One thing diplomats often have to do is help their fellow citizens when they go abroad and do something foolish. Those unwise decisions take many forms. A missionary in a country in the midst of a civil war can decide that his deity will prevent him from coming to any harm. Some people show up at an airport for an international flight with a suitcase full of drugs thinking the authorities cannot possibly be smart enough to catch them.
For American diplomats, there is a third group that frequently poses a challenge: businessmen who fly in for a meeting with government officials and believe they will have a deal signed by lunch and be back on their corporate jet before the sun sinks in the sky. They have no interest in learning much about the local situation and display a remarkable mix of ignorance and arrogance. And the bigger the company, the truer it tends to be.
That combination is why future historians when considering the Donald J. Trump era, are sure to have one debate. The argument will be whether Rex Tillerson was just among the worst secretaries of state or wins the gold medal for ineptitude.
Tillerson As Secretary of State
Tillerson provided a lot of support for the latter point of view when he sat down for an interview with the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May. A somewhat redacted transcript of the meeting was released several weeks later.
Tillerson said he did not prepare for the meeting, which was perhaps deliberate as it allowed him to say over 30 times he could not remember in responding to the questions. He was also aided in avoiding most substantive answers by being accompanied by two of his own lawyers and one from the State Department who exerted executive privilege on seven occasions.
I have chosen one of the truly great business leaders of the world, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be Secretary of State.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2016
Tillerson described how his goal as secretary was to promote and protect freedom, democracy, individual liberty, and human dignity, and he lauded the tireless efforts, talent, and dedication of State Department personnel. He also said that when he was called to Trump Tower to meet Trump for the first time, he talked for over an hour with few interruptions about how he saw the world. That supposedly left Trump so impressed that Tillerson was then offered the job on the spot. The conversation concluded without any discussion of the role he would play in the administration.
His undefined role is no doubt part of the reason Tillerson lasted only 14 months in the position. While there have been a few secretaries of state who exited the office quicker for various reasons, he arguably now holds the record for being fired the fastest.
Profit over Values
While he parroted the required rhetoric about values and the valuable State Department staff, his respect for both rings more than a little hollow. He never let values get in the way of making a profit for his company.
Among his first acts as secretary were surrounding himself with a very small group of people with little to no foreign policy experience, isolating himself from the rest of the building, and bringing in clueless outside management experts to work on a reorganization plan that envisioned cutting the Department’s budget by somewhere between a quarter and a third.
Apparently, the only thing one needs in Tillerson’s world to undertake a major redesign is a whiteboard. Actual knowledge of the entity being remade is unnecessary. That kind of change would require a massive and forced reduction in the number of diplomats and other people at State. Unlike the Pentagon, it cannot deal with a budget cut by deferring the acquisition of a billion-dollar bomber or two or some multibillion-dollar ships.
Tillerson managed to compound his own ignorance and other weaknesses by his personnel decisions. He hired a chief of staff he had never met who had no State Department experience and a deputy chief of staff with even thinner credentials. The person he brought in to run the reorganization had no government experience and lasted only three months. The man he looked to for slashing the budget came from a rightwing think tank and was again someone who brought no relevant experience to the job.
To say it was a question of the blind leading the blind would be to imply that Tillerson at least had a sense of touch. He didn’t and instantly alienated the press corps at the Department by cutting back the daily press briefing to a couple of times a month and installing a clueless spokesperson. He also made no room for interviews or for the press on his plane on overseas trips.
His relationships in other parts of Washington were not much better. He made little attempt to cultivate congressional leadership or most others in the administration. And he failed at his most important relationship – the one with the president – when he made what will be his most memorable quote by referring to Trump as a “fucking moron.”
Tillerson confirmed to the committee staff that he believed Trump to be “a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read thinks, doesn’t like briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into details of lots of things.” But then he hastened to add that he did not consider that a critical or pejorative assessment, but rather just a description of how Trump operates.
He justified his desire to gut the department’s budget based on the growth in its staffing over the last decade without ever bothering to ask why that had happened. Between 1985 and 2000, the department’s budget in real terms was cut in half thanks to a post-Cold War attitude that communism no longer had to be confronted everywhere in the world and that budget deficits mattered. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a surge in hiring. Much of that was for security, where spending has increased 1000 percent in the last two decades.
Arrogance and Ignorance
Having spent his entire career with one oil company and having an education that consisted of a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Tillerson was the least qualified person in American history to serve as secretary of state. He is the only person to have entered the office without having spent a day in government, elective office, or the military. His time in uniform consists of his days as a boy scout. His time as CEO of oil and gas corporation Exxon was spent maximizing the company’s profits by denying climate change and making deals with any dictator with oil.
— Kumi Naidoo (@kuminaidoo) July 10, 2012
It would be hard to point to anyone in Washington that will miss him besides the small group of equally unqualified people he picked to help him run the State Department. But he undoubtedly went into the job sure he would be as great there as he had been in business. That combination of arrogance and ignorance will have earned his place on the bottom rung of history.
It’s always amazing to see people who have had success outside of government think they will be equally as successful in it. If someone with an outstanding record as a diplomat announced that for a second career, they were going to build a high-rise hotel or an oil refinery, how many people would rush to invest in the project? The business of government is not the same as selling condos to Russian oligarchs who want their money laundered or digging holes in the ground to look for crude.
Impossible to Succeed?
The only thing that can be said in Tillerson’s defense is that it was a job where no one could succeed. His boss was the first major-party candidate in history with no time in government, elected office, or the military. That, plus his aversion to learning anything on the job and his reliance on his gut instincts for decisions, makes a coherent foreign policy impossible.
Trump’s governing style is basically medieval. Decisions are made solely based on what is good for the king’s grip on power. Those that surround him are equally self-serving and constantly jockey for his ear to have the last word and curry favor. That’s why Trump’s daughter and son-in-law run whatever parts of the government they want to dabble in, most of his cabinet is composed of grifters, and his staff are sycophants.
Tillerson lost Trump’s trust and any influence over him with the moron comment, even though it was accurate. For if it is one thing that naked monarchs don’t like, it is to be told they have no clothes.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.