Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Why Tillerson Needs the Media

James P. Rubin, Politico

uncaptioned image from article

With his unorthodox approach to the presidency, especially his use of Twitter and his frequent diatribes against the press, Donald Trump has radically altered the U.S. approach to public diplomacy. Unfortunately, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, seems to share his low opinion of the media’s responsibility to report on American foreign policy.

The latest incident saw Secretary Tillerson and the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, taking questions about the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia from a group of international journalists that did not include members of the American press corps. U.S. journalists complained that they weren’t even given a head’s up about the briefing, a shocking breach of norms that took place in one of the least press-friendly countries on Earth—a place where a servile media parrots the government’s line at almost all times and where bloggers are given lashes for speaking out.

This is becoming a painful pattern for the diplomatic press corps at the State Department, as Tillerson is the first secretary in recent memory not to invite a press corps to accompany him on his international travel. Nor does he give many interviews, explaining, “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.”

It is probably no accident that this incident occurred in Saudi Arabia. Saudi leaders are famously press-shy and baffled by the American concept of freedom of the press. This was brought home to me back in 1998, in the run-up to the U.S. bombing of Iraq known as Desert Fox. One night, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called me into the desert tent of the late Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who was then the Saudi crown prince. After many hours of intense late night negotiations over U.S. military access to airfields in the kingdom, Albright wanted an update on the latest news. When she introduced me to Prince Abdullah and explained my job to him, his reaction was to offer me his condolences, saying, “You poor man, you have to deal with the press all the time. Oh you poor, poor man.”

I didn’t consider myself unlucky—dealing with the press goes with the territory in a democracy. But the Trump administration evidently sees things differently. Secretary Tillerson has institutionalized this new diminished cooperation with the media by freezing the State Department’s daily press briefing, which has not been held for the entire month of May and seems to be suspended indefinitely. Beyond the question of the signal this sends to the world about America’s attitude towards transparency and press freedom, this is short-sighted.

I was the State Department spokesman for almost four years, from 1997 through the middle of 2000. And while the daily briefing is no doubt a significant commitment of time and effort, I believe it served the media and the Clinton administration well. Now, in an era of Google, smartphones, and Twitter, the rationale for a daily authoritative articulation of U.S. policy seems even more compelling. If anything, given the speed of change in today’s world and the real-time dissemination of information available from all corners of the planet, it would seem that the administration’s views should be made available more often rather than less.

A regular briefing serves a variety of purposes. For a new administration, a regular public vetting of U.S. policies inspires confidence in Congress and in allied capitals that Washington is on top of the key international developments

In addition, given the speed of modern communication, some 10,000 American diplomats around the world often take their cue from statements in the daily briefing regarding the inclinations or analysis of top officials. Formal transmission of official policy statements is usually much slower. In a new administration, a spokesperson who can reflect the views of a new secretary of state is especially valuable, because Foreign Service officers, anxious to get a feel for their new leadership, will be able to quickly determine the underlying premises and the thinking of a new team from even short exchanges with the diplomatic press corps.

Those utterances aren’t just useful for American diplomats. Despite some backsliding in the recent years, nearly all U.S. friends, partners and allies are democratic governments, which by definition seek the consent of their populations to their foreign policies. As a practical matter, the specific elements and arguments used by the spokesman (or woman) to justify these policies can also serve as the underlying arguments for diplomats, commentators and opinion leaders to persuade publics in those other democratic countries of the wisdom of U.S. stances. Whether it is the need for Germany to spend more on defense or South Korea’s new president to remain vigilant against the North, a key function of American diplomacy is to persuade foreign publics, which in turn will bolster U.S. diplomacy with the governments in those same countries.

Furthermore, if the coherence and consistency of an administration view is able to withstand extensive questioning from the diplomatic press corps, which is widely regarded as the most knowledgeable and professional in Washington, then those policies are likely to be sustainable over the long haul. In which case (Trump aides, take note), top officials are far less likely to go off in different directions on Sunday talk shows, since the fuzziest parts of a policy have already been explored and adjusted as a result of regular briefings.

The briefings can serve the secretary’s personal interests, too. The fact that the government will have to answer international questions every day from the State Department podium also creates a requirement that other agencies accept the department’s leading role. Given the difficulty Secretary Tillerson has had establishing his primacy on foreign policy, a daily briefing can only help him within the administration.

In terms of bureaucratic politics, a daily briefing has real value. During the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, for instance, this bureaucratic advantage proved a sore point as each day Treasury would provide our economic bureau with detailed language, but State officials would be out front. When a mistake was made on one occasion, the frustration at Treasury boiled over. Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin decided to join an inter-agency conference call with lower-level officials in order to complain angrily that the mistake that day was because State did the briefing. The irony, of course, was that later it turned out that a Treasury official made the original mistake and then passed on the faulty language to State, but that wasn’t the point at the time.

A daily briefing is obviously not the only way to marshal support for administration policies or to conduct public diplomacy. But the downgrading of the daily briefing hasn’t happened in isolation. On the contrary, it appears to reflect Secretary Tillerson’s narrow conception of the department’s role. He has argued that behind-the-scenes diplomacy with his counterparts from Europe, Asia and the Middle East is his job, until such time as a new agreement or new policies are ready to be rolled out. Then and only then are public pronouncements useful. He seems to believe his predecessors were often driven more by the size of their ego than a sense of responsibility to the public.

In this respect, Tillerson may be relying too heavily on his background as an oil executive, where little is said publicly until an agreement is hammered out, at which point negotiating skills and discretion are the keys to success. But that model bears little resemblance to the art of international diplomacy and high politics on behalf of the world’s only superpower. Applying public pressure and explaining yourself is part of the job, too. And Tillerson’s hostility to the press is surely inappropriate for a moment in history when America’s leadership role is under challenge, thanks to the self-isolating label “America First” and to candidate Trump’s repeated criticisms of international institutions as bad deals for the United States.

When it comes to the public aspects of the job, Tillerson would be better off learning from two of his most successful Republic predecessors, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Both understood the importance of public opinion and public diplomacy in ensuring American leadership, in increasing their personal clout overseas and at home, in protecting the important prerogatives of the State Department, and in preventing adversaries like Russia from filling a vacuum in international affairs left by America’s absence. Indeed, Secretary Kissinger’s famous shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East included shuttling journalists from country to country so that America’s role was publicized while Moscow’s meddling in the region was downplayed.

At a minimum, Tillerson should consider the fact that there are important substantive reasons why, in a democracy, a global power with global responsibilities should articulate its international policies every day. And that it has nothing to do with the ego of the secretary of state. In fact, what’s arrogant is thinking you don’t have to explain yourself at all.

James P. Rubin is a former assistant secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration.

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