Critiques fly as Tillerson struggles to define mission
Manila, Philippines — In a wood-paneled stateroom in the Philippine presidential palace, Rex Tillerson sat across from a leader who boasts of hunting down drug dealers to personally kill. Whether he’d confront his host for letting police kill thousands — and how forcefully — was being scrutinized for proof the Trump administration has any commitment to human rights.
When the secretary of state ultimately broached it with President Rodrigo Duterte, he backed into it, rattling off U.S. death tolls and addiction rates that tell the story of America’s opioid crisis. Then he noted matter-of-factly that Americans have concerns about Duterte’s approach to his country’s drug war. He offered U.S. help, two participants said.
To Tillerson’s many critics, it was the latest underperformance by a secretary they see as abdicating traditional roles and aspirations of American diplomacy. To Tillerson, aides said, it was a concrete solution to a problem, rather than grandstanding for grandstanding’s sake.
Since taking office, Tillerson has earned praise from President Donald Trump, top Cabinet members and even some Democrats, including many who take solace in his tempering role in an otherwise frenetic, unpredictable administration. Yet he’s also stoked doubts among the foreign policy establishment, with a daily drumbeat of editorials like “Why Has Rex Tillerson Belly-Flopped as Secretary of State?”
And so difficult has Trump made Tillerson’s job at times that it has sparked talk of a “Rexit.” As with the histrionic headlines, Tillerson has brushed it all off, calmly telling reporters, “I’m not going anywhere.”
This account of Tillerson’s first six months draws on interviews with roughly two dozen State Department officials, foreign diplomats and other Tillerson associates. Some weren’t authorized to comment publicly and demanded anonymity.
In private, Tillerson takes issue with his predecessors’ approach, especially John Kerry, whose high public profile and constant travel became a running State Department joke. Drawing contrast with Kerry, Tillerson has told associates he can get more done if countries can negotiate in confidence without their positions being dissected in the press.
That argument hasn’t caught on among the chorus of diplomats and foreign policy scholars claiming he’s squandering his only real leverage. After all, diplomats don’t use weapons, only words.
“I think he came to the job with a feeling that America was approaching foreign policy with too much of a missionary zeal. We were telling the world what they ought to do,” said John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where Tillerson served 11 years on the board.
Two decades ago, as Tillerson was rising through Exxon, the oil company merged with Mobil to become the world’s biggest. Tillerson has told aides the State Department redesign is much harder.
“This takes time,” said R.C. Hammond, a senior Tillerson adviser. “We’re not changing one light switch. We’re rewiring an entire house.”
Tillerson locked in his under-the-radar reputation early, when he told the sole reporter allowed to travel with him at the time that he was “not a big media press access person.”
At Exxon, that approach paid off, and the company flourished. Corporations are rarely harmed by their CEOs avoiding the limelight.
But in Washington, that approach denies Tillerson the chance to define his own narrative. The vacuum is filled by constant rumors, leaks and reports that — left largely unchallenged by Tillerson — have reached sky-is-falling proportions:
—That promotion of a just, democratic world may be removed from the department mission statement. An early draft didn’t include it, but officials say the final version likely will.
—That Tillerson wants to move Consular Affairs, which handles passports and visas, to the Homeland Security Department. Both Tillerson and Deputy Secretary John Sullivan oppose the move.
—That Tillerson’s hiring freeze and rampant vacancies throughout upper management have hamstrung the department, leaving foreign countries with no empowered point person. Responsibility lies partially with Tillerson, partially with Trump, although Tillerson says he wants it to move faster.
“There are elements of truth in some of these stories,” Sullivan said. “But then they’re twisted in a way that makes it sound as though the secretary is out of touch, mismanaging, whatever.”
No secretary before has worked for a president like Trump. So often is Tillerson contradicted or undermined that foreign diplomats question when he truly speaks for his boss.
Just as Tillerson was trying to calm matters by downplaying prospects for a North Korea military conflict, Trump reaffirmed his “fire and fury” threat and boasted about U.S. nuclear weapons.
But Trump also defends Tillerson, saying Friday they were “totally on the same page.” Tillerson often downplays signs of incongruity between their messages, and on North Korea, Tillerson says boss was merely “trying to support our efforts by ensuring that North Korea understands what the stakes are.”
Six months in, Tillerson presides over a State Department deeply uneasy about its future, but still hopeful he’ll lead American diplomacy more successfully than panicked editorials predict.
“It’s to be expected that we will go through some morale issues early on,” Tillerson said this month. But, he added, “I cannot change what we’re doing from a policy standpoint, if that’s what’s behind people’s unhappiness.”
Lee reported from Washington.
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