White House

Why Tillerson Had to Go

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses a joint news conference in Brussels, Belgium, on December 5, 2017. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
In the Trump administration, unconventional, assertive thinking about foreign policy is in; ineffectual, process-driven diplomacy is out.

Of all the abrupt comings and goings in this administration, the dismissal of Rex Tillerson is undoubtedly the most important — maybe one of the most important firings since Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.

By dismissing MacArthur, Truman drew a firm line between military and civilian authority that no soldier since has dared to cross. By dumping Tillerson, Trump has sent a similarly unambiguous message to the entrenched bureaucracy — Foggy Bottom’s version of the “deep state” — and to America’s political elites about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy, hopefully one that will outlast his administration.

To understand what’s going on, let’s stipulate a couple of things.

First, Rex Tillerson is a man of deeply conventional mindset during a deeply unconventional time, a man with no understanding of the rapidly changing face of world trends, especially but not limited to the rise of China as an aggressively revisionist power; Iran’s determined bid for regional hegemony, including getting nuclear weapons; and the fateful dynamic of Russia’s reassertion of its imperial ambitions in Eastern Europe and against the West under Vladimir Putin.

Second, Trump almost certainly did not realize this when he appointed Tillerson secretary of state. He probably assumed Tillerson would bring a businessman’s mindset to the job, as a hard-headed negotiator with a shrewd nose for good deals sharpened by years as a CEO of a global energy corporation, ExxonMobil. Above all, he assumed Tillerson would be someone like himself, who would immediately recognize the place of American interests in the world, and fight for those interests with energy and boldness.

Trump thought he was getting a lion in Tillerson. Instead, he was getting a Saint Bernard. Like the breed, Tillerson may be large and imposing at first glance; but he is no fighter, least of all against the bureaucratic mentality that permeates the U.S. State Department.

Here we can stipulate a third point. Virtually every secretary of state since Cordell Hull has suffered one of two fates. Either he or she becomes the president’s representative to the bureaucracy — and when necessary the ruthless enforcer of the chief executive’s will in Foggy Bottom — or he or she becomes the bureaucracy’s representative to the president, and assumes the role of bringing the State Department’s views to the chief executive’s attention — even at times serving as an advocate of those views.

The latter is what happened to Tillerson. It’s also what happened to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice when they became secretaries of state — and Condi, interestingly, was one of the people who most strenuously worked to get Tillerson on the Trump team. She clearly recognized in Tillerson the man who could become the State Department’s watchdog in the Trump cabinet, someone who would uphold its world view revolving around incrementalism and process, and who, when U.S. interests conflict with a globalist agenda favored by elites, e.g. on global warming or the Arab–Israeli “peace process,” would automatically side with the elites.

That view includes North Korea and Iran, countries that foreign-policy elites conventionally look at through the lens of nuclear non-proliferation instead of seeing both as dangerous rogue nations who need to be stopped in their tracks. According to reports in the Washington Free Beacon, it was precisely on the issue of Iran that Tillerson ultimately came a cropper. “White House allies warned Tillerson’s senior staff for weeks that [his] efforts to save the [Iran] nuclear deal and balk on Trump’s key demands regarding the deal could cost Tillerson his job,” says the Beacon, a prediction that came true on Tuesday.

Mike Pompeo promises to be the kind of enforcer Trump will need in order to guide U.S. foreign policy and Foggy Bottom in a more aggressively pro-American direction.

What happens next? Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, promises to be the kind of enforcer Trump will need in order to guide U.S. foreign policy and Foggy Bottom in a more aggressively pro-American direction, especially with regard to Iran, whereas Pompeo as a congressman was deeply skeptical of Obama’s nuclear deal (the congressman’s staff and I worked together on exposing the cash-for-hostage deal in a couple of NRO articles), and on China. He is also the perfect secretary of state to have on hand before the planned meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

The other place to keep a sharp eye out for changes in foreign-policy leadership is in the National Security Adviser’s office.

Unconventional, assertive thinking about foreign policy is in; ineffectual, process-driven diplomacy is out, at least under Trump. The result of this year’s midterms may determine how long this new trend lasts, before the deep state and political elites try to recapture their throne.

Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the author of, most recently, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2021).


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