Turning Rex T. into T. Rex

by Robert E. Hunter

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the latest figure in the Trump administration to be featured in the mainstream media, and not in a flattering way. Traditionally, when a cabinet officer falls afoul of the media, egged on by leakers and backstabbers in the government who will not give their names, that is curtains: not whether but when.

That may happen to Tillerson. But before it does, some assessment is useful.

To be sure, Tillerson assumed office with little formal diplomatic service and none in the US government. But as head of one of the largest global corporations, with a career of foreign engagement, he cannot be said to be a naïf. The craft of oil-seeking is different from that of agreement-seeking on foreign policy issues, but the two require some of the same talents and techniques.

Four-Fold Challenge

Tillerson’s first challenge is that he has had little experience having to deal with the craziness endemic in public positions in Washington: it can be bewildering, and it takes time to grow a thick skin, as any seasoned (and honest) political operative can attest.

Second, he was used to dealing in a different management culture, one more akin to the military—but not entirely—where orders from the top are intended to be followed. Of course, the military and presumably ExxonMobil as well, have their internal politics, but that is not the same thing as having to deal with the so-called interagency process, where a host of different and differing satrapies compete intensely with one another, often with sharp elbows, in order to get across their personal and institutional points of view. In theory, the president is the “decider” and can require his or her underlings to behave, but that would mean doing nothing else in life but sort out struggles between great egos and institutional fiefdoms. It won’t happen.

The third problem Tillerson has is dealing with the most erratic president in US history, certainly in foreign policy. Policy by tweet is unprecedented, as well as the raging inconsistency that Donald Trump has made into an art form, far beyond Richard Nixon’s effort on occasion to look more erratic then he really was in order to disorient the nation’s enemies or Dwight Eisenhower’s deliberate circumlocutions to deal with difficult press conference questions. Trump is a definite puzzle, even to his closest associates, and certainly to the bureaucracy as a whole, not to say everyone else around the world. Tillerson must make has way as secretary of state within this ever-shifting minefield.

Fourth, even with a full team in place and a non-dysfunctional president, any new secretary of state would be hard pressed to master so many issues and gain an honored and respected role in Washington for his (or her) institution. None of Tillerson’s predecessors was similarly handicapped. Every administration has crises, but most officials learn fairly early—I call it the 6-month rule—to create a means of dealing with them, no matter how many are thrown at the United States at the same time. So no bellyaching, please, or commentary that “this is the most difficult time for the United States…ever.” Nonsense. World War II and the Cold War were far more dangerous and challenging times for the nation.

Maybe Tillerson has already decided to leave his job. Maybe Trump has already decided to sack him and has set the dogs quietly on him to preserve plausible deniability. But let us assume that none of this has yet happened.

What Tillerson Should Do

First Tillerson must show, far more than he has already, that he values the people who work for him. . Any manager worth his salt knows how to do that – and Tillerson has collected a lot of “salt” in his career. There is indeed some “bloat” in the State Department that Tillerson is wisely, up to a point, trimming—such as abolishing most of the plethora of special envoys who have been in the way of getting work done and oftimes are more about egos than effective action. But just about everyone in the State Department is a professional. No matter how many opposed Trump’s election, almost all will do their best to help their boss and the president succeed abroad.

Regrettably, as a team player, Tillerson accepted from the beginning that State’s budget should be cut by about 30% (Congress, fortunately, is resisting), while the Defense Department is gettng an injection of about as much extra cash as State’s entire budget. Yet one of the most critical lessons the United States should have taken on board since its relative predominance in the world began to slip—naturally, as facts of power ineluctably changed—is that integrating all the different instruments of power and influence is an absolute requirement. As Barack Obama wisely put it, “Just because we have the best hammer [military] does not mean that every problem is a nail.” Other countries, notably China, India, and Russia, have looked on in bewilderment—and anticipation—while recent administrations failed to get this one right, as the military dominance of US policy in the Middle East has amply demonstrated.

The second thing, and Tillerson has by now heard this ad nauseum, is to get a team fully in place. As someone recently wrote, operating as he does now would be like trying to discover oil at ExxonMobil without any engineers. People in “acting” positions, perhaps worthy foreign service officers all, just don’t suffice. They have no political backing and are not taken seriously on Capitol Hill, where the imprimatur of Senate confirmation is a must. Yes, there can be “workarounds,” which would be for the secretary to search quietly about the State Department building or among FSO retirees or qualified outside experts (with security clearances) to act as an informal kitchen cabinet (blowback from the White Housed be damned).

The third thing is to get a thorough education in the key issues facing the nation. This is not meant to be patronizing. Any new senior officer needs to do that learning. The first new secretary of state appointed after the end of the Cold War had been out of government and the foreign policy business for 12 years, during which time the world went through one of its most profound earthquakes ever. But more than just “getting to speed” is required. That is an argument not just for the above—getting an experienced team in place, formal or informal—but also getting the planning and strategy function up to snuff. Regrettably, that has been largely lacking in the State Deparment more-or-less continually since the end of the Cold War made the US the sole superpower and seemed, incorrectly, to obviate the need for the strategic thinking that had been indispensable in the Cold War. George H.W. Bush was the last president who came into office with any foreign policy experience and the last to value solid analysis and rigorous planning. Again, this should be mother’s milk to a former head of a private-sector colossus.

Next on this short list is the need for the secretary, like any incoming cabinet officer, to review his own attitudes, experience, and prejudices. His recent forays into Middle East issues reflect a lot of the wildness that emerges from the Oval Office and thus are not Tillerson’s fault. But his errors of policy and judgment also seem to reflect attitudes that were foisted on this former president of ExxonMobil by Middle East Arab oil producers, notably Saudi Arabia. As a prime example, maybe Tillerson really believes what he says about Iran and its role and ambitions in the region, as does Trump, though maybe Tillerson is just toeing the line the White House has drawn for him to follow. But if he really believes much of what he says about the Middle East, despite nine months on the job, then the nation has a real problem, and the chances of a workable foreign policy for the region are even poorer than if the secretary of sState had a capacity for clear thinking about problems he has never confronted before and a staff to provide him with alternatives that would put American interests first. The people able to do this exist, both in the professional cadres of the administration and among retired people with lots of government experience. With some exceptions, they aren’t in the administration (and weren’t in the last two.)

If Not Rex, Who?

What is going on the minds of Trump and Tillerson on the issue of the secretary’s longevity in office is opaque. Also, there are bomb-throwers in the wings, including Steve Bannon, who is still trying to bring down the government and, perhaps unwittingly, thereby damaging America’s interests in the world and its security against foreign threats and challenges. Further, some media commentators are producing a short list of not-particularly-qualified replacements for Tillerson.

This list includes the US representative at the United Nations, Nikki Haley, whose chief qualification to be secretary of state is that, before getting her current position, she had zero experience in foreign policy. Putting her in Foggy Bottom would thus create some kind of record.

The best bet for the country right now is for Tillerson to stay and for him to recognize his need to learn lessons of both policy and management, including the effective use of the people he has working for him. If so, then when he goes to meetings in the White House Situation Room, there will not be a person from State sitting at the table who can be characterized, as was said about one of his predecessors, the “man in the empty suit.” He will then become a real player. The country would thus be better served than it is now.

Photo: Rex Tillerson (U.S. Embassy Seoul).

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Solid commentary. It suggest that there is no substitute for experience. But experience can be mistaken, even misleading. Like war, armies tend to prepare based on the last conflict. The foreign service does not escape this tendency. Recall that some of our greatest Secretaries of State did not get the bumps on their rattles “in house.” Marshall, Acheson, and Kissinger were “out house” products. The force fields affecting foreign policy are numerous, like “a thousand flowers blooming.” Technology, for example, produces unanticipated conditions. The power of the atom is still like a wild hair that defies control. The development of fracking, for example, is exerting a major impact on relations with the Middle East, and Russia. “Insanity” in national leadership produces unforeseen problems. Natural, and national disasters, may not be anticipated, e.g., Ebola, forced migrations. And there are more…

    The Department of State does not/cannot(?) prepare for the unforeseen. When it occurs, it is addressed by the resources available at the time from anywhere….Defense, CIA, DHS, the private sector. State may be the residue of practical/past practices, useful when undertaking the familiar, but unequipped to address the emerging unforeseen.

  2. Tillerson is playing a losing hand.
    > Trump’s generals, who have no education, no inclination and no experience in foreign policy are in change of critical foreign policy — Afghanistan, Korea, Africa etc..
    > Tillerson has been left with countering China. Thanks for that! So Tillerson has resurrected the New Silk Road and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, two pathetically weak strategies that are a proper symbol of Tillerson’s weakness. Oh, he gets to pick on Iran too, like it’s anything new.

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