Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates each have led inspiring lives of public service. They are smart and wise, they are dignified, and they are patriots.
And they owe the American people an apology.
The endorsement they offered their client, Rex Tillerson, when he was nominated as President Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, has proven to be a mistake.
Mistakes are forgivable, especially from two people who have dedicated so much of their lives to faithful public service. But they should be acknowledged. Personal credibility is preserved not by getting everything right, but rather by being honest about when one hasn’t. It’s time to acknowledge that Tillerson is an abject failure, particularly in the area in which he was supposed to be best prepared.
Tillerson made early and revealing gaffes on human rights and geopolitics — suggesting that he thought a robust American foreign policy could put values as an afterthought, showing that he failed to see that it is in large part America’s role as an (imperfect but genuine) force for universal values that makes our foreign policy robust.
It was strange for a guy who led ExxonMobil, one of the most well-known companies in the world, to appear not to understand the nature or importance of the American “brand.” It also must have been awkward for Rice, who was in the midst of a tour for her new book — about democracy.
Tillerson also asked, apparently sincerely, why Americans should care about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, thereby demonstrating a gap in his understanding of how the United States benefits from a rules-based order and how American interests are damaged when an authoritarian like Tillerson’s old business associate, Russian President Vladimir Putin, violently disregards the rules. These were serious errors — and he was rightly and roundly lambasted for them. But Tillerson never pretended to be an experienced statesman, and it isn’t surprising that he made these and other mistakes. He might even be getting marginally better at the diplomacy piece after seven months on the job.
What is surprising is that his management skills were supposed to compensate for his inexperience in foreign policy. Instead, he’s proven to be an incompetent manager who is inflicting long-term damage on the State Department. He has isolated himself in a bubble of a few loyal aides and failed to successfully negotiate with the White House on key staffing decisions (though this week he admirably made a demonstration of support for career diplomat Susan Thornton after now-departed White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon singled her out). He has failed to fill crucial assistant secretary and undersecretary positions, sided with the White House on budget cuts, declared an intent to reshape the department while failing to adequately communicate about it, failed to defend department employees against the president’s callous insult when he thanked Putin for helping the United States cut payroll, and failed to convey a vision of foreign policy able to engage the thousands of patriots he leads.
The career civil service and Foreign Service employees of the State Department are dedicated professionals — most of them have been around long enough to have served both Democrats and Republicans. They want their boss to succeed. But captaining a large bureaucracy requires a leader to lead — not just manage. People need to be brought into a vision of what is possible, their good work deserves to be acknowledged, and they need to feel that the secretary of state has their backs. Tillerson has failed as a manager and as a leader. Too many of my former colleagues are demoralized. Too many midcareer professionals are now looking elsewhere for opportunities — and our country will suffer the loss of their talent and expertise for years to come. (The U.S. Mission to the U.N. also has a mix of political appointees and career officers looking for exits — including two top staff last week — raising questions about Ambassador Nikki Haley’s management skills.)
Of course, part of Tillerson’s failure stems from the broader dysfunction projected throughout the administration by incompetence in the White House. And yet, Tillerson has failed even on the pieces that he controls as chief of his agency.
Of course, Rice and Gates were not the only ones to be mistaken about Tillerson. I confess that I, too, expected him to perform better — to be a secretary who would excel at management and who had foreign experience, if not foreign policy chops. I was wrong.
It is especially important for Rice and Gates to acknowledge their misjudgment because their relationship with Tillerson was, in part, a business relationship — ExxonMobil paid Rice and Gates significant consulting fees when Tillerson was CEO (and those kinds of consultants don’t get paid without the CEO’s personal nod.) It was regrettable that the endorsement appeared to spring from this relationship. It would also be regrettable for a failure to recant to appear the same way. (Stephen Hadley, a business partner with Rice and Gates, and James Baker, whose law firm, Baker Botts, also did business with Tillerson at ExxonMobil, were less high profile in their endorsements of Tillerson, although they, too, pushed for him to get the job.)
An endorsement by a public figure is a request to the American people (and, in this case, their representatives in the Senate) to transfer some of the respect they have for the endorser to the endorsee. It is to say, “You trust me because of my record. You can trust what I say, and I say that this person is good for the job.” Endorsements, like elections, have consequences — particularly when they come from respected leaders. There is no reason to believe that these endorsements weren’t offered sincerely. But it is also difficult to believe that Rice and Gates could sincerely believe that Tillerson has acquitted himself well. Though there have been reports that Rice and Gates have tried to reach out privately to offer counsel, too many Republicans these days are convincing themselves that private handwringing or wincing is an adequate response.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images