The new secretary of state corrects for his predecessor’s weaknesses — but will soon face the same problems.
Rex Tillerson’s humiliating end is hardly surprising. He’s been on life support for months: last summer, Washington buzzed with rumors of “Rexit,” and last November the White House leaked the very plan it executed today. With his departure, Tillerson shatters John Sherman‘s long-standing record for being forced out so soon. Few in the State Department are sad to see him go; he never seemed to like the job, and despite his good intentions, future secretaries of state will study his short tenure for lessons in what not to do.
Tillerson is an honorable and decent person, but one strains to think of anything he got right, minus perhaps his final statement, on Monday, condemning Russia for the nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom. History will not be kind to him. His efforts to reform the State Department weakened its diplomatic corps and diminished America’s diplomatic heft. It is hard to think of any policy area where he had a noticeable or lasting positive impact.
He allegedly projected a moderating influence on Trump, but it’s not clear that anyone, especially the president, really listened to him. He supported strengthening the Iran nuclear deal and remaining in the Paris climate accords but never got Trump to agree. His lack of clout was well understood around the world, which explains the chilly reception he often received by some of our closest allies. In fact, up to now, it seemed his most notable accomplishment was not being fired.
So on the surface, Mike Pompeo’s ascension to secretary of state will give the department a boost; he had already been seen as one of the go-to people in the administration, joining Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in compensating for Tillerson’s anemic leadership. It is hard to think of a more beleaguered bureaucracy, and by most accounts Pompeo has done a good job managing the CIA — which isn’t always easy. (For example, he really shines when compared with the last Hill vet to become CIA director, Porter Goss.) He has been a consistent advocate for the intelligence community even in cases where the president has taken a more cynical view.
But this should not lull anyone into thinking that Pompeo will turn things around, like George Shultz did after Haig more than three decades ago. He takes over a State Department that is diminished from budget cuts, demoralized by a president that doesn’t seem to value or even understand its core role, and deeply wounded by personnel hemorrhaging at every level. Moreover, while he may have been a fine manager at the relatively low-profile CIA, leading the State Department is different planet in terms of public scrutiny. Remember, Pompeo has some pretty rough edges — it is worth studying closely his role in the Benghazi investigation, which undermined the State Department — that will be far more noticeable in the high-definition world he is now entering.
To the extent we know Pompeo’s policy views, they are much closer to Trump’s, which will be a problem for the State Department and for many U.S. allies. While foreign diplomats may be reassured they can now engage with someone who has juice with the president, they won’t much like what they are hearing.
Consider the negotiations to revise the Iran nuclear deal. European negotiators have said recently that Tillerson’s team was diligent and constructive, and that a deal was possible. Their main worry was that any agreement they cut with Tillerson would be dismissed by Trump. Yet with Pompeo, it seems unlikely a deal itself is possible — as Trump said when asked about Tillerson’s firing, the approach toward Iran was a source of their tensions and he expected different from Pompeo (who called the deal “disastrous”).
Pompeo also favors regime change in North Korea and on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent consolidation of his own power, took an optimistic view. “We think that President Xi will come out of this in a dominant position with incredible capacity to do good around the world,” he said. On Russia, while he has repeatedly stated that the Russian regime interfered in the 2016 election and may try it again, he has declined to say whether that effort affected the outcome and what we might do to prevent or deter similar incidents going forward.
Tillerson was often criticized for overlooking the importance of values in American foreign policy. He never bought into the concept of democracy promotion and warned that values like human rights can create “obstacles” in pursuing U.S. national interests. In fact, early on in his tenure, he said American values should be separate from foreign policy. Allies hoping that Pompeo might take a different approach shouldn’t hold their breath.
Finally, even though they are more aligned on policy, one wonders how long the Trump-Pompeo relationship will last. It’s true that Trump professes to like and trust Pompeo, who has been in the Oval Office every day to brief him (although before concluding this was due to Pompeo’s briefing skills, one should know that Trump routinely skipped the meeting with professional intelligence briefers so the only way he would keep it on the schedule and take it seriously is if Pompeo showed). For example, will Pompeo allow any daylight between himself and Trump on issues like Russia? And if so, will he end up like Jeff Sessions? The first chance to find out will be at Pompeo’s confirmation hearing.
One thing we can say for sure is the churn will continue. Everyone saw Rexit coming, and others will follow. Other senior State officials will likely follow Tillerson out the door (last year Pompeo was apparently sounding out ideas for a new deputy), and rumors of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s exit have been boiling for weeks. So don’t let personnel drama obscure this fundamental fact: When it comes to Trump’s foreign policy, things will get worse before they get better.
BY DEREK CHOLLET, JULIE SMITH