The Worst Secretary of State in Living Memory

Rex Tillerson’s successor will inherit the monumental task of cleaning up the mess he’s made of the State Department.

Rex Tillerson walks out of a room.
Rex Tillerson walks out of a room after speaking to reporters on December 1, 2017. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters)

The graceless defenestration is one of Washington’s crueler art forms. In the case of Rex Tillerson, who has long stoutly maintained that he has no intention of resigning, it has been done with White House leaks about a reshuffle apparently masterminded by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. In the Marine Corps, these things are done more forthrightly, one suspects; but Kelly is a Trumpian civilian now, so he called Tillerson’s office to deny a story leaked by the White House to major news outlets. Meanwhile, a respected senior colleague gets a prolonged and humiliating shove out the window. Like so much in the capital these days, it’s low-end Shakespeare, farcical court politics albeit without the elevated language.

Tillerson was, as is now recognized even by those who put him there, a disaster. As with most spectacular Washington flame-outs, his failures stem not from stupidity or general incompetence, but from a specific set of disabilities: an introverted and cocooned style of management that gave power to a few hated but overwhelmed and incompetent gatekeepers; insufficient skill at buttering up his volatile boss who, in an unguarded moment, the secretary seems to have characterized as a “moron”; morbid suspicion and sequestration of the State Department press, alienating a collection of hopeless foreign-policy wonks who normally fall in love with the secretary and sing his or her praises accordingly; management-jargon-laden reforms heavy on business-speak and low on familiarity with the work of diplomacy that demoralized the foreign service; and incapacity at finding and pushing through appointees who might do the work of diplomacy. He was a debacle, pure and simple, the worst secretary of state in living memory (and there has been serious competition) not because of ineptitude, but because of the semi-intentional demolition job he was doing on his own department even as he fell out of presidential favor.

Even implacable enemies of the administration should cheer the arrival of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state. He is a former Army officer, a successful politician, and a veteran of running a large bureaucracy—the CIA. This means that, unlike Tillerson, he is used to motivating career people whom he cannot either fire or incentivize with money. He is sometimes described as a Trump loyalist, but that is nonsense: No one is loyal to Trump—he is too indecent a human being to attract such normal personal attachments.

The administration is not divided into people who are loyal to Trump and those who are not. Rather, it is divided between those who know how to manipulate his vanity, his hatreds, his sensitivities, and those who do not. It is divided between those who think he is their ticket to fame and fortune and those who hope to survive this episode with their reputations more or less intact. It is divided, at the most fundamental level, between those willing to sell their souls completely and at a discount in the service of a man who is doing great damage to American norms and institutions, and those who are trying to get something for their country in return for the slices of honor and integrity that every day they reluctantly consign to the flames.

So here is a plausible account of what Pompeo would do, if he replaces Tillerson. He will fire Tillerson’s cabal, shrink the Policy Planning staff, and return it to its more normal role of writing speeches and doing long-range thinking. He will ostentatiously drape an arm around the shoulders of the foreign service. He will bring journalists back onto his plane and schmooze them—in return getting more than his fair share of what Washington journalists sometimes call “beat-sweetener” stories. Unlike Tillerson, who seems in good corporate fashion to have decided that a 30 percent cut ordained by headquarters is the equivalent of a Czar’s ukase—unwelcome, perhaps, but not to be questioned—he will fight back. He will either bully OMB Director Mick Mulvaney or, more likely, smile sweetly at him, assure him of his complete support—and then end-run around him on Capitol Hill, letting angry senators do for him the dirty work of subverting the president’s budget. He will call in some of the retired senior diplomats—legendary ambassadors like Ryan Crocker who have been uncharacteristically public in their criticisms of Tillerson—and listen to them with at least the appearance of attentiveness. Above all, he will flatter the president shamelessly, praising his toughness and superlative insights while steering policy in a more or less sane (if, to be sure, tough-minded) direction. He will rattle some with hardline rhetoric, but at least he will articulate a coherent view of American foreign policy to the world, and that will be an advance.

This is to be welcomed because it will restore some balance to foreign-policy-making, in which the State Department has been appallingly weak. The task before Pompeo will be enormous. It is easier to say which diplomatic positions have been filled than which have not—we have no ambassadors for Saudi Arabia, Germany, or France, let alone representatives to the European Union or the International Atomic Energy Agency. We have no assistant secretaries of state for East Asia and the Pacific (as we possibly stumble into a second Korean War) and none for the Middle East.

The State Department is indeed due for a reorganization—but it would have been wise to have at least a core staff in place to do it, and to have done it by listening and learning the business of diplomacy first, and leaving the management consultants to work their magic on failing bricks-and-mortar retail companies, which they may understand, rather than foreign policy, which they probably do not. This is not the immediate task in any case. What Pompeo will need to do rather, is to get the department up and running again, and doing the day-to-day foreign-relations work of maintaining America’s role in the world.

It will be interesting to see whether Pompeo would do better than his inarticulate predecessor in laying out American values as well as American interests. That will be the big divide with the White House, if he has the stomach for it: making it clear that commitment to free government, rule of law, and individual liberty are critical parts of the American message to the world, and an essential element not only of America’s appeal, but American power. Trump does not understand this, of course.

There will be other challenges as well. If he is honest, and has honest subordinates, the new secretary will realize how much damage has already been done to America’s global standing as evidenced by the deals cut by Middle Eastern allies with Russia, by Asian allies with China and by the profound disgust and mistrust with which our European allies view our president. Above all, he will—again, if he is honest—have to confront the fact that America’s reputation and indeed its stability are in question around the world. That is the meta foreign-policy crisis of our times, and he may not be able to do a great deal about it.

There will be one lesson from this episode that he and every other senior official should also take away. If the president and his immediate staff can treat Tillerson this way, they can, and will, treat anyone this way. Eviction by sustained humiliation was a gambit Trump tried with Jeff Sessions, whose desire to cling to his job seems to have overwhelmed whatever stock of self-respect he once possessed.  But if Tillerson has had the experience of getting unceremoniously muscled over the window ledge before a crowd of gaping onlookers, the same may await any of the rest of them, including those even now prying his clutching fingers off the sill. And like Tillerson himself, as they plunge to earth they will see in the onlookers’ eyes a kind of disgusted curiosity, but not much in the way of sympathy.