The firing of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was inevitable but Trump's leadership style of running the administration as his personal fiefdom likely means that the US State Department is just getting a change of face, not a change of culture.
The “moron” quip might have been the first nail in the coffin for Rex Tillerson, a lacklustre Secretary of State who didn’t come to the job burdened with high expectations.
But Trump’s most senior foreign diplomat has been going rogue ever since he took the position and has been working off script since at least the summer of last year when he lost his patience entirely with Trump.
More recently he began to operate autonomously, speaking about Russia’s involvement in the UK spy poisoning (which went much further than Trump’s line) and acknowledging Hezbollah as a political contender in the Middle East - which must have irked Trump’s close anti Iran hawks, not least of all Mike Pompeo (who was subsequently handed Tillerson's job).
But Tillerson’s own limited diplomacy skills was really what killed him off in Trump’s own inner circle. To try and upstage Trump around the world – recently suggesting that any talks with North Korea couldn’t happen – is bad enough; but to be so dazzlingly ineffective as well ultimately made his exit inevitable.
Indeed, Trump’s decision to remove him also tells us a lot about the US President who is confident at home with the economy but increasingly worried that the international stage will scupper his chances of a second term in office.
What we are witnessing is Trump’s realisation that resolving intractable problems like North Korea, Iran and even Syria – not to mention trade with the EU - is much harder than he originally figured during his campaign.
This moment is also a culmination of employing second rate officials who are sycophantic rather than genuinely effective with the tasks at hand. Nothing seems to get done.
It’s all about Iran
In particular, the Iran debacle, which threatens to make Trump look impotent in the Middle East, is beginning to vex the US president.
Trump and Tillerson both had different views about the so-called Iran deal – which as each day passes makes Iran stronger – but Trump’s constant tweeting to ‘correct’ his statements on North Korea and Qatar must have also got under Tillerson’s skin. But when Emirati businessmen are lobbying Trump to fire Tillerson over the Qatar fiasco, you know your number’s up.
Trump’s business model for how he wants to run the White House and the State Department is identical to how he would run a company: total control. Tillerson was never one of the ‘yes men’ which surround Trump.
His replacement, the current CIA director Mike Pompeo, sees eye-to-eye with Trump on Iran and we can expect a more bullish approach towards getting Iran to water down its ballistic missile program and negotiating some of the sunset clauses in the current agreement which curtail Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Put bluntly, it will take a Secretary of State with real fortitude to say to the Europeans ‘look, we’ll cut you some slack on aluminium and steel tariffs if you can convince the Iranians to scrap their ballistic program’.
The problem with Tillerson is that he was always seen as a messenger and not a player and was never going to pull off such a vivacious stunt. And the adage of ‘leading by example’ — which he was unable to execute — resulted in record low numbers of job applications for state department posts, not to mention an inexorable brain drain of the current staff.
In South Korea he was unable to appoint an ambassador and it is precisely these kinds of negative points which have been niggling the president, who some believe was ready to fire Tillerson in early January.
Indeed, it was only their friendship which kept him in the job for so long but the tweet from Trump suggests that it was a capricious move by him after late night phone calls to cronies after perhaps being annoyed by one of Tillerson’s latest gaffes.
On the international circuit, Trump has little to balk about, which is why he has seized so much on North Korea’s move to agree to talk. He knows that making the US big on the world stage is all about winning elections.
But the total denial of traditional diplomatic methods, Trump’s style, is one that can backfire in a big way.
If the talks don’t pay dividends, Trump will worry that he will look like a president who is only capable of the inane sound bite and nothing else. Trump’s cronies no doubt told him on Monday ‘you’ll need someone with real diplomatic charisma to help with the Korea talks’. And that person was never going to be Tillerson — a man who makes a pile of damp towels look exciting — and who has almost revelled in a phobia towards achievement.
Tillerson managed nothing in office which could be generously referred to as an achievement and this must be resonating with Trump who employs people with only one purpose: to make him shine.
The North Korea talks have merely sped up the inevitable although the mid-May deadline for Trump waiving sanctions for the Iran nuclear deal is also a factor.
It was less a shock that Tillerson was fired but rather more of how the news came, suggesting that Trump’s patience had also snapped.
But Pompeo’s appointment won’t help Trump in Iran, despite understanding the importance for retaining relations with the White House, the Pentagon and the state department itself (which Tillerson didn’t); a tougher anti-Iran hawk will only feed the echo chamber and make Trump look even more foolish than ever.
We should not forget that Trump is so fabulously ignorant about the Middle East that when he took office he had to ask Michael Flyn who was America’s greatest enemy there (who told him it was Iran).
Pompeo may well lead Trump into a military situation with Iran as trying to re-write the Iran deal will test America’s fortitude: to afford to make mistakes in the Middle East.
Tillerson at least knew that and will no doubt be of use to Trump as he joins the select cabal of cronies who Trump calls up late at night.
He may well even get Trump to follow his advice now. Ironically, Tillerson was pragmatic about Iran although he never reached out to Iran’s leaders; Pompeo, who regularly calls Iran “terrorists” and compares Tehran to ISIS (Daesh), has written many letters to senior figures. Perhaps now they might reply.
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