Inspiring Confidence Does Not Seem To Be Rex Tillerson’s Strong Suit

As you may know, the Independent Journal Review’s Erin McPike recently scored the first big one-on-one interview with President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, former award-winning Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and has fashioned a first-of-its-kind profile of America’s new chief diplomat. You can just imagine the sort of opportunity this presented Tillerson. Here he is, following in the footsteps of Daniel Webster, Henry Kissinger, Dean Acheson and others, with his first big chance to lay out his vision, goals and priorities, and cement a Tillerson Doctrine.

So what’s his Big Idea? Per Tillerson: “I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job… My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”

Well, that sure is stirring, no doubt music to the ears of State Department lifers. “When [Trump] asked me … to be Secretary of State,” Tillerson told McPike, “I was stunned.”

Hey, at least now everyone at State has something in common. But while the IJR profile puts a new, seriocomic gloss on Tillerson’s ascension to Trump’s Cabinet ― and for what it’s worth, this is hardly the first account to depict Trump’s choice as almost accidental ―  this is only the latest in a series of stories that have either made it hard to take Tillerson seriously, or have raised deep and searing concerns about his stewardship of the State Department.

Of course, based upon McPike’s piece, Tillerson’s view of the job isn’t completely restricted to how shocked he is to find himself in a position he did not seek. Tillerson grasps the enormous challenge that ISIS poses in “deconflicting” the Middle East, and he has his own criticisms of the previous administration’s approach ― though, as members of the Obama administration point out in McPike’s piece, the new administration has yet to take the previous strategy in a substantively new direction.

Still, as far as a “Tillerson Doctrine” goes, the IJR profile mainly finds Tillerson saddled with the responsibility of translating Trump’s “America First” maxim for foreign audiences. He seems to understand how different this job is from anything he’s done before, telling McPike, “The risks are much higher in what I’m doing now.” He also pledges to be, above all, “results-driven.”

The early results have not been optimal.

The McPike interview comes on the heels of Tillerson’s first trip to East Asia, from which the main takeaway was that he had to cut his visit to South Korea short because of “fatigue.” Tillerson has aggressively pushed back on this characterization, but the fact of the matter is that all of the “Tillerson is tired” japery came about because Tillerson chose not to travel with the State Department press corps. Korean media filled that vacuum with stories that did not cast the trip in a good light.

This is hardly the only decision that Tillerson has made that has stupefied observers. His rhetoric on U.S.-China relations has ranged the gamut from pointlessly belligerent to curiously passive. As Foreign Policy’s Robert Daly reports, Tillerson’s inaugural trip to China might be “remembered … for the Trump administration’s adoption of Beijing’s diplomatic language and style.” His first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, was reportedly more than a little awkward, and involved State Department minders shoving the assembled reporters out of the room before Tillerson delivered his remarks.

And his first meeting with the G20 nations was marred by a late decision to attend, which forced him to stay at an out-of-the-way sanitarium 20 miles from the meeting. Per Bloomberg: “Diplomatic security agents mingled in the parking lot with elderly people in wheelchairs arriving for spa treatments.” Sounds auspicious!

But the real mess has been closer to home. State Department staff, recently depicted by the Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe as moping about their Harry S Truman building headquarters, have been hoping for some kind of direction, searching for their lost sense of purpose. The Foggy Bottom vets with whom Ioffe spoke described a dearth of activities and meetings, a complete lack of guidance, and a general feeling of “listlessness” that have many worried about both their continued employment and “America’s fading role in the world.”

It certainly sounds like Trump aide-de-camp Steve Bannon’s goal of “deconstructing the administrative state” is proceeding apace at the State Department, and like Tillerson is happy to accommodate this. Tillerson is on record supporting Trump’s proposed 30 percent cuts to State’s funding, citing his “expectation that the United States will be involved in fewer military conflicts overseas and that other countries will be contributing more for foreign assistance.”

As the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison notes:

It is very unusual that a Cabinet member would be so willing to defend a budget proposal that starves his department of resources, but the more striking thing about this defense is that the arguments Tillerson uses make no sense. Whether the U.S. is involved in “fewer military conflicts” or not, that shouldn’t have much to do with the size of the State Department’s budget. If the U.S. is going to be involved in fewer conflicts, that is an argument for reducing the current military budget and increasing funding for the parts of the government responsible for foreign policy.

Of course, no one knows where Tillerson is getting this idea that the U.S. will be involved in fewer conflicts from, since U.S. deployments to Syria are increasing, there is serious consideration of sending more American forces to Afghanistan, and there has been a dramatic increase in drone strikes and raids in Yemen in the last two months.

By supporting these changes, and tacitly allowing morale to sag among his staff, Tillerson may be participating in his own undoing. As Foreign Policy’s Robert Jervis explains:

The secretary of state draws his or her power less from the U.S. Constitution or the laws than from five sources: backing from the president, advice and support from his or her department’s career officials, admiration from and alliances with other leaders in the government, praise from the press and public, and positive evaluations of his or her competence and power by foreign diplomats. These individuals and groups do not act independently but rather depend on each other and interact to build up or tear down the secretary’s power. Perceptions and reality blend as to be seen as powerful or weak, and that can readily become self-fulfilling in the Washington echo chamber.

Jervis goes on to note, with alarm, that Tillerson is failing in all five directions: “With these weaknesses reinforcing each other, Tillerson is on a downward spiral.”

Anyway, that’s how things seem to going these days for the guy whose wife convinced him to try out wielding an immense amount of power as the face of American diplomacy ― and as the fourth in the presidential chain of succession!

Next up: freaking out American allies by skipping an annual gathering of NATO foreign ministers to ― what else? ― meet with the Russians.

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Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.  

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