Friday, March 17, 2017

The Silent Secretary?

The Silent Secretary?

Only time will tell if former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson is simply bringing a new, lower key approach to his new job, or is allowing himself to be sidelined by the president.

By Curt Mills, Staff Writer March 16, 2017, at 3:21 p.m. 

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo, on March 15, 2017. Tillerson will visit Japan, South Korea and China with tensions soaring in the region.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo, on March 15, 2017. (TORU HANAI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Asia this week, and will reportedly lay the groundwork in Beijing for President Donald Trump's tentative April summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
After years of the Obama administration championing a U.S. "pivot to Asia," potentially in vain, all eyes will be on how Tillerson represents the Trump administration in his most substantial overseas trip yet as secretary.
But what should be a triumphant moment for Tillerson -- the former Exxon chief getting to showcase his international bona fides touted during his Senate confirmation hearings -- has instead increasingly become a stressful moment for his State Department.
Foggy Bottom has to had to swat down building speculation that Tillerson and his department are being marginalized by the president. A running narrative among some in Washington is that the secretary is not yet trusted by the White House, and that Tillerson is actively avoiding the media.
"We are certainly seeing a muted State Department," former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told U.S. News. Crowley served in that capacity from 2009 to 2011 after a long career in public service, including a stint on the National Security Council staff, and decades in the military.
"Part of that is a lack of a team," Crowley says. Normally at this point in a new administration, "you would have new undersecretaries, new assistant secretaries, traveling around the world, making connections, and beginning to articulate the Trump foreign policy. None of that is happening yet."
Apparent infighting in the administration has thwarted the appointment of a principal deputy for Tillerson, a position that would have to be Senate-confirmed. Tillerson helped nix the appointment of controversial former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. And the White House quashed the appointment of Elliott Abrams, a Reagan and George W. Bush official, who was  deeply critical of Trump during the campaign.

Foggy Bottom saw a slew of senior departures -- some voluntary, some customary resignations at the change of administration, others reportedly at the behest of the White House-- soon after the inauguration in January. This is an administration in general that seems averse to Obama-era holdovers, with allies of the president such as Newt Gingrich chiding a "deep state" of career government officials determined to thwart the president, and some thinkers close to Trump keen to follow up on the "drain the swamp" rhetoric of the national campaign. Despite this, the skeletal appointment list presented so far by Tillerson forced him to rely on five acting assistant secretaries on his trip to Europe last month.
In addition to State alumni, the early days of Tillerson's tenure have seen concerned analyses from some international relations academics, as well.
"Tillerson's position here is very weak. President Donald Trump has shown his lack of faith in him," Columbia University professor Robert Jervis wrote bluntly last week in Foreign Policy magazine. "He does not appear to have been consulted before then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn took the White House podium to announce that Iran was now 'on notice' not to conduct further provocative missile tests."
On top of the existing staffing challenges, the administration is pushing budgetary cuts to the State Department, partially as a means of beefing up the military.
"Most dramatically," Jervis writes. "[Tillerson] has not been able to stave off Trump's proposal for deep cuts in the budget for diplomacy and foreign aid." 
Tillerson reportedly did lobby the president down from a cut as large as 37 percent, but on Thursday it was confirmed the president will still advocate for an almost 29 percent cut to State.
Secretary of State is very arguably the most coveted position in any administration. Tillerson emerged as the surprise choice after only two meetings with Trump, despite them having no relationship prior to Trump's election victory. Tillerson backed Trump's rival Jeb Bush. But when the nascent administration was deliberating on who to pick, Tillerson reportedly gained the support of White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon, Trump's former campaign CEO who has inherited a broad and powerful portfolio in Washington.
When Tillerson was selected in December, concerns often focused on the prospect that a titan of private industry, with extensive foreign experience, would become too powerful. By its own admission, ExxonMobil "facilities or market products in most of the world's countries" and explores for oil and natural gas on six continents.
"The news that President-elect Donald Trump is expected to nominate Rex Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, as his Secretary of State is astonishing on many levels," wrote New Yorker writer Steve Coll in December, who published a mammoth, often critical book on Tillerson and Exxon in 2013. "As an exercise of public diplomacy, it will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources."
Others highlighted his international business experience as proof of his preparedness to advocate for his country.

Tillerson's name was originally floated by Robert Gates, the former Defense secretary and CIA director. He eventually went on to garner the support of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former NSA chief Stephen Hadley as well.
"I believe I have a pretty good idea about how he thinks about the world, and the challenges we face," Gates told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January. "Against a backdrop of having known, or worked with, 12 secretaries of state, I believe Mr. Tillerson is superbly qualified… He is deeply knowledgeable about the international scene and geopolitics. And importantly, would be an informed and independent adviser to the president."
But Gates, reached by U.S. News this week, declined to discuss Tillerson's early tenure.
For some veteran observers, the department's basic competence and relevance have been openly called into question in recent weeks. Foggy Bottom only recently began doing press briefings, after an unprecedented hiatus since the inauguration.
"I mean, you're 2 hours and 6 minutes from takeoff. Is it really so hard to find out whether there's a reporter on the plane?" complained one reporter at the State Department media briefing on Tuesday, asking if any media members whatsoever would be allowed to travel with Tillerson to Asia.
It was later announced that one reporter from the International Journal Review would be traveling with Tillerson. Erin McPike has previously worked at CNN, NBC and RealClearPolitics, but does not frequently cover the State Department.
Tillerson's trek comes at a time of several acute situations -- concerns that China and the U.S. will embark on a trade war, and North Korea appears increasingly belligerent. U.S. ally South Korea has been thrown into an unprecedented internal political crisis with the impeachment and subsequent removal of President Park Geun Hye from office. The new U.S. administration has staked out a very strong pro-Japanese stance, potentially inflaming relations with the Chinese and North Koreans. 
Earlier this month State spokesman Mark Toner, who once served as Crowley's deputy, seemed to be caught completely off-guard that the Mexican foreign minister was in Washington meeting with White House officials Gary Cohn, Jared Kushner and H.R. McMaster. This was after Tillerson visited Mexico just weeks prior, meeting with Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray, fueling speculation that Mexico City's top diplomat assessed that the real power in U.S. diplomacy rests squarely in the White House.
For Crowley, this wasn't as concerning, however.
"I don't put too much stock in that," Crowley said of the incident. "I'm very confident the State Department was aware of his presence. … I think if the foreign minister is making a low-key trip to Washington, I think that's by design .. [and] I think from the standpoint of the Mexican government, they understand that when it comes to resolving questions around the wall, and resolving questions around border security, and the renegotiation of NAFTA, the answers to those questions are at the White House. And the answers to those questions are probably in the Oval Office. And nowhere else."
It could all be purely scheduling conflicts, or an administration and secretary determined to take a lower-key approach than famously jet-setting predecessors, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. 
But concerns abound as Tillerson has sent proxies to key meetings at the White House. And it was Vice President Mike Pence, not Tillerson, who represented the U.S. at a major security conference in February in Berlin, along with frequent Trump antagonist Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Though it may seem to many that much has happened since Donald Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, it is early yet in this administration and even earlier in this State Department headed by Tillerson. But it is clear in the early going there is concern about the possibility that Tillerson will wind up being something few expected when he was first nominated: a non-factor.

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