Having thus far failed to undo the results of the 2016 election, opponents of the President seem to have taken a particular joy in stirring the pot enough to get someone in his inner orbit driven out of the administration (or at least cheer heartily if the staffer does it to themselves). But who would be the biggest fish in that particular pond? Probably the Secretary of State. In this case that’s Rex Tillerson and I’ve been seeing a growing number of articles recently grumbling about how Tillerson has failed in one way or another and should go.
This week the Washington Post ran a massively lengthy op-ed from Daniel Drezner, a law professor from Tufts University, with the not terribly subtle title, Why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should resign. It takes a while to dive in and swim through the entire thing, but the essence of his argument can be boiled down to a few sentences which I’ll extract for you in a moment.
But first, let’s keep in mind what the overall duties and responsibilities of the Secretary of State entail. They can really be boiled down into two categories. First, they need to traipse around the globe, meeting with foreign leaders and counterparts, striking deals and smoothing over wrinkles in the way of all diplomats. The less glamorous portion of their job is running the massive bureaucracy of the State Department, staffing, organizing and greasing the wheels of the machine. Drezner has complaints with Tillerson on both scores, so here are the key sentences I mentioned above.
1. By some metrics, this is the lowest-profile State Department in decades.
2. Tillerson allocated all of his political capital to ingratiating himself with Trump.
3. Tillerson has prioritized the reorganization of Foggy Bottom to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.
4. Tillerson’s emphasis on reorganization has resulted in the hemorrhaging of human capital from the State Department.
For number 1, let’s start off by noting that we should all feel free to complain about anyone in the government we wish. Heck, I do it for a living, including plenty of people in the Trump administration. But when it comes to the Secretary of State position, you might not want to lead with any comparisons to previous holders of the office. One of the biggest running jokes about Hillary Clinton’s resume during her campaign was the never-ending struggle to find someone to name a single accomplishment of hers as Secretary of State. Even her most ardent supporters were left hemming and hawing. Her successor, John Kerry, at least had the virtue of having completed one deal, which can be looked at as something like a treaty. But that was the Iran nuclear deal. If you think that disaster went well then there’s no point in trying to convince you of any comparable virtues on Tillerson’s part.
Number 2: Tillerson wasted his time trying to get in good with and adapt his positions to align with his boss. That has to be one of the dumbest complaints I’ve heard in ages and I spend plenty of time standing in line at the DMV. Who goes into the job with the intent of going to war with their new boss? If he was that out of step he wouldn’t have taken the job.
Numbers 3 and 4 are cut from the same cloth. Drezner goes on at length to talk about how the State Department is still laboring under a hiring freeze, various positions have gone unfilled, experienced and available personnel are being ignored and long serving professionals are quitting. It may come as a shock to the author to hear someone suggest that this entire phenomenon is not a bug, but a feature. President Trump recently responded to a cable news critic who talked about unfilled positions, tweeting out a reminder that he was there to reduce the size of government and had no intention of filling some of them. While the hiring freeze at the State Department is no longer mandated, Tillerson is keeping to the spirit of one of the first executive orders issued by his boss. He’s reducing the ranks, combining positions and leaving others vacant. And all of those people who are either leaving or not being brought onboard? He inherited a massive quagmire of so-called “deep state” individuals from the Obama era. I serious doubt he’s terribly upset about losing or rejecting people who are fundamentally opposed to the President’s agenda and are really only collecting a paycheck so they can leak juicy gossip to the Washington Post every time they leave the building.
Do I think Tillerson is on track to be the next Henry Kissinger? Not yet. But he’s also not prone to gaffes and seems to be functioning at least as well as any government neophyte thrust into such a role would be expected to. Perhaps he’ll improve and stun us. Perhaps he won’t. But don’t let the fact that he’s not doing what the last two people in his position did lead you to believe he’s failing. He’s evolving the State Department. And yes, I realize that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.