A tale of two secretaries: Exit Tillerson, enter Pompeo

A tale of two secretaries: Exit Tillerson, enter Pompeo
Comment: Mike Pompeo will likely enable Trump's worst tendencies, writes Marcus Montgomery.
6 min read
14 Mar, 2018
Like Trump, Pompeo [R] came into office as a self-proclaimed outsider [AFP]
After months of murmurs about an impending end to the Rex Tillerson era at the State Department, Washington - and Tillerson, himself, apparently - learned via Twitter that the Exxon-Mobil CEO turned chief diplomat was no longer employed. 

President Donald Trump made the announcement from his favorite platform, lauding the new nominee for the secretary of state - current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo - before ever-so briefly thanking Tillerson for his tenure.

This is an ignominious, but nonetheless unsurprising end to Mr Tillerson's time leading the diplomatic staff in Foggy Bottom. His tenure was uninspiring and he frequently clashed with the president due to their differing personalities, management styles and overall worldviews.

What kind of legacy will Rex Tillerson leave with? 

Fracturing the diplomatic arm

In all likelihood, historians will not look back kindly on Mr Tillerson's time at the State Department. Tillerson, at his best, is unmemorable for any significant foreign policy achievements. This is not entirely his fault, though.

Only in this administration would a president nominate someone with no diplomatic experience to facilitate the "soft power" mechanism of the US government and then make that nominee's job even tougher by undermining his authority at every turn.

Tillerson was less assertive and confrontational than other US foreign policy players such as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley or National Security Adviser HR McMaster, so he often seemed absent from the most pressing foreign policy questions.

At his worst, though, Tillerson decimated the State Department and has jeopardised US diplomatic work for the foreseeable future

His deferential nature also clashed with Trump's bombastic approach, causing them to disagree on major issues and usually leading to Tillerson being sidelined in favour of those who share Trump's worldview.

At his worst, though, Tillerson decimated the State Department and has jeopardised US diplomatic work for the foreseeable future.

Any Secretary of State before him would not have stood for the deliberate destruction of such an important institution, let alone facilitated it.

While there is no arguing that the department's sprawling bureaucracy is in need of critical reform, Tillerson and the rest of the Trump administration offered huge, costly budgetary cuts - making even the close-fisted, GOP-held Congress members balk - and failed to staff even a portion of some of the most crucial positions.

Tillerson failed to staff even a portion of some of the most crucial positions

Indeed, including Tillerson's departure, eight of the nine most senior positions at the State Department are vacant, not to mention the dozens of ambassador positions that do not have so much as even a nominee.

Failure - or refusal - to fill positions is one thing, but the secretary also oversaw one of the largest, most systematic depletions of talent and institutional memory the department has ever seen. Many senior members opted for early retirement and/or contract buyouts to escape the State Department.

Read more: Trump, Tillerson and the State of disarray

For the younger personnel, however, the poor working environment, low morale and underappreciation that accompanied it were simply too much to bear. Promising diplomats and analysts bolted for more lucrative and less chaotic jobs elsewhere. 

A man of little power 

Nowhere is the US diplomatic presence arguably more crucial than in the Middle East and, as such, nowhere was the contrast between President Trump and Secretary Tillerson more stark.

Trump and Tillerson fundamentally differ on many pressing issues involving the numerous conflicts and competitions taking place in the region. While Tillerson urged the president to strengthen, not destroy the JCPOA, Trump has threatened to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal.

Tillerson urged caution and diplomacy in the GCC crisis, while Trump offered a full-throated endorsement of the Saudi-led siege of Qatar. On any of these issues, it was clear that where Tillerson and Trump differed, Tillerson was frequently left out in the cold. 

Consider states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other authoritarian regimes. To them, Tillerson will likely be remembered as an annoyance that had to be tolerated but that could ultimately be ignored.

Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew that if they could win over President Trump, little of what Tillerson had to say mattered.

In the cases of Egypt and Bahrain, Tillerson acted on his authority to punish the regimes for their poor human rights records, but it ultimately changed their behaviour very little.

For those who found themselves on the wrong side of President Trump, Rex Tillerson - rightly or wrongly - will likely be remembered as a stabilising force in an otherwise chaotic White House.

Qatar, for instance, can credit Tillerson, along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and McMaster, with moderating President Trump's position towards it.

Like Trump, Pompeo has a bombastic, confrontational view of the world and America's place in it

Tillerson, who favours diplomacy over drastic unilateral action, worked with the president's other top officials to walk back his position and recognise that all the GCC states have their problems, and that a unified Gulf is in the United States' best interests.

For everyone else, Tillerson will likely be remembered as an inconsequential diplomat who never had any authority to dictate US policy.

The Palestinians, like the rest of us, have probably heard that Tillerson was opposed to the president's decision to unilaterally declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But President Trump ignored Tillerson and the rest of the dissenters, and afterwards, the Palestinians had little reason to believe Tillerson spoke for anyone but himself. 

Mike Pompeo, the Trump whisperer or Trump enabler? 

Secretary of State-designate, Mike Pompeo, will, should he be confirmed, move from the CIA to the State Department as a man much more empowered than his predecessor.

Like Trump, Pompeo was a businessman before entering politics.

Like Trump, Pompeo came into office as a self-proclaimed outsider, riding popular anger towards the Washington establishment into office. And like Trump, Pompeo has a bombastic, confrontational view of the world and America's place in it.

Where Tillerson and Trump differed, Tillerson was frequently left out in the cold

Due to their common personalities and Pompeo's eagerness to please and ability to connect with the president, he takes up his new role with much more support from the Oval Office than Tillerson ever had. 

What does this mean for the US diplomatic corps and how will Pompeo's position on the Middle East differ?

Domestically, Pompeo has the potential to mend the haemorrhaging of talent, if he can leverage his personal support from the president to empower the department and boost the morale of career diplomats. Additionally, Pompeo may scrap Tillerson's beloved reorganisation plan that left the department understaffed.

On the Middle East, though, Pompeo can differ greatly, likely for the worst.

If one is inclined to view Tillerson as a moderating force, then that positive influence was replaced with someone much more in tune with Trump's confrontational, zero-sum view of the region.

Instead of practicing pragmatism and diplomacy, Pompeo is likely to further escalate the rhetoric against actors he views as problematic, such as Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Qatar and Hizballah.

So, any progress made towards ending the GCC crisis or restructuring the Iran nuclear under Tillerson's stewardship could be reversed under Pompeo.

Additionally, Pompeo brings a neoconservative point-of-view to other policy considerations and will likely enable Trump's worst tendencies.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.