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Diplomats Who Criticized Tillerson May Soon Regret It

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waves goodbye after speaking aat the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. President Donald Trump fired Tillerson and said he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, in a major staff reshuffle just as Trump dives into high-stakes talks with North Korea. (Andrew Harnik/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waves goodbye after speaking aat the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. President Donald Trump fired Tillerson and said he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, in a major staff reshuffle just as Trump dives into high-stakes talks with North Korea. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

 

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Rex Tillerson was growing into his role as secretary of state.

A businessman who entered the department skeptical of government, the Eagle Scout, who prided himself on honesty and integrity, wound up profoundly convinced of America’s essential role abroad.

But the diplomatic corps couldn’t wait for him to come around. They carped openly and loudly. Now they may regret his replacement.

More than a year ago, Tillerson approached his new role as a turn-around guy who could reduce the budget by 31 percent. Cutting the State Department back to pre-9/11 staffing levels was met with profound rebellion from former diplomats who wrote mournful pieces about their loved labor lost.

They cared more about their budgets, their friends and their perceived loss of power than Tillerson’s efforts to keep the U.S. integrated with the rest of the world as President Trump pulled away.

Tillerson opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. He persuaded the president to continue to work with the Europeans in pressuring Iran to keep to its nuclear disarmament agreement. He spoke out against Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. And he organized the international pressure that helped bring North Korea to the bargaining table. These efforts should have been applauded by those who care about America’s role in world affairs.

In January, Tillerson delivered a compassionate talk at Stanford outlining the strategic and practical role of the U.S. in Syria. Unlike Trump who has only the most rudimentary understanding of the complex seven-year conflict, Tillerson expressed a detailed vision for how the northern bridge occupied by Kurdish forces could be stabilized, governed and rebuilt without help from Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad.

...critics rarely considered the essential question of who would replace Tillerson or how his absence might affect U.S. foreign policy.

Now, with Tillerson leaving, State Department personnel ought to worry about who will help defend the Kurds, whose forces in northern Syria, backed by the U.S., essentially defeated the Islamic State. For weeks, Turkey — our so-called ally — has attacked the Kurds relentlessly in the town of Afrin, Syria.

Despite all their lamentations, critics rarely considered the essential question of who would replace Tillerson or how his absence might affect U.S. foreign policy. Naming CIA Director Mike Pompeo to head the State Department potentially disrupts Tillerson’s plan for Syria and threatens support for the Kurds, an important group that should not be abandoned again.

Pompeo is a former congressman from Kansas who remained staunchly political even after being promoted to intelligence chief. A West Point graduate and former cavalry officer, he believes in brute strength, speaking just last weekend about North Korea with the same swaggering language that Trump would admire; slamming past administrations, praising the current one, and threatening the Hermit Kingdom to comply with U.S. demands.

All those diplomats dismayed over Tillerson now have to follow Pompeo, who is not exactly their kind, either. Pompeo thinks like Trump. Their fierce criticism of the Iran nuclear deal undermines the upcoming nuclear weapon talks with North Korea. It’s hard to understand why Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un would trust the U.S. to uphold its side of a potential deal if it reneges on a previous arms control agreement with Iran.

Still, Tillerson’s critics should be satisfied that they got their way, mostly. In February, Tillerson scaled back his redesign of the State Department to just an “impact initiative.” While a full return to the glory days of the State Department under this administration seems unlikely, at least Pompeo will have Trump’s ear, for a while.

The president is said to enjoy Pompeo’s nearly daily intelligence briefings that feature “killer graphics.” Perhaps Pompeo will put on a show like this on behalf of the State Department so its employees will start to feel important again.

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Susan E. Reed Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Susan E. Reed is a columnist who has won several awards for her international reporting and her book, "The Diversity Index."

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