I awoke this morning to the news that Rex Tillerson had been fired as Secretary of State and that Mike Pompeo was President Trump’s intended replacement. Despite the fact that the State Department is where I spent nearly thirty years, and is still an institution that I care deeply about and believe is vital to our nation’s security, I really had no strong reaction. It was kind of … meh.
Much of the analysis today is centered on two themes. First, that this was the inevitable replacement of a relatively independent actor with a partisan loyalist. Second was the idea that Tillerson, during his brief tenure, earned the distinction of being the weakest and perhaps the worst Secretary of State in modern history.
Both are undeniably accurate.
Tillerson was never a Trumpkin, although he, along with many others like Kelly and McMaster, dutifully sold his soul and toed the erratic party line to get and maintain his positions, perhaps hoping to do some good or at least restrain bad. Most who knew him said that Tillerson actually held great contempt for Trump. When it came out that he had privately referred to Trump as a “moron”, I knew his days were numbered. He lasted actually considerably longer than I thought after that. Trump is never one to forgive a slight or an insult.
All that said, what did his humiliation and the selling of his soul get Tillerson? Precious little. I’m really not sure why he wanted the job, unless he thought he could use the position to advance the global interests of ExxonMobil, the company where he spent his entire career before that point. I’m even less certain why he thought he was qualified for it. He had neither any academic nor professional background in foreign affairs, other than representing the interests of a multinational country. He had no background or record of public service of any kind.
In short, he was completely and utterly unqualified for the job. Worse, he was arrogant enough not to recognize that he was completely unqualified and did not seek or value the input of the professionals at the State Department who were qualified. He, like most recent Secretaries of State, in a very disturbing bipartisan trend, brought in a group of personal aides and political appointees who were only marginally more qualified, and leaned heavily on them for advice, rather than on career professionals. Political loyalty was valued more than expertise.
The results were predictable. Tillerson accomplished almost nothing in his year or so at the helm of the largest and most competent foreign ministry in the world.
And he inflicted incredible damage on the institution. He came in with the preconceived notion that the State Department was too large, and thus did not resist President Trump’s petulant demand that it be gutted. Talented senior diplomats, including me, chose to leave rather than serve this unworthy President and disloyal Secretary. The influence of the State Department over foreign policy ebbed to the lowest point in post WW II history, and our foreign policy suffered as a result. Under Trump’s direction, and with Tillerson’s inconsistent and ineffective attempts to be relevant, we have alienated our allies, given aid and comfort to our enemies and generally destroyed America’s once-lofty standing and reputation in the world.
So I shed no tears for Rex Tillerson. He was an arrogant, unqualified man who got in over his head and did a great amount of damage to the State Department and American interests in his short term in office (you could write that same sentence about many of Trump’s cabinet picks). He became exhibit number two (Trump is exhibit number one) in making the case that business skills and government skills are entirely different and success in one area does not easily translate into success in the other.
Unfortunately, I do not think things will improve under Pompeo, a partisan political hack and Trumpkin bootlicker who also has thin experience and qualifications for the job. At least I can be happy for my colleagues at the CIA, who apparently will once more have a professional in charge rather than a political hack.
As for Tillerson, he can go back to Texas to lick his wounds and perhaps reflect on why it is never a good idea to sell your soul. Some might find him a tragic or sympathetic figure. My eyes will stay dry.