Tillerson's Tenure: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Tillerson's Tenure: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Rex Tillerson is discovering that serving as America’s top diplomat can be a very arduous undertaking.

If you’re a cabinet secretary or a senior staffer in the Trump administration and somehow get on the bad side of the boss, then you better watch out. Eventually, Trump will unleash hell in your direction in the most public of ways. Perhaps it will be a stream of early morning tweets to his thirty-four million followers, an expression of disappointment at a news conference, or a shot across the bow during a newspaper interview about your job security. Either way, the cabinet officer on thin ice will get the message; for the last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus have had their turn in the barrel.

But there is another cabinet secretary who—while not under Trump’s microscope—is becoming sick and tired of being undermined by the White House staff and is fed up with arguing over every candidate he nominates for an ambassadorial slot or a senior State Department position. Rex Tillerson is used to being the top dog in his organization. He is used to hiring and firing whomever he wants, whenever he wants. He is accustomed to renovating the organization he leads in order to cut costs or boost efficiency. However, during his nearly six months at the State Department, Tillerson has quickly discovered that serving as America’s top diplomat isn’t a very rewarding experience—especially when the position requires that he report to a president who doesn’t particularly care for or appreciate the work diplomats have to offer.

The new rumor mill around Washington is spinning over Tillerson’s fate as Secretary of State, not because he hasn’t earned President Trump’s trust, but because he doesn’t have the freedom to run the State Department the way that his predecessors ran the State Department. As one source told Reuters on July 24, Tillerson is “very upset at not having autonomy, independence and control over his own department and the ability to do the job the way the job . . . is traditionally done .” Senior and mid-ranking diplomats have expressed their disheartened concern in Tillerson’s leadership, in part because their colleagues are under strain, demoralized and have discovered that the valuable work they perform isn’t appreciated by the White House.

In the event that Tillerson should walk away sooner rather than later (a recent report from CNN speculated that he may leave after a year), it might be a useful exercise to assess the good, the bad and the ugly of his tenure to date.

The Good

Contrary to other secretaries, like Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Rex Tillerson prefers to work behind the scenes, out of earshot of the microphones and away from the cameras. He doesn’t crave the spotlight like some of his predecessors, some of whom were former presidential candidates or who planned to use the position of Secretary of State as a jumping point to a presidential run. Much of the foreign-policy establishment and a good chunk of the foreign service would understandably rather have their boss fighting for the State Department’s priorities in public, but Tillerson’s non-obsession with publicity is one of the characteristics that I find so endearing. In Tillerson’s mindset, the more time spent in front of a camera, the less time there is to work the phones.

Compared to the more nationalistic and politically-infected officials in the administration, Tillerson has been one of the adults in the room. He has a productive relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, which is incredibly vital given how closely Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon have worked with one another over the past decade. During his trips to Europe and Asia, Tillerson has done his best to reassure America’s traditional allies and partners that the United States still believes that its alliances are important to the cause of peace and stability. But at the same time, he reminds those allies—sometimes forcefully—that Washington expects them to increase their military budgets, do more for themselves without having to depend on America, and to attempt to resolve disputes with their neighbors before requesting U.S. mediation. Tillerson’s multiday trip to the Persian Gulf came only after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar couldn’t arrive at an agreement to lessen tensions—a notable demonstration of the secretary not being afraid to wait before getting the United States involved.

His biggest accomplishment to date, however, was his successful defense of an Iranian nuclear deal that is highly unpopular inside the administration. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Tillerson viewed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as dismissively as his boss. But the fact that he chose to uphold U.S. sanctions relief by recertifying Iranian compliance based on Tehran’s actual track record than his personal opinions is a sign of a manager who values what is actually happening rather than what he wishes would happen.