Good Morning
Good Morning
OpinionColumnistsDan Raviv

Rex Tillerson toiled in isolation

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was fired

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was fired Tuesday, participates in a traditional coffee ceremony in Ethiopia on March 8, 2018. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Jonathan Ernst

You don’t have to be a Latin scholar to know that rex is the Latin word for “king.” And you don’t have to be an expert on the swamp called Washington to know that Rex Tillerson was not king of much as secretary of state. Now he is the latest victim of the sole monarch’s penchant for chaos.

President Donald Trump demands loyalty from his officials, and he and Tillerson were far from close. That led to Tillerson’s dismissal, which Trump summed up this way: “Really it was a different mind-set, a different thinking.”

A key point of disagreement was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson did not concur with Trump that the deal was worthless. He had commenced working with the European signatories, Britain, France and Germany, to amend the agreement in ways that would satisfy Trump.

The new nominee for secretary of state, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, is likely to face the same potential humiliation because Trump considers himself America’s best diplomat and spokesman and sees little need for a rival power center.

Tillerson had the unenviable task of reducing the State Department’s size and budget by 30 percent. As he carried out the cuts, he was asked whether he was slashing too much and eliminating the wisdom of experienced envoys. He insisted everything was going well. Yet many of his employees said there was a strong sense of damaging neglect, and disappointment that Tillerson was not standing up for them. In private conversations, they said they felt a lack of regard for their experience and contacts around the globe.

Tillerson must have sensed unprecedented disrespect from the Oval Office. On the Middle East, he was almost entirely left out of the process. It is up to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to develop a peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians.

Recently, when Trump declared that he would meet with Kim Jong Un, Tillerson was kept out of the loop. Excluding him from planning a meeting with North Korea’s dictator was especially odd because the secretary had spoken last year of hopes that negotiations could be started. Tillerson favored talks, but Trump, at that time, so preferred to emphasize military threats that he tweeted derisively about Tillerson “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”

That was in October, one of many times when Washington insiders assumed that Tillerson was days away from quitting or being fired. The secretary denied that he was considering resigning. He had a list of goals he was pursuing, and now he speaks with pride of having organized a “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions on North Korea that might lead to a chance to end that country’s nuclear and missile programs.

Tillerson was working, but he was doing so in near isolation. He was known to have teamed up with Defense Secretary James Mattis to dissuade Trump from doing something that they considered rash. Trump apparently resented the advice and never felt close to Tillerson.

Pompeo already has secured Trump’s trust by delivering his almost-daily intelligence briefings, and the president came to believe that he saw eye to eye with his CIA director on almost all topics. It will be fascinating to see whether Pompeo will continue to declare publicly that Russia is guilty of myriad misdeeds that include meddling in America’s 2016 election. That is Trump’s least favorite topic.

As for Tillerson, he is believed to be heading into retirement and probably was secretary of state long enough to write a book about the experience. He will almost surely be fine. But will we?

Dan Raviv is senior Washington correspondent for i24NEWS and author of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”