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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participates in a news conference with Nigeria's Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama (not pictured) in Abuja, Nigeria, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC1C110E58C0

4 experts grade Rex Tillerson’s short tenure as secretary of state

With one tweet, President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that Rex Tillerson would no longer lead the State Department.

Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, served just more than 13 months as secretary of state. His tenure was one of the shortest in the agency’s history, as detailed by The Washington Post here.

During Tillerson’s time in office, 60 percent of the State Departments’ top-ranking career diplomats left the agency, and new applications to join the foreign service fell by half, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association. Tillerson also leaves office as the U.S. prepares for historic talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, an effort Tillerson said in departing remarks that he had helped lead.

We asked experts what they thought about Tillerson and his tenure, the State Department he leaves behind and the challenges that face CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who Trump nominated to fill the position.

Tillerson didn’t have “any chance of succeeding despite all of his deficits and liabilities,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center and a former State Department adviser to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. Miller said that Tillerson was doomed to fail because he was never empowered by Trump. “And not only did Trump not empower him, he disempowered him,” Miller added. “He disempowered him by allowing a thousand flowers to bloom: Jared Kushner became the point person on the Arab-Israeli issue. Gary Cohn got what remained of climate change. Jim Mattis … is running three wars. Nikki Haley was basically talking about everything that a secretary of state would have talked about.”

… but Tillerson also “played a bad hand badly.” “Redesign at the State Department made him appear to be a CEO and not a terribly adept one. Morale plummeted. He served, to some degree, as an enabler of Donald Trump’s efforts to reduce and cut State [Department] in the budget,” Miller said. “He was virtually invisible, when a secretary of state needs to speak out and articulate American foreign policy. All of that is on Tillerson.”

Tillerson and Trump couldn’t see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, including the Iran Nuclear Deal. The PBS NewsHour’s Daniel Bush outlines some of those disagreements here.

Tillerson never quite made the transition from corporate CEO to government leader, and “undermined himself by making several grievous managerial mistakes,” Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an email to the PBS NewsHour.

Among them, Patrick says:

  • Tillerson concentrated policy deliberations and decision-making among a group of small advisers, “rather than delegating responsibility for policy formulation to knowledgeable officials in the relevant regional and functional bureaus.”
  • He restructured the bureau, “a useless and time-consuming distraction that diverted attention and resources away from actually handling the world’s most pressing challenges.”
  • He failed to fill senior appointments, “leaving multiple departmental bureaus without an assistant secretary of state a year into his tenure.”

Tillerson’s “allergy to media engagement may have been a valuable survival skill for an energy company CEO” but not for a government leader. In politics, “favorable press can make or break a reputation,” Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Brooking Institution’s Foreign Policy program, wrote in an email. Ultimately, “the absence of allies and influence eroded any prospect of impact or longevity.”

Yet some feel Tillerson was underrated with “much better diplomatic skills and instincts than most Washingtonians gave him credit for,” Maloney said. “In a less dysfunctional administration he might have had the opportunity put those skills and instincts to better use.”

Who wins and who loses with Tillerson out? Internationally, “the big winners are Japan, Israel, the UAE, and Saudi [Arabia]. The big losers are North Korea, Iran, China and Qatar,” said Kenneth Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute.

Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA and former Kansas congressman, could have “one advantage Tillerson lacked: the president’s ear,” Patrick said.“Director Pompeo is intelligent and strategic, asks the right questions, and doesn’t have his own agenda as Secretary Tillerson did,” Weinstein said.

“But the biggest question is whether Pompeo, whose loyalty has endeared him to the president, will stand up to Trump,” Patrick said, “when the latter threatens to create diplomatic chaos or recklessly ignores threats to the United States.” “Mike Pompeo inherits a State Department that has been marginalized in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and where staff morale is at rock bottom,” he added.

Ultimately, “some of Tillerson’s fiercest critics may soon find themselves nostalgic for his relatively reasonable point of view,” said Maloney. While the State Department may become more influential in this administration with Pompeo at the helm, we’re likely to see “more provocative and disruptive American foreign policy that will be even more out of step” with the “majority of the professional diplomatic corps.”

The PBS NewsHour’s Larisa Epatko and Layla Quran contributed reporting to this story.

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