The incredible shrinking Rex Tillerson: Can the secretary of State reclaim his job?

His travails flow from many factors, among them White House leaks and humiliations. Will he ever confront Trump and assume a leadership role?

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky
Opinion contributors
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani on June 27, 2017.

Defending his boss recently against charges that he’s heading up an incredible shrinking State Department, strategic adviser R.C. Hammond opined that the Secretary Rex Tillerson is thinking like a cowboy. Comparing words to bullets, he said “You carry a revolver with only six shots, and you don’t waste your bullets.”

Fair enough. Successful secretaries of State husband their resources and invest in issues that are strategic and strike at the right time. But five months in, and based on our long tenures at the State Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations, it seems pretty clear that at least in five cases, Tillerson’s gun jammed or the rounds he fired went wide of their mark. Presumably he has yet to use the sixth bullet — a frank conversation with the president about his presumed aspirations to be a consequential secretary of State. Will he?

Tillerson reportedly is at the boiling point over everything from leaks to personnel. When it comes to his core diplomatic mission, he is struggling for leverage or even a role on several key foreign policy issues confronting the nation.

Arab-Israeli: In our experience, it’s virtually unprecedented that a secretary of State would not be empowered by a president to lead or play a significant role in managing Arab-Israeli negotiations. That does not mean the White House would not exercise overall responsibility or that a special envoy might not be involved. But Tillerson is an exceptional case. Instead it’s President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump's attorney, Jason Greenblatt, who are dominating the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the peace process. Unlike his predecessors, Tillerson is simply nowhere to be seen on an issue typically considered an important component of any secretary's portfolio. 

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Saudi Arabia-Qatar: The White House, led by Trump and Kushner, is also dominating America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia at the most senior and personal of levels. The Gulf is where Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, actually does have extensive experience and contacts. And yet during the recent crisis between the GCC and Qatar, Trump undermined and publicly contradicted Tillerson when he offered up a sensible and restrained approach to how to mediate and defuse the crisis.

Russia: Tillerson has committed one of the most deadly sins in the eyes of the president: he has essentially reaffirmed the Obama policy toward Russia. He has consistently taken a tough line on Russia and been steadfast in his opposition to lifting sanctions until Russia gives up Crimea and complies with its commitments under the Minsk Accords to withdraw its forces from Eastern Ukraine. Nor has he, unlike his boss, shown any public display of affection toward the Russian autocrat.

Afghanistan: The president has outsourced decisions on future U.S. force levels in Afghanistan to Defense Secretary James Mattis. There is no evidence that Trump understands that however he defines winning in Afghanistan, it requires a political and economic strategy as well U.S. boots on the ground. It also requires a “whole-of-government” approach. Yet Tillerson has just dismantled the office in the State Department that could have put such an approach together, and Trump has proposed State Department budget cuts that will make it even more difficult. Clearly, State will not be at the cutting edge of developing the path forward in Afghanistan.

Climate Change: When he headed ExxonMobil, Tillerson said climate change was real, favored a carbon tax and supported the Paris accord on climate change. As secretary of State, he opposed the president’s decision to withdraw from the treaty. Clearly, he was out of step with a man who has said climate change is a hoax (or a plot by China) and made us, along with Nicaragua and Syria, one of only three countries that are not part of an agreement signed by 195 other nations. 

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Tillerson’s travails flow from many factors. He’s new to the ways of Washington and he’s the only secretary of State in the modern period without any government service. He also presides over a State Department that in recent years has seen its influence and power wane as the National Security Council, the intelligence agencies and thePentagon, now managing three wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war against jihadi terror, have gained influence and power at State’s expense.

Beyond that, Tillerson is dealing with a president who is comfortable with multiple sources of authority on foreign policy, makes policy in many cases without consulting experts and doesn’t show much interest in the substance of foreign policy. He hasn’t even bothered to create the impression that Tillerson is his go-to guy on the subject.

Without a reasonably close relationship with Trump and authority conferred by the White House, it matters little or not at all how talented the nation’s chief diplomat may be. He or she cannot succeed. Tillerson might decide at some point to have a make or break conversation with Trump about what issues he wants to own and make clear he needs the president to get out of his way. But the secretary strikes us as too risk-averse for that. More likely he’ll hang back, keep below the radar and wait for a crisis to exploit and allow him to shine — a moment, of course, that may never come.

Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former State Department adviser and Middle East negotiator, is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Richard Sokolsky, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, served in the State Department for 37 years.

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