Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Rex Tillerson — still unqualified to be secretary of state

U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson gives an opening statement during the ASEAN-U.S. Ministerial meeting of the 50th Association of Southeast Asia Nations Regional Forum in suburban Pasay city southeast of Manila, Philippines Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017. (Erik De Castro/Pool Photo via AP)

Erik De Castro/AP

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

In January, when Rex Tillerson testified before Congress in his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, it was obvious that he is unqualified to be America’s top diplomat.

The past seven months haven’t provided much confidence that he’s growing into the job borne out those concerns. Tillerson has spoken publicly of separating American values from US interests and has pushed to minimize the role of US diplomacy in promoting democracy around the world. In international settings he appears to be out of his league, as the White House has repeatedly contradicted or undercut Tillerson on diplomatic matters, making him look more like a caretaker than an effective secretary of state.

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But perhaps the biggest problem with Tillerson is something that one might not expect from the former CEO of one of the world’s largest companies — he stinks at management.

Tillerson has adhered to a hiring freeze, endorsed the White House’s call for a 31 percent cut in the department’s budget and a 9 percent staff reduction, and, most alarmingly, has failed to nominate candidates for most of the department’s top-ranking jobs. He has even banned the lateral move of State employees to other offices and bureaus. The result is an agency, micro-managed by Tillerson and his tiny coterie of close aides, with crisis-level morale problems.

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Tillerson’s excuse for the delays in hiring is that he’s waiting for the results of an agency-wide review of the department. Few who have worked at State (as I did in the late ’90s) or are familiar with the agency would question the need for reorganization, but in the meantime Tillerson has made it nearly impossible for anyone at the department to do their job.

In July he revoked “decision-making powers” for the agency’s remaining senior leaders. According to a recent dispatch in The New York Times, this has led to the utter absurdity of Tillerson and his aides personally editing pro forma greetings to foreign countries on their national holidays and reviewing the hiring of diplomatic spouses in US embassies. Action memos languish in Tillerson’s office as do employees with no direction from Tillerson or his staff.

Further compounding State’s morale problem and the agency’s larger inaction is that Tillerson, like the president who selected him, appears to believe that the only purpose of US diplomacy is to work toward the furthering of US economic and military interests. As Daniel Drezner has pointed out in his voluminous critiques of Tillerson, the secretary of state has adopted a bizarrely literal view of his job — namely that the predominant rationale for diplomacy is to talk with foreign governments.

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But conducting outreach to civil society groups, political activists, and dissidents; promoting democracy and standing up for human rights, even if only rhetorically; holding war criminals accountable; even attending international meetings, are all elemental to making the world safer and more prosperous. Quite simply, a world in which countries are democratic, adhere to the rule of law, and uphold the dignity of all their citizens contributes directly to global peace stability and — in terms Tillerson might understand — makes other countries more capable of vibrant economic and commercial relationships with the United States. Viewing such diplomatic priorities as being about promoting American values — as Tillerson has suggested in both words and deeds — indicates a fundamental and disturbing ignorance about international affairs.

In short, Tillerson isn’t just over his head, he is also presiding over the systematic dismantling of the State Department and the direct undermining of America’s global leadership role.

But without a functioning diplomatic agency, US influence will inevitably suffer, and in a rules-based international system (one created by several generations of US diplomats), US interests will suffer as well.

What’s remarkable about Tillerson is that he’s not just bad at one part of this job — he’s bad at every part. But I do have a solution. Apparently Tillerson is deeply frustrated at the White House and Congress, feels overwhelmed by the challenges of the job, and is thinking of stepping down. With the caveat that no one should have any confidence in the person Trump would nominate to replace him, the best thing Tillerson could do for himself and the State Department is to quit. Even Trump would be hard-pressed to find someone worse.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.
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