Washington, D.C.

Where Trump zigs, Tillerson zags, putting him at odds with White House

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (center) with Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary, at a news conference in the Rose Garden.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (center) with Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary, at a news conference in the Rose Garden.

WASHINGTON — When Rex W. Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, arrived in Washington five months ago to become the secretary of state, his boosters said he brought two valuable assets to a job that had usually gone to someone steeped in government and diplomacy: a long history managing a global company, and deep relationships from the Middle East to Russia that enabled him to close deals.

But his first opportunity to use that experience — as a behind-the-scenes mediator in the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia — has put Tillerson in exactly the place a secretary of state does not want to be: in public disagreement with the president who appointed him.

Tillerson tried to position himself as an intermediary and sought for all sides to put their demands on the table. But President Donald Trump openly sided with the Saudis, first on Twitter, then again at a news conference. Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism at a very high level” just as the State Department was questioning whether the Saudis were using the terrorism charge to cover for “long-simmering grievances” between the Arab states.

Some in the White House say the discord in the Qatar dispute is part of a broader struggle over who is in charge of Middle East policy — Tillerson or Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser — and that the secretary of state has a tin ear about the political realities of the Trump administration. Others say it is merely symptomatic of a dysfunctional State Department that, under Tillerson’s uncertain leadership, does not yet have in place the senior political appointees who make the wheels of diplomacy turn.

But criticism from Trump’s aides is not Tillerson’s only problem. In recent days, each of his top priorities has hit a wall. The secretary’s effort to enlist China to force North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs has gone nowhere, as the president himself acknowledged last week. The Russians, angry about a congressional move to impose new sanctions, disinvited one of his top diplomats — leaving that crucial relationship at its lowest point since the Cold War.

And in Congress, where Tillerson once found members willing to give deference to his plans to reorganize and shrink the State Department, there is now anger and defiance.

In a remarkable series of hearings this month, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, declared Tillerson’s proposals for a 30 percent cut in the department’s budget a “waste of time” that he would not even review, and he expressed disbelief that the reorganization plan for the department would not be ready until the end of the year, at the earliest.

“It’s not that he’s a weak secretary of state or a strong one — he’s in a different category,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is writing the second volume of his history of U.S. foreign policy. “I have a hard time thinking of one who has come in with little foreign policy experience and has less interest in surrounding himself with the people who know something about the regions and issues that he has to deal with.”

In fact, Tillerson’s determination to rationalize the State Department structure — which many applaud — and his refusal to appoint under secretaries and assistant secretaries until he has it all figured out has created policy gridlock. Three foreign ambassadors — one from Asia and two from Europe — said they had taken to contacting the National Security Council because the State Department does not return their calls or does not offer substantive answers when they do.

Tillerson recently shut down the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example — whose role had been diminished since Richard Holbrooke had job the during President Barack Obama’s first term — and has yet to appoint an assistant secretary of state for south and Central Asian affairs, at a time when the Taliban’s return and Pakistan’s instability are major threats.

When he attended a series of recent meetings on Afghanistan, Tillerson was accompanied by only his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, who is a former U.S. Patent and Trademark official and technology executive with no diplomatic experience.

There is also no one in line for the Asia policy job, just when there is talk about whether the North Korea crisis will be defused by negotiation or steam toward conflict.

Through it all, Tillerson, a Texas native and engineer by training, has remained publicly stoic, proceeding at his own pace, though colleagues from his Exxon days say they have seen little evidence he is finding much joy in the job.

Running one of the world’s largest oil and gas company, Tillerson had complete authority. At the State Department, he finds himself negotiating with other power centers — from a White House with conflicting factions and priorities to the Defense Department — and managing a bureaucracy that largely cringes at the president’s approach to the world. Some senior diplomats have resigned over the administration’s policies, and many have signed letters of protest.

Accustomed as he is to having the final word it was clearly jarring for Tillerson, during a recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, to be out of sync with Trump’s tweets on the Qatar crisis. “I’m not involved in how the president constructs his tweets, when he tweets, why he tweets, what he tweets,” the secretary said.

Foreign governments do not know whether to believe Tillerson’s reassuring words or Trump’s incendiary statements. But there is also evidence of more substantive disagreements between Tillerson and the small cadre of White House officials who have taken a strong interest in setting Middle East policy, starting with Kushner.

In dealing with the Saudi leadership, which Tillerson knows well, Kushner argued for cultivating Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old son of King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was emerging as a rival to the crown prince at the time, Mohammed bin Nayef.

Tillerson warned against showing favoritism in the succession, and viewed the treatment of the young Prince Mohammed during a White House trip as too lavish. Kushner, it turned out, was betting on the right horse: The son displaced Mohammed bin Nayef last week as the crown prince, and will probably be the leader of Saudi Arabia for decades to come.

The rift widened when Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, argued for backing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries that had imposed an embargo on Qatar, ostensibly to punish it for financing the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups. Tillerson, who had relationships in Qatar dating from his time as the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, argued for the United States to take a neutral position in the dispute to keep the Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose association of mostly Sunni Arab states, together.

But the secretary’s efforts to play peacemaker were undercut by Trump’s statement. When the administration pressed Saudi Arabia and Egypt to draw up a list of demands for Qatar, a senior official said, Tillerson asked Qatar to do the same. Officials at the White House were nonplused.

Tillerson does have his supporters, such as James Jay Carafano, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “Frankly, the biggest criticisms really amount to he works for Trump and he doesn’t act like Kerry or Clinton,” he said. “He doesn’t like pandering to the media, and he is perplexed by Trump’s tweeting. That’s pretty vapid stuff.”

But usually by this point in their tenure, secretaries of state have made their focus clear. Hillary Clinton focused on the empowerment of women; John Kerry focused on an Iran nuclear deal and a failed effort at Middle East peace; and Condoleezza Rice made the spread of American democracy the theme of her term. If Tillerson has a larger vision beyond shrinking and reorganizing the State Department, he has offered no hint.

His rough beginning has led to a quiet effort by senior Republican officials from past administrations — including Henry A. Kissinger; Rice; and Robert M. Gates, former defense secretary — to reach out with advice. He has been told to lean more on the experience of career professionals, to become more confident in taking initiatives separate from a White House preoccupied by investigations and, above all, to move more quickly.

The closest Tillerson has come to articulating a strategic vision for his tenure came during a session with department employees in early May. In a freewheeling talk, operating without notes, Tillerson ran through each region of the world where the State Department is active — from the Middle East to Europe and Asia, touching on China and North Korea, asking how to “advance our interests in Afghanistan,” and how to keep terrorism from spreading through North and Central Africa.

“Let’s talk first about my view of how you translate ‘America First’ into our foreign policy,” he said, and then went on to describe an era in which American economic and security interests would be paramount.

To many in the department, Tillerson’s speech was notable for what it did not include. Over the previous five presidencies, questions of how to use American influence to advance the rights of minorities around the world, to negotiate a new arms control deal or to set norms of behavior for nations that attack each other with cyberweapons had become the focus of American diplomacy. Not anymore.

And when Tillerson spoke of human rights, it was to caution that, while the United States always treasures “freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated,” those values would often not be reflected in policies. Values, he warned, cannot be allowed to “create obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”

The issue became pointed during a congressional hearing this month when Tillerson conceded that, during dealings with Russia’s leaders, he had never discussed the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. “Those are on our pending list,” the secretary said.

When asked to specifically condemn such targeted attacks in Russia, he said, “That is our position globally.” And when pressed further, he snapped, “Last time I checked, Russia is part of the globe.”

To many State Department employees, Tillerson is something of a phantom, who says little in staff meetings, rarely leaves his seventh-floor office — where he is surrounded by Peterlin and a small group of protective aides — and does not solicit their views.

Since he became secretary, the torrent of words that once flowed from the State Department in daily briefings, speeches and statements — helping to refine and set policy in embassies around the world — has slowed to a trickle. Tillerson has rarely held “background” briefings with reporters to explain his views.

His reticence has become so well known that even the president gently ribbed him about it recently when the two were in Saudi Arabia, volunteering the secretary to conduct a briefing where no American reporters were present.

Tillerson’s aides say his approach is as refreshing as the new décor in the State Department’s seventh-floor offices, where the art and colors of the American West now hang, rather than paintings of long-dead diplomats.

“He thinks like a cowboy,” Tillerson’s strategic adviser, R.C. Hammond, said recently. Likening words to ammunition, Hammond added, “You carry a revolver with only six shots, and you don’t waste your bullets.”

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