Shadow Government

There’s No Happy Ending for Rex Tillerson

The secretary of state has held on for a year, but it’s too late for his tenure to end well.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is sworn in at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1, 2017. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is sworn in at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1, 2017. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

A year ago, Rex Tillerson stood in the Oval Office and was sworn in as the 69th Secretary of State. Since then, most of the talk has been about when he’ll leave. He got off to the worst start of any Secretary of State in modern history — beginning by taking a job he didn’t really want for a boss he’d never met — enduring a cascade of stories about everything from his anemic management, troubles with the career diplomatic corps, hollowing out of the bureaucracy, and tensions with the White House. Although often considered one of the adults tempering the President’s nastiest instincts, Tillerson’s Washington obituary has been ready for a while.

Yet he’s still around. Instead of quitting (as was widely rumored he would last summer), or being fired and replaced by Mike Pompeo (as reportedly the White House has a plan on the shelf to do), Tillerson is hanging on. He’s finally filling top positions, including ones that caused highly contentious fights with the White House. He’s been hitting the road, constructively engaging with allies on thorny diplomatic problems like North Korea and Iran. And he’s been stepping out publicly, talking more to the press and giving the kinds of speeches we expect from a Secretary of State.

This is all good. But let’s not conclude Tillerson has morphed into Dean Acheson (or even Dean Rusk) just yet. Hiring people, conducting diplomacy, and giving policy speeches are the basic duties of the job. The ingredients for success — credibility to speak for the president; a strong, well-resourced, confident bureaucracy that believes in the Secretary of State’s mission; an ability to deliver on tough policy issues; respect on Capitol Hill — are still sorely lacking. Moreover, despite the personal admiration foreign diplomats express for Tillerson — he is said to be a diligent, steady interlocutor — few believe his State Department is where one goes to find out what’s really going on or to get big decisions made.

To put Tillerson’s first year in perspective, and to get a sense of what his future probably holds, it helps to revisit the troubled history of the last top diplomat who flamed out so soon, Alexander Haig.

At first blush, the fates of Tillerson and Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of State seem quite different. By the time Haig entered Foggy Bottom in January 1981, he had spent a decade as a giant of Washington: a retired Army four-star warrior-diplomat who had been Nixon’s last chief of staff and then supreme allied commander of NATO. He didn’t have any fear of the limelight — Reagan’s team actually asked if he planned to run for president — and took the job with promises that we would be the dominant force in foreign policy, a self-anointed “vicar.”

Haig’s tenure was marked by internal squabbling and overreaching, culminating in his famous declaration “I am in control here” after the March 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan. He never developed any trust with the White House staff, who found him at best annoying and at worst dangerous. (Reagan’s top aide, Michael Deaver, never let Haig meet alone with the President.) Haig dismissed their attempts to undercut him. “Do you think I give a shit about guerrilla warfare with a bunch of second rate ham-bones in the White House?” he later told journalist Lou Cannon. By the end of 1981, after less than a year in office, Haig seemed on the ropes, as prominent Washington columnists were speculating that he would be out by summer.

In retrospect, Haig never really had much of a chance. He could never figure out Reagan, who was put off by his displays of temper, and eventually tired of him. By the summer of 1982, Reagan stopped trying to make things work. “It’s amazing how sound [Haig] can be on complex international matters, but how utterly paranoid with regard to the people he must work with,” Reagan confided in his diary at the time.

Reagan didn’t want to fire Haig — he disliked confrontation and wanted to avoid a political firestorm — so he simply waited for the humiliations to mount. Eventually Haig got fed up with the lack of respect and had enough of what he saw as the administration’s dysfunction, and in late June 1982 he quit, to be replaced by George Shultz. He had been in office for 18 months.

Compared to Haig, Tillerson has some things going for him. He reportedly gets along with most of his colleagues, does not pick unnecessary fights, or sweat the small stuff. But he has never seemed to click with the President. He admits to never knowing when a presidential foreign policy tweet is coming, what it will say, or what it may even mean; and worse, he has been repeatedly undermined publicly (“save your energy, Rex”). Like Haig with Reagan, Tillerson has been an ill fit for this administration, and specifically this president.

Tillerson’s main advantage seems to be that the White House does not want the drama that comes from firing him, which would just compound the sense of crisis. He may not be the next to go — current chatter puts the odds on National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, once the Army can agree on where he should end up; one interesting idea is for him to take charge on the ground at U.S. Forces Korea.

Tillerson is a proud man, and he has endured more humiliations at the hands of his own administration than any Secretary of State ever has or should. His few remaining defenders have a point when they argue that by working for Trump, he’s in an impossible position. However, he has not helped himself (for an example of how to do so, see Mattis, James N.).

I’m glad he now seems to be gaining some altitude, perhaps to save his job a little longer, or at least to reclaim some dignity before the inevitable comes. Yet unless he pulls a diplomatic rabbit out of a hat, like negotiating a deal with North Korea or a new agreement on Iran, it’s hard to see how this ends well. Whenever the last day comes, he’ll leave behind a department that is demoralized and diminished.

So far, Tillerson’s accomplishments are few, and perhaps his greatest one is that he hasn’t been fired or quit. But he’s still got five months to go before he surpasses the tenure of Al Haig.

Derek Chollet served in the 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. Twitter: @derekchollet