Trump, Tillerson and the State of disarray

Trump, Tillerson and the State of disarray
Comment: Rex Tillerson's departure leaves Secretary of Defense James Mattis as the lone, relative voice of restraint on US policy in the Middle East, writes Andrew Leber.
6 min read
14 Mar, 2018
During his time in office, Tillerson gutted the US senior diplomatic corps [Getty]
The headlines were no doubt brainstormed months in advance, at newsroom gatherings to place odds on the next appointee to bow out or be forced out of the viper's nest-cum-trash fire that is the Trump administration.

This week, those who placed their bets on Rex Tillerson's ouster are cashing in. Since last summer, profiles of the now-outgoing secretary have been forecasting his departure from a position that - by his account - he "didn't want… [and] didn't seek".

At the helm of the State Department, Tillerson did what American conservatives in power do best - dismantle time-tested government machinery to the lasting loss of generations to come.

His signature accomplishment - beyond being publicly contradicted by his boss at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and shying away from the public - has being the gutting of the US senior diplomatic corps, and an atmosphere of gloom and despair within a perennially underfunded but invaluable part of America's foreign policy apparatus.

He has utterly failed at lobbying President Trump on behalf of the State Department, with over 50 ambassadorships yet to be filled. Within the Middle East and North Africa, nobody has even been nominated as ambassador to Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Turkey.

Stripping away the bureaucratic insulation between the person of the president and the Byzantine network of America's interests around the world has had clear consequences for the coherence of American foreign policy. 

Alongside ongoing concerns of a slapdash approach to a volatile situation in North Korea, US handling of the Gulf crisis between Qatar, on the one hand, and the quartet of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt has come under intense public scrutiny in recent weeks.

The fallout seems most likely to hit the Gulf first

A number of accounts have pointed to Jared Kushner's failure to secure a loan from Qatari investors for his family's endangered holdings at 666 5th Avenue (an ill-fated property name if ever there was one) as translating into an anti-Qatar stance in advising the president. This triggered a break with long-standing US support for GCC unity as President Trump egged on the dispute last June.

Such is the state of the administration and American politics that Tillerson's departure sparked opposing conspiracy theories as to which foreign power might have played a role in privately calling for his ouster. 

While initial attention focused on Tillerson's weekend criticisms of Russia, and a "who-knew-what-and-when" argument over the timing of the firing that saw a key Tillerson aide fired as well, others have pointed to the lobbying efforts of the United Arab Emirates.

Many leaders in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain were no doubt angered by Tillerson's stance in favour of a swift resolution to the crisis over any formal US pressure on Qatar (which hosts a major American military base). 

Abdelkhaleq Abdullah, a key Emirati political commentator, remarked on Twitter that "History will mention that 'a Gulf state' had a role in ousting the Foreign Minister of a great power, and that's just the tip of the iceberg." (In English, he sufficed with "Trump fires Rex Tillerson. The worst Sectary [sic] of State ever.”)

Meanwhile, Saudi English-language outlet Arab News pulled few punches in trashing Tillerson's career, with blogger Faisal Abbas blaming Tillerson for sitting out the Israel-Palestine issue (despite Jared Kushner being handed that portfolio wholesale), failing to make the 'anti-terror' quartet's case to Doha and to the president, and for potentially being under the sway of "officials stuck in the Obama era."

Read more: Kushner-gate and the Qatar blockade: Scandal of the century?

As with everything in the Trump administration, nothing changes for the better. John "adult-in-the-room" Kelly became chief of staff just in time to watch the president refer to white supremacists as "fine people" and to get involved in a number of ugly disputes himself.

Tillerson will be replaced by Mike Pompeo, a former congressman and current head of the CIA who led a years-long witch-hunt against Hillary Clinton and the State Department over attacks against US diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. 

Pompeo will be replaced by current Deputy Head of the CIA Gina Haspel, the first woman to hold the position but also one deeply involved in the agency's now-banned torture programme.

Dwindling numbers of plausibly competent individuals with some sway within the Trump inner circle are thus replaced by ever-more-radical ideologues

Dwindling numbers of plausibly competent individuals with some sway within the Trump inner circle are thus replaced by ever-more-radical ideologues, know-nothings and sycophants who will do little to curb the president's whims, save encouraging him down even darker paths of action.

As secretary of education Betsy Devos' widely-mocked CBS interview this past weekend made clear, those who remain in their positions by the end of this first term will be those that hunker down around their pet agendas, heeding the president's occasional tweets but mostly setting to the hard work of undermining public institutions, catering to some Americans' stored-up prejudices, and locking up as much wealth as possible in the hands of a chosen few.

Translation: "History will mention that 'a Gulf state' had a
role in ousting the Foreign Minister of a great power, and
that's just the tip of the iceberg."

Even the obviously true point that Trump has still done nowhere near as much damage abroad as former president George W. Bush is little comfort, when Bush-era hatemonger and ultrahawk John Bolton is in the running to be the next National Security Advisor.

The months ahead will demonstrate what sway Tillerson truly had as secretary of state, beyond hacking apart his institutional base of support in the ranks of America's all-but-unthanked diplomatic corps. 

So frequently was he overruled by the commander-in-chief that he may have lacked much clout to begin with, yet his presence at a minimum kept a more hawkish figure from spending yet more time lobbying the president and foreign leaders. His departure leaves Secretary of Defense James Mattis as (lone) voice of (relative) restraint on US policy in the Middle East and East Asia.

The fallout seems most likely to hit the Gulf first, as his departure appears to hand additional leverage to the quartet in their effort to force harsher terms on Qatar as the price of peaceful resolution to the dispute.

And just in time for some - Riyadh's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman heads to Washington some five days from now, where he will be greeted by President Trump and (if sworn in by then) Secretary of State Pompeo.

Andrew Leber is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard University.

Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMLeber

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