As so often with the Trump administration, one cannot tell what is what as to the future of Rex Tillerson. The secretary of state is about to be dismissed. No, he is staying. He is on the outs with the president whom he is said to have called a “moron.” No, things between President Trump and Tillerson are workably sympathique. We have heard both of late, each version advanced with certainty and supporting quotations. Meanwhile, a number of established foreign-policy voices are expressing daily alarm at Tillerson’s house-cleaning at State, warning that he is gutting our capacity to conduct diplomacy. They, too, would now like to see Tillerson go. On a smoke-and-fire basis, I reckon Tillerson is not long for Foggy Bottom, but certainties are few in the Dealmaker’s Washington.
I am not much interested in Rex Tillerson’s fate, to be honest. There are more important things to think about. Once again, the discourse is taken up with matters to do with means without any mention, so far as I have heard, of ends. This error is too common. Who conducts US foreign policy matters little next to the good questions: What is our foreign policy, what are its goals, and what have been its consequences? Once again, the establishment policy cliques that are most upset with Tillerson’s downsizing of the State Department preclude such inquiries with a case for restoration: We must defend the State Department and its strategies and policies as these were before Trump named Tillerson secretary. Given State’s record in this century (just to limit our universe), I cannot take this thought at all seriously. Next to it, “drain the swamp” seems a fine idea.
I hold to this view, just to be clear, even when considering Tillerson’s most likely replacements. The front-runner is Michael Pompeo, who now directs the Central Intelligence Agency; behind him is Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the UN. Contemplating either as secretary of state is difficult. Pompeo is a blunt instrument in the foreign-policy sphere. Haley manages to make the self-regarding Samantha Power, among the holiest of Barack Obama’s liberal interventionists, appear calm, collected, and considered. A thoughtful friend wrote last week to say he would “miss Tillerson” if either of these people replaced him. What a comment on our circumstances. This is what happens when we get all balled up with means to the neglect of ends. We start to imagine missing Rex Tillerson.
Tillerson is an ambiguous figure. Ishaan Tharoor, who is onThe Washington Post’s foreign desk, published a useful précis of his 10–month tenure late last week. Tillerson has tried to exert a moderating influence within the administration: He has variously defended the nuclear accord with Iran, promoted a diplomatic solution on the Korean Peninsula, and attempted to mediate the Saudi-Qatari dispute. On the other hand, it looks very like Tillerson is on a swamp-draining project: He is in on a budget cut at State of roughly a third; he leaves numerous key diplomatic positions vacant; and he is sending scores of career foreign-service officers scurrying into retirement.