem at State reflects a partisan and emotional response to a Constitutional change of administrations.
The second component of the morale crisis is quite different. It derives from Secretary Tillerson and his entourage behaving like an occupation force in conquered territory. This is not only counterproductive to real reform, it is unjust to thousands of dedicated professionals motivated first and foremost to serve the United States. If Rex Tillerson cannot recognize these facts, or is indifferent, the fault is his. To be fair, few secretaries of state have given much attention to the wellbeing of the agency they head. In my experience, only George Shultz devoted real time and effort to leaving the Department of State a better institution than he inherited. Later, Colin Powell certainly tried. It is no coincidence that both men had been combat infantry officers who believe in loyalty down as well as up. Most secretaries have either been too overwhelmed by their duties or simply oblivious to the problems of the institution. Rex Tillerson looks to be the first modern secretary of state to leave the Department by his own actions in significantly worse condition than he found it. I hope this may prove to be an unfair judgment, but at the moment it is not.
Objectively, Rex Tillerson is more a Washington victim than a villain. Nobody is seeking to indict him for anything, but that is not much of a legacy. He has responsibilities to the republic which are languishing. Tillerson currently fulfills two functions, both very important. He is one of the small number of “adults” involved in administration policymaking and he is a foreign affairs realist in a key job coveted by neoconservatives. For a position initiated by Thomas Jefferson, that really is not enough. A custom within the Foreign Service is the “wheels-up party,” a celebration of the departure from post of an obnoxious delegation or ambassador. Rex Tillerson’s departure would likely inspire a global “wheels-up party” at State and all our diplomatic and consular posts. I hope he will want to use whatever time he still has to depart in better form.
E. Wayne Merry is Senior Fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.