Saturday, February 25, 2017

Calling Secretary Tillerson

Photo
Rex Tillerson in Mexico on Wednesday. CreditCarlos Jasso/Reuters
When Rex Tillerson showed up for his first day of work at the State Department earlier this month, he moved quickly to allay the concerns of diplomats and others alarmed by President Trump’s security policies and his disparaging comments about allies and partners.
Addressing a crowd in the department lobby, the new secretary of state spoke of his “high regard” for the public servants he was appointed to manage, extolled the importance of teamwork and pledged to “depend on the expertise of this institution.” Mr. Tillerson generated good will that day, but there have since been worrying signs that the man many hoped would provide thoughtful balance to Mr. Trump’s more impetuous, hard-line advisers has in fact been marginalized, along with the department he runs, with potentially unfortunate consequences for the country and a world facing multiple crises.
Mr. Tillerson has largely been absent from White House meetings with foreign leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and reportedly was excluded from such major decisions as Mr. Trump’s withdrawal of support for a Palestinian state and his declaration that Iran is now “on notice” for testing ballistic missiles. Mr. Trump’s rejection of Mr. Tillerson’s choice for deputy secretary of state was a public rebuke that undermined the secretary within his department and raised further doubts about his standing with the president.
For now at least, Mr. Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon Mobil who has no foreign policy or government experience, has been eclipsed by Jim Mattis, the defense secretary; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security. All three men are generals, and while they are respected experts in their fields, their backgrounds could lead to an overly militaristic approach to foreign policy. That makes the voice of the State Department, with its focus on diplomacy, more important than ever. But too often this voice has seemed muffled.
A case in point was Mr. Tillerson’s trip to Mexico this week to calm tensions inflamed by Mr. Trump’s criticisms of the Mexican people and his crackdown on immigrants. Mr. Tillerson wound up playing second fiddle to Mr. Kelly, who dominated the news on Thursday when he was forced to rebut Mr. Trump’s inaccurate description of moves along the border to deport undocumented immigrants as a “military operation.”
Another complication is that Mr. Trump’s two closest aides, Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner, are both seeking to influence foreign policy, and both have close personal relationships with Mr. Trump. Even more than other recent presidents, Mr. Trump has centered decision making in the White House, a process Mr. Bannon has reinforced by setting up a structure called the Strategic Initiatives Group to compete with the National Security Council.
Mr. Tillerson has not helped himself by moving too slowly to build a competent staff. He is also said to have isolated himself from career diplomats who know the issues best by restricting the number and types of officials who attend senior staff meetings or have access to him. Every secretary needs his own people in top positions, but it is impossible to devise or execute good policies without the support of the institution — something Mr. Tillerson must know from his Exxon days.
Meanwhile, he has made few public statements, given no public interviews, tightly restricted the number of reporters he allows to travel on his plane and suspended the daily State Department press briefings — a decades-old practice that is useful in explaining the administration’s policies and reactions to world events. (The department said Friday that briefings would resume on March 6 but not necessarily on a daily basis.) No president can expect Americans to support his policies if they are not explained.
The bottom line: If Mr. Tillerson is going to be the secretary of state, he needs to start acting like one.

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