- By Derek CholletDerek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
For the past few weeks, the secretary of state has been the subject of endless chatter and several prominent reports about what he has been doing — or, more to the point, not doing — during his short tenure in Foggy Bottom. Despite a mostly steady if laconic performance in Moscow this week, it is hard to argue that he is off to a good start. The risk is that, after only a few months in office, he could be headed toward irrelevance.
Tillerson’s high water mark so far was his first day, the moment he walked into the State Department’s C street lobby on February 2 and gave a humble, well-received speech to a nervous crowd. It has been pretty much downhill ever since: a highly publicized squelching of his first choice as deputy; some unceremonious early retirements of senior Foreign Service officers, leaving a building empty of top-ranked officials; an anemic first trip to Europe, where he was easily overshadowed by the secretary of defense; bungling the schedule for his inaugural NATO meeting by initially thinking he could skip it; parroting Chinese talking points on his first trip to Asia; taking a meat axe to the State Department budget; and starting off terribly with the press. If you only get one chance to make a first impression, this is not the way to do it.
I have to say I am surprised and a bit puzzled. I thought the choice of Tillerson, while unexpected and somewhat unorthodox, was a clever one. The more I learned about him the more optimistic I became that he would succeed at State. I believed his experience at ExxonMobil prepared him to deal with the complex tangle of management, security, and policy issues facing the department, and that, having moved up the company chain to the top himself, he would prove to be an effective leader of the career Foreign Service workforce. So what’s going on?
Thinking about Tillerson’s bumpy start, it helps to recall two past secretaries of state who also had less auspicious beginnings: Alexander Haig in 1981 and Warren Christopher in 1993.
Haig’s problems were the opposite of Tillerson’s. He wanted to be large and in charge. By this point in his tenure, he had already graced the cover of Time magazine with his hands on hips, chest puffed out, as the self-proclaimed “vicar” of foreign policy, and had declared himself “in charge” after the March 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan — an assertion the then-vice president, George H.W. Bush, found interesting. Haig quickly ran afoul of the Reagan team, which he described to a reporter at the time as “a bunch of second-rate hambones.” They clashed over matters of process (Haig wanted to make decisions for the president) and protocol (he complained about his seat assignments on Air Force One). So after a frenzied eighteen months in office, Haig was forced out.
On the surface, Warren Christopher’s first few months may seem a closer parallel. Christopher — with whom I worked for several years in the late 1990s, after he left the State Department — was, like Tillerson, a deeply honorable man who had a successful, widely respected private sector career before becoming the nation’s top diplomat. And for all his wisdom and strengths, a commanding presence and savvy media skills were not among them. Christopher’s start was similarly rough, the low point being a May 1993 trip to Europe, on which he failed in an attempt to drum up support for stronger action in Bosnia. This was pilloried as weakness — Christopher himself later said that allies would only be persuaded by the “raw power approach.”
But here’s where the similarities end, and the differences are revealing. First, Christopher had deep experience in government and diplomacy, having served as the deputy attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson and as deputy secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter. Christopher distinguished himself in both jobs, helping manage the federal response to the urban riots in 1968 and negotiating the release of the American hostages in Tehran in 1981. He had been a central figure in presidential campaigns and California politics.
Although Christopher took great pride in his Los Angeles legal career, he understood how to get things done in Washington. Christopher really wanted to be secretary of state; it is not clear that Tillerson does. He doesn’t seem comfortable, as though his heart is not in the job.
This leads to a second contrast. Despite his understated demeanor, Christopher was determined to be the chief spokesperson for American foreign policy. He too worked for a relatively inexperienced commander-in-chief, so sought opportunities to explain the new administration’s perspective on the world and outline its larger strategic goals. By this point in his time as secretary, Christopher had given several major foreign policy speeches. Tillerson has delivered none. He seems entirely comfortable ceding this role to Defense Secretary James Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Finally, Christopher understood how important it was to be surrounded by powerful officials who would compliment his somnolent style. There were some misfires (his first deputy, Cliff Wharton, flamed out by the end of his first year), but Christopher empowered heavyweights like Strobe Talbott, Richard Holbrooke, Winston Lord, Jim Steinberg, and Tom Donilon.
Instead of getting the most out of his bureaucracy, Tillerson seems detached from it. Career State diplomats complain of being out of the loop. I’ve been told that because Tillerson’s operation is such a black box, some State Department officials are sending their talking points to their Defense Department colleagues so that Mattis will raise them with their boss. Although Tillerson deserves credit for trying to install Elliot Abrams as his number two, he has been shockingly slow to fill out the rest of his team — and his new choice for deputy, John Sullivan, is by all accounts a good guy and talented lawyer, but a complete unknown on foreign policy.
So Tillerson’s performance has left many scratching their heads. It could be, as his allies like James Baker, Robert Gates, and Condoleezza Rice argue, that he is biding his time, learning the job, and playing a long game. Maybe he is waiting for the ideologues like White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon to flame out. Or perhaps he is shoring up his relationship with his mercurial boss — a person he had never met before being offered the job — and working to forge an alliance with Mattis. Be patient, they say, and Tillerson’s talents will eventually shine.
All that may be true. But without some signs of life soon, Tillerson risks locking in a narrative that will be very hard to change. According to foreign diplomats, he is a diligent counterpart who masters his briefs and gets through his talking points. But no one thinks the State Department is where to go to get things done.
How long can this last? Tillerson is not going to self-destruct like Haig. But people are already guessing he doesn’t make it much past the 2018 midterms, and is then replaced by Haley.
Which brings us back to Christopher. He had his share of early troubles, and the legacy of the May 1993 trip was hard to shake. More than once Washington’s gods were calling for his head — and he offered to resign after President Bill Clinton’s disastrous 1994 midterm elections. But Christopher hung on, and by the end of four years was able to tally some important diplomatic successes — including the Dayton Accords, a post-Oslo Accords peace process in Middle East, initial steps toward NATO enlargement, and the opening of relations with Vietnam.
Right now, this sort of turnaround seems to be the best we can expect from Tillerson. When it comes to assessing his potential for success at State, it may indeed still be too early. But if he doesn’t change some things soon, it will be too late.
Photo credit: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images