The incredible shrinking secretary of state
As Trump sets the world ablaze, Tillerson hides
The State Department put out one of the most bizarre press releases in living memory after the reclusive regime in North Korea tested a ballistic missile. The statement, in full, read, "North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."
This is like opening a toast at your friend's second wedding by saying, "You know, I've given enough best man speeches for this guy. So I'm just going to leave it at that."
If the State Department determined that the best course of action was to ignore the launch, they probably should have just ignored it, rather than putting out a press release announcing that they were ignoring it. The two things are not the same.
But the press release is indicative of a much deeper problem at the State Department under Rex Tillerson: The agency seems to be adopting ExxonMobil's corporate bunker mentality and tight-lipped public relations strategy. The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy is without an executive director, which presumably is not an oversight. Tillerson himself has rarely held press conferences since taking office, answering just one question on his contentious trip to Germany, and has pointedly excluded a press detail from his junkets. Longtime State Department staff are demoralized and bewildered, as evidenced by an eye-opening Washington Post dispatch that included bizarre details like how Tillerson doesn't like to be looked in the eye and spends most of his time alone in his office reading memos.
Tillerson's demeanor in the rare instances where he emerges from his diplomacy dungeon is gruff and closed off. He acts like he doesn't want the job, a suspicion that was confirmed in a comically literal way when he recently told reporters, "I didn't want this job." If that strikes you as a strange quality in a secretary of state, you're not alone. But we really shouldn't be surprised that Tillerson is treating the most important public relations arm of the U.S. government like a coal company trying to get away with dumping run-off into rivers. This is what Tillerson was trained for at ExxonMobil, and it is how his sprawling, multi-national concern was operated for decades.
As detailed in Steve Coll's opus Private Empire, Tillerson's employer was known for aggressively fighting anything or anyone that might interfere with its dirty energy kingdom. In one harrowing anecdote, Exxon dispatched corporate spies to trail government scientists seeking to catalog the damage done by the Exxon-Valdez spill in Prince William Sound and then paid shills for studies contesting the disaster's very obvious long-term harm. When Tillerson took over as head of the company in 2005, he famously recognized that the planet is warming but refused to blame human activity. In 2006, after President George W. Bush announced a plan to make America energy independent, Tillerson "sided with the Saudis" who saw the initiative as a threat to oil.
You cannot undo a lifetime of habits overnight and transform yourself into a capable diplomat. At ExxonMobil, Tillerson's job was to protect the company and its overseas investments, particularly from regulators and human rights activists who objected to ExxonMobil's cozy relationship with authoritarian regimes and their torturing minions in places like Indonesia and Equatorial Guinea. He did this mostly by staying away from reporters and maneuvering behind the scenes to get his way. Tillerson's focus on the bottom line, and only the bottom line, was how the company stuck with its investment in Nigeria even when it became clear that oil was tearing the country apart.
Much has been made of how other people seem to be doing Tillerson's job for him. It's remarkable that President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner is running point on Iraq policy rather than the secretary himself, who has yet to make a trip to Baghdad. Maybe that's because Tillerson was responsible for negotiating an oil deal for ExxonMobil in Iraqi Kurdistan that roiled that country's politics and contradicted American foreign policy. He may very well be persona non grata there, which seems like a problem. And it is true that thus far, Tillerson appears to be a rather unimportant adviser the president, who is still leaning on his adult children and their spouses for policy direction.
But Tillerson is probably doing precisely what he has been asked. And that thing is not to conduct the nation's diplomacy as it has been executed in the past — it's to obfuscate. You can tell this is the underlying mission by how Tillerson has broken with all precedent by not taking a press pool with him on his overseas trips. The man is obviously miserable when he's in front of the cameras and clearly regards reporters as the enemy. He lives to sweep predatory behavior under the rug so a small number of people can get rich. It's why he was chosen for the job.
Tillerson may be sidelined in policy discussions, but he is hardly the first secretary to be last among equals in the president's Cabinet. Just ask Colin Powell. But the country desperately needs a talented diplomat in this role right now, not just because America's international relations are enormously complicated and fraught with peril, but also because the president has a bizarre fixation with provoking international crises through his unhinged Twitter account. We need a Trump Whisperer as the secretary of state, not just a whisperer.
The need for real public leadership should be obvious as tensions with North Korea heat up. The president has stirred the pot with outrageous tweets, including one that stated, "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A." As with all of these missives, it is not clear who Trump is even talking to. More problematically, they risk a truly calamitous war that our allies in South Korea and Japan want no part of. While North Korea cannot reach the continental United States with its missiles, China certainly can. And the president's brinksmanship with North Korea, Russia, and China has brought the long-suppressed fear of nuclear holocaust back into the public consciousness, which presumably was not the feature of the Reagan administration Trump's voters were hoping to see make a comeback.
It's notable that our allies seem to fear Trump much more than they do the genuinely unstable North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. It's not just a shame that America doesn't have a secretary of state who can put a happy (or at least coherent) face on the president's shenanigans and capably clarify policies for the world — it's an astonishing risk that threatens us all with annihilation.