What Rex Tillerson's Firing Means For The Future Of U.S. Diplomacy

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Cliff Owen/AP)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Rex Tillerson was fired Tuesday as America’s top diplomat.

President Trump’s decision to replace his secretary of state with CIA Director Mike Pompeo has been anticipated for months, but the timing and manner of the move caught Washington, and Tillerson, by surprise.

“We have somebody from the State Department basically saying that he didn't know this was coming,” said Nahal Toosi, Politico foreign affairs correspondent, on the NPR program On Point. “And so this shocked just about everybody watching.”

We jumped on the subject Tuesday morning, shortly after the news was announced. We talked to Toosi, as well as  Michael Warren, senior writer, the Weekly Standard, Anne Applebaum, Washington Post columnist, and Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.

The shock of Tillerson’s sudden departure continued into Tuesday afternoon: The State Department official who said Tillerson didn’t see his ouster coming was also fired, according to reports.

“When February rolled around and (Tillerson) hit his one year mark, there was a sense that he kind of hit his stride,” Noosi said. “There was a sense that he was settling in, that he had maybe patched over his differences with the president. But again this is a Trump administration and things are never always as they seem.”

Here are highlights from our conversation with our panel:

What It Signals About The Future

Applebaum: “Yesterday I had a conversation with somebody who has worked with Tillerson at the State Department and he was describing how the department functioned, and he told he said, ‘Well, we make foreign policy without Trump. We ignore his tweets. We don't pay attention what he says. We just go on acting like we're a normal administration.’ That's an interesting way to conduct foreign policy, but I wonder how long it's going to last. Now we see that it doesn't. So it seems it seems clear that Trump has wanted somebody who somehow reflects more his own view, whatever that is.”

Pompeo As Iran Deal Hawk

Warren: “President Trump doesn't have quite have hard and fast views on a lot of particular issues. He does not like the Iran, deal but he doesn't really have a strong view about what to do about it. Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, is somebody who thought a lot about this he thought a lot about this and argued against the Iran deal in Congress.”

Big Picture: Diplomacy Takes A Back Seat

Walt: “You have a White House that didn't have much regard for the State Department from the very beginning but at the same time you also had a secretary of state who never seemed to actually be comfortable with the department that he was leading. … You had essentially both the White House and the State Department that not only were not in sync with each other but never seemed to have a clear idea of the role that diplomacy was going to play.”

What Our Allies Are Saying

Applebaum: "Trump is seen as having undermined several decades of building American friendship, several decades of policy, the creation of smooth trade regimes, the creation of allied military operations — all of that is seen as having been destroyed. So you know the appointment of Pompeo is going to be greeted as, OK we're going to roll our eyes and get ready for another barrage of chaos and another barrage of disorganization in the United States."

The Russia Question

Walt: “It's clear that Tillerson was more critical of Russia, and I think he was more willing to sort of acknowledge Russia's efforts to manipulate American politics than the president has been. It's also worth noting however that Mike Pompeo, the person who's now been designated to succeed him, has also supported the intelligence community's conclusions that Russia was involved here.”

The Torture Question — Pompeo’s potential successor as CIA director, Gina Haspel, was involved in Bush-era torture

Walt: “I think it's going to be an appointment that the CIA actually welcomes because it's an insider and they prefer to be led by insiders, rather than by outsiders who occasionally try to shake things up. I would also anticipate it's going to get some pushback at least from Democrats in Congress given her involvement in Bush era torture activities as well.”


Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. (@stephenwalt)

Michael Warren, senior writer, the Weekly Standard. (@MichaelRWarren)

Anne Applebaum, Washington Post columnist. (@anneapplebaum)

Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs correspondent, Politico. (@nahaltoosi)

From The Reading List:

New York Times: Rex Tillerson Out As Trump's Secretary Of State, Replaced By Mike Pompeo — President Trump announced Tuesday that Mike Pompeo, now the C.I.A. director, will become secretary of state, replacing Rex W. Tillerson, ending his short but tumultuous tenure as the nation’s chief diplomat. Mr. Tillerson found himself repeatedly at odds with Mr. Trump on a variety of key foreign policy issues.

This program aired on March 13, 2018.


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