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Rex Tillerson’s Tenure as Secretary of State Was No Success—but What Comes Next Will Probably Be Worse

Tillerson was one of the administration’s more reasonable voices.

Xinhua/Sipa USA/NewscomXinhua/Sipa USA/NewscomNothing about Rex Tillerson's firing should surprise us, except perhaps its timing.

Tillerson has often been at odds with his boss in the White House, whether on Russia, Iran, or North Korea. Though widely hailed as one of the "adults in the room," it's not clear he had much influence at all on Trump's biggest foreign policy decisions.

He was widely disliked inside his own agency. Civil servants at Foggy Bottom hated his insularity and his plans to massively cut the State Department's budget and diplomatic capacity.

Even the casual cruelty of the firing should not surprise us. Sure, the President fired his Secretary of State via Twitter, while Tillerson was abroad, without apparently offering him any explanation or courtesy phone call. But from the man who fired James Comey, his FBI Director, via television while Comey was on-stage giving a public speech, this was almost polite.

But while Tillerson's firing has been expected for some time, it will have major implications. America's foreign policy outlook under his successor, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is likely to move in a more hawkish direction. Although Tillerson's tenure was hardly a success, whatever comes next may well may make his troubled run look reasonably good in contrast.

Tillerson may not have had much influence with the President, but he was one of the administration's more reasonable voices. He apparently had a good relationship with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, acting as a sounding board for ideas, and both men have advocated against some of Trump's more disastrous foreign policy decisions.

It's always been questionable the extent to which Trump's more moderate advisers could actually constrain Trump on foreign policy issues. But with the loss of Tillerson and, last week, of Gary Cohn of the National Economic Council, we will see them replaced by advisors who appear to be trying not to restrain the President's worst impulses, but instead to indulge them. On tariffs, conflict, and more, things have the potential to go from bad to worse.

Mike Pompeo, Trump's new pick for Secretary of State, will move from the CIA. In that role, he has certainly been more effective than Tillerson in building a relationship with the President. But he has also often adopted highly political stances on policy, advocating strongly for the President to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, and speaking out publicly in favor of Trump's political and policy decisions far more often than is typical for the Director of the CIA.

Pompeo's background is in the military, not in diplomacy, and he has little experience of high-level diplomatic negotiations. And given his personal views, Pompeo is likely to strengthen many of the President's worst instincts: He is extremely hostile towards Iran and the Iranian nuclear deal, he has been hawkish on North Korea, and—where Tillerson took a more balanced approach—has largely supported Saudi Arabia in the ongoing Gulf Crisis.

His shift from CIA to State Department will also create a secondary controversy. Trump's choice to replace him is Gina Haspel, a career veteran at the agency, and potentially the first woman to hold the job of CIA Director. She is undoubtedly a better choice than uber-hawk Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who was widely expected to get the job.

Yet Haspel was also heavily involved in the rendition and torture scandals of the mid-2000s, running a rendition center in Thailand, and implicated in the destruction of interrogation tapes. Her nomination will raise all the old debates about the Bush-era torture programs, and her confirmation hearings are likely to be fraught as a result.

Even Pompeo's confirmation hearings may produce some difficulties: During hearings for his current job, Pompeo promised to be impartial on the question of the Iran nuclear deal carved out under President Obama. Yet he has been one of the strongest and most active supporters of Trump's decision to decertify the accord. Congressional Democrats in particular may question why he backed away from his prior promises, and whether they can trust what he says in these hearings.

Tillerson's firing was predictable, but it opens a whole new set of concerns, from the petty (fraught and difficult confirmation hearings) to the critical (an increasingly hawkish line-up in the White House and raised risk for conflict). Even for Tillerson's critics, then, his firing may not be a cause for celebration. His tenure as Secretary of State was hardly a success. Unfortunately, what comes after is likely to be worse.

(A version of this post originally appeared at Cato-at-Liberty.)

Photo Credit: Xinhua/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  • I can't even||

    He was widely disliked inside his own agency. Civil servants at Foggy Bottom hated his insularity and his plans to massively cut the State Department's budget and diplomatic capacity.

    That sounds pretty successful to me.

  • Jgalt1975||

    Yeah, why should the federal government have the resources to perform one of the few duties it's actually expressly given exclusive constitutional authority to perform?

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Speaking of someone who should not be taken seriously....

  • loveconstitution1789||

    So not getting the USA involved in every skirmish on the globe is not an indicator of success now? Tillerson trying to stem the tide of lefties that are infested in the State Department and their neo-con ways are not indicators of success?

    Hillary would have had us back in Libya, Yemen, doubled up in Iraq, and invading Iran after another year of her being Madame Secretary of State.

  • Tony||

    And if you don't pay attention to what Trump's doing in those countries, it's not real!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    YOU are not paying attention to what Trump is doing and not doing in the 20+ countries US troops are deployed in.

    The number of active-duty U.S. military troops stationed overseas has dipped below 200,000 for the first time in at least 60 years.
    US troops overseas

  • Imissbuckley||

    "So not getting the USA involved in every skirmish on the globe is not an indicator of success now? Tillerson trying to stem the tide of lefties that are infested in the State Department and their neo-con ways are not indicators of success?"

    True, they are partial-successes, however actual success for Non-interventionists and libertarians would probably be successfully turning the State Department, and fully convincing President Trump of the need to establish a Realist/caution based foreign policy with little "neocon" or hawkish influence. Tillerson appears to have only temporarily moved America's foreign policy in a more realist direction and now with Pompeo coming in it's likely his partial-successes will be reversed.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Even the casual cruelty of the firing should not surprise us.

    Oh. My, Fucking. GAWD. Who gives a shit how these people were fired? Do we think them delicate flowers or people who abruptly now have their livelihood pulled out from under them? Are we sad maybe the office didn't have cake on their last day?

    Cabinet members and appointees in general serve at the pleasure of the president and know that going in. So, no, it shouldn't surprise us, or them. I don't know why anyone is focusing on how these people are shown the door.

    Also, when was the last time we had a successful Secretary of State? They go around with the our foreign policy checkbook.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The media cares because it fits into a narrative that Trump is a poopy head.

    Nevermind that thousands of bureaucrats or private company employees get fired and talk shit about their bosses.

  • Jgalt1975||

    I give a shit because "casual cruelty" in firing someone from an extremely high profile public position is going to reduce the likelihood of competent people wanting to take the job (especially since it's not like you can offer higher salary/benefits to future candidates). It's the exact same reason that when Fortune 500 boards of directors decide CEOs, presidents, and other high level executives need to be removed from their positions, it's usually done in a quiet, low key way, where their departure is framed as being mutually agreed on and a resignation rather than an outright firing.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Call me a cynic, but I don't see it. People take these positions to enrich themselves more often than from any sense of civic duty.

  • Stephen54321||

    Fist of Etiquette: "People take these positions to enrich themselves more often than from any sense of civic duty."

    That would be corruption, and therefore illegal.

    Are you condoning malfeasance and other illegalities while in public office?

  • JoeBlow123||

    It was petty and little to axe someone that way. Also cowardly. It demonstrates a lot about a person how they handle things like this and Trump, without fail, always takes the worst route. He really is a despicable person on so many levels, just a terrible human being.

  • XM||

    Didn't Tillerson clarify that he actually received a call from the president?

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