Why it probably doesn’t matter whether Tillerson stays or goes

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky write: In our combined 50-plus years at the State Department, neither of us ever witnessed as profound a humiliation as a sitting president handed his secretary of state Sunday morning.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president tweeted. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Even if they’re playing good cop-bad cop, this is a shocker: Donald Trump is basically announcing that any negotiations with North Korea are worthless. This not only undercut Tillerson personally, but also undermines U.S. interests and the secretary of state’s sensible decision to talk to the North Korean regime. To make matters worse, all of this is occurring while Tillerson is in Beijing to prepare for the president’s trip to China next month—so the president kneecapped his own top diplomat in front of America’s chief rival in Asia.

Is this the final straw for Tillerson? The secretary of state clearly has not helped himself. Through his budget cuts, his focus on departmental reorganization at the expense of appointing assistant secretaries, his reliance on a tiny inner circle of outsiders and his maladroit use of the press, Tillerson has isolated himself within his own department. The Beltway foreign policy blob has already written him off as the worst secretary of state in history, and clearly others are hovering (U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley says she doesn’t want the job, but if you believe that, or if John Bolton make similar protestations, we have an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to sell you).

But in all fairness, the former ExxonMobil chief has never been empowered by his president. He’s been undercut repeatedly by this White House—see Kushner, Jared—and by Trump personally, even (especially) when he’s making the right diplomatic moves. And there’s no sign that any one of the vultures circling around Tillerson would be able to change or transcend this dynamic. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump signed presidential directive ordering actions to pressure North Korea

The Washington Post reports: Early in his administration, President Trump signed a directive outlining a strategy of pressure against North Korea that involved actions across a broad spectrum of government agencies and led to the use of military cyber-capabilities, according to U.S. officials.

As part of the campaign, U.S. Cyber Command targeted hackers in North Korea’s military spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, by barraging their computer servers with traffic that choked off Internet access.

Trump’s directive, a senior administration official said, also included instructions to diplomats and officials to bring up North Korea in virtually every conversation with foreign interlocutors and urge them to sever all ties with Pyongyang. Those conversations have had significant success, particularly in recent weeks as North Korea has tested another nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles, officials said.

So pervasive is the diplomatic campaign that some governments have found themselves scrambling to find any ties with North Korea. When Vice President Pence called on one country to break relations during a recent overseas visit, officials there reminded him that they never had relations with Pyongyang. Pence then told them, to their own surprise, that they had $2 million in trade with North Korea. Foreign officials, who asked that their country not be identified, described the exchange. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S. in direct communication with North Korea, says Tillerson

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration acknowledged on Saturday for the first time that it was in direct communication with the government of North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests, opening a possible way forward beyond the escalating threats of a military confrontation from both sides.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said, when pressed about how he might begin a conversation with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that could avert what many government officials fear is a significant chance of open conflict between the two countries.

“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” he added. “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” a reference to North Korea’s capital.

The two countries have been trading public threats over North Korea’s nuclear program, with the North declaring that its missiles have the capacity to strike the United States and President Trump vowing to “totally destroy” North Korea.

Mr. Tillerson gave no indication of what the administration might be willing to give up in any negotiations, and Mr. Trump has made clear he would make no concessions. But many inside and outside government have noted there were no major military exercises between the United States and South Korea scheduled until the spring, so the promise of scaling them back could be dangled. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S. to slash embassy staff in Cuba, warns travelers of hotel attacks

The Washington Post reports: “The reduction in diplomatic presence was made to ensure the safety of our personnel,” said one official. “We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba will be guided by national security and foreign policy goals of the United States.”

The State Department has acknowledged that at least 21 Americans connected to the embassy have been hurt in the attacks, the most recent of which occurred in August. No Cuban employees of the embassy have complained of any symptoms, only American diplomats.

Among the health symptoms are hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual difficulties, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues and sleeping difficulties.

Nearly 10 months after the first complaints surfaced, neither U.S. nor Cuban investigators are any closer to identifying what is causing the injuries, or who is responsible. Investigators are looking into the possibility that they were subjected to some sort of “sonic attack,” among other theories, though it is not clear why American diplomats and a handful of Canadian envoys would be the only ones to complain of symptoms.

Cuba has denied having anything to do with the injuries. Among the possibilities being explored is that agents acting on behalf of a third country may be responsible. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Rex Tillerson viewed as one of the worst secretaries of state in history

Vox reports: The United Nations General Assembly is usually a time for America’s secretary of state — the country’s chief diplomat — to shine. That, to put it mildly, isn’t what’s happening with Rex Tillerson.

Instead, this week’s confab of world leaders in New York is taking place with Tillerson’s hold on his job looking shakier than ever. A pair of reports this week in Axios and Politico say he’s fallen out of favor in the White House. Rumors are flying about possible new secretaries, with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said to be at the top of Trump’s list.

There is a simple reason why Tillerson is at such risk of getting canned: His tenure, observers say, has been an unmitigated disaster.

“Tillerson would be at or near the bottom of the list of secretaries of state, not just in the post-Second World War world but in the record of US secretaries of state,” says Paul Musgrave, a scholar of US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO — whose nomination was initially greeted warmly by prominent foreign policy hands — has failed to wield any significant influence in internal administration debates over issues like Syria, North Korea, or Russia.

His push to slash “inefficiencies” in the State Department and seeming disinterest in working closely with longtime staff were even more damaging. By failing to get people into vital high-level posts and actively pushing out talented personnel, he ended up making America’s response to major crises incoherent and weakening the State Department for a “generation,” according to George Washington University’s Elizabeth Saunders.

This can’t all be blamed on Tillerson: Even a skilled and experienced diplomat would have had trouble maintaining influence in the chaotic Trump White House, where people like Haley and Jared Kushner wield major influence and foreign policy is often made by tweet.

Yet both nonpartisan experts and high-ranking State Department appointees in the past two administrations believe he personally deserves much of the blame. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump unusually silent after aides challenge him

Politico reports: President Donald Trump is not happy with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, for publicly criticizing his response to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. But it appears there is little he is planning to do about it, according to people who have spoken to him.

The unusually direct challenges from a Cabinet secretary and senior administration official seemed to make little more than a surface ripple in the swirling melodrama of the Trump White House, even as the president fumed privately about it.

Tillerson, when asked over the weekend whether Trump represented American values with his comments, gave a succinct response: “The president speaks for himself.” When asked whether he was separating himself from the president’s comments, Tillerson noted that he gave a speech to the State Department denouncing hate.

Cohn’s comments last week, saying the president could do better, came after several days of weighing whether to leave his position, including writing draft resignation letters.

The repudiations by Tillerson and Cohn were not nearly as sharp as some other criticisms of the president, who publicly waffled for days on how to respond to neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched in the streets of Charlottesville and clashed with opposition protesters.

Still, said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, “In the normal course of things, a secretary of state would be fired an hour after saying such a thing on national TV.” [Continue reading…]

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky write: In a combined 50-plus years of working for Secretaries of State of both parties, we’ve never heard the nation’s top diplomat so economically and frontally distance himself from his boss. And rarely on such a critical issue of basic American values.

Secretaries of State just don’t do this, largely because a seamless interaction with the President is critically important to the success of the nation’s top diplomat.

Former Secretary of State James Baker used to describe himself as the White House’s man at the State Department, not State’s man at the White House, for precisely this reason. The easiest way to hang a closed-for-the-season sign on the State Department — at home and abroad — is to lose the President’s confidence. Tillerson wasn’t Trump’s first choice or probably second choice for the job; and in the odd bureaucratic landscape Trump has created on foreign policy, it’s doubtful he ever had the confidence of his boss.

One can argue that Tillerson should be applauded for standing up for his principles in the Fox interview. But clearly in doing so and implicitly criticizing the President on the values issue, the Secretary of State essentially relegates himself to the margins at the same time. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Tillerson can’t defend Trump’s values

 

Facebooktwittermail

Trump shows his contempt for the State Department by thanking Putin for expelling U.S. diplomats

Politico reports: President Donald Trump on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling American diplomats from Russia on the grounds that “we’re going to save a lot of money,” prompting dismay among many of the rank-and-file at the State Department.

“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, according to a pool report.

“There’s no real reason for them to go back,” he added. “I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’re going to save a lot of money.”

Russia recently announced that it would expel hundreds of U.S. diplomats from its soil to retaliate for sanctions the U.S. put on the Kremlin. Those sanctions are in response to Russia’s suspected attempts to meddle in last year’s U.S. presidential election through a disinformation campaign and cyberattacks on Democratic Party officials.

Trump, whose campaign’s relationship with Russia is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, had pushed back against the sanctions bill, but signed it into law after it passed Congress with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

The State Department has not yet released the details of how it will handle the drawdown; Russia has demanded it keep no more than 455 people in its diplomatic missions there. But many, if not most, of the positions cut will likely be those of locally hired Russian staffers. The local staff who are let go will likely get severance payments, but cost savings are possible in the long run.

The U.S. diplomats forced to leave Moscow will in most cases be sent to other posts, sources said.

It wasn’t clear if Trump’s remarks were meant to be in jest, and he gave no solid indication either way. In any case, the comments did not go down well among employees at the State Department, where many U.S. diplomats have felt ignored and badly treated by the Trump administration. Some noted that locally hired staff members affected the most are crucial to American diplomats’ work overseas.

A senior U.S. diplomat serving overseas called Trump’s remarks “outrageous” and said it could lead more State Department staffers to head for the exits.

“This is so incredibly demoralizing and disrespectful to people serving their country in harm’s way,” the diplomat said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

While Trump and Tillerson send mixed signals, there’s no U.S. ambassador in South Korea to straighten things out

BuzzFeed reports: For months, national security experts have warned that the large number of unfilled positions at the State Department risked putting the United States in jeopardy in the event of a crisis. Now, with North Korea threatening war and a new US intelligence finding that Pyongyang has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear bomb, a crisis has arrived, and President Donald Trump has yet to name a US ambassador to South Korea.

The personnel gap comes amid confusing signals out of Washington — at a time when one of America’s most important and vulnerable allies is seeking clarity and instruction.

“When managing both a chronic and an acute challenge such as those posed by North Korea, the South Korean government needs someone on the scene who can provide tight alliance consultation on the ground and 24/7,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia scholar and Republican at the Center for a New American Security, an influential bipartisan think tank. “There is no substitute for an able and trusted ambassador.”

The utility of having a Senate-confirmed diplomat in Seoul is especially important given the penchant of Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to respond in markedly different ways to international events, experts said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Tillerson wants U.S. diplomats to promote use of fossil fuels and avoid questions on climate change

Reuters reports: U.S. diplomats should sidestep questions from foreign governments on what it would take for the Trump administration to re-engage in the global Paris climate agreement, according to a diplomatic cable seen by Reuters.

The cable, sent by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to embassies on Friday, also said diplomats should make clear the United States wants to help other countries use fossil fuels.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s announcement in June that the United States would withdraw from the accord, the cable tells diplomats to expect foreign government representatives to ask questions like: “Does the United States have a climate change policy?” and “Is the administration advocating the use of fossil fuels over renewable energy?”

If asked, for example, “What is the process for consideration of re-engagement in the Paris Agreement?”, the answer should be vague: “We are considering a number of factors. I do not have any information to share on the nature or timing of the process,” the cable advises. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Diplomats question tactics of Tillerson, the executive turned Secretary of State

The New York Times reports: Even skeptics of Mr. Tillerson’s foreign policy credentials thought the State Department, an agency of 75,000 employees, could use some of the management skills he had picked up as the head of a major corporation. Mr. Tillerson was supposed to know that leaders of large organizations should quickly pick a trusted team, focus on big issues, delegate small ones and ask for help from staff members when needed.

He has done none of those things, his critics contend.

Instead, he has failed to nominate anyone to most of the department’s 38 highest-ranking jobs, leaving many critical departments without direction, while working with a few personal aides reviewing many of the ways the department has operated for decades rather than developing a coherent foreign policy.

“The secretary of state has to focus on the president, his policies and the other heads of government that he deals with, which means he cannot possibly run the department operationally himself,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a retired career diplomat and an under secretary of state for President George W. Bush. “He has to delegate, and that’s what’s missing now.” [Continue reading…]

As a $340 billion oil giant, Exxon Mobil might look like the model of success and thus efficiency, but I doubt that oil corporations operating in markets with relatively few competitors are immune to the principle that the larger an organization becomes the greater the amount of inefficiency it can sustain. So why assume that Tillerson’s business experience qualifies him to make the State Department more efficient?

Moreover, a CEO who keeps investors happy has a level of job security and lack of accountability that no secretary of state enjoys. Tillerson is currently operating as though he has no time constraints and yet he’s almost certainly little more than three years away from retirement.

Facebooktwittermail

The evisceration of the State Department

Roger Cohen writes: On the first Friday in May, Foreign Affairs Day, the staff gathers in the flag-bedecked C Street lobby of the State Department beside the memorial plaques for the 248 members of foreign affairs agencies who have lost their lives in the line of duty. A moment of silence is observed. As president of the American Foreign Service Association, Barbara Stephenson helps organize the annual event. This year, she was set to enter a delegates’ lounge to brief Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on its choreography before appearing alongside him. Instead, she told me, she was shoved out of the room.

Stephenson, a former ambassador to Panama, is not used to being manhandled at the State Department she has served with distinction for more than three decades. She had been inclined to give Tillerson the benefit of the doubt. Transitions between administrations are seldom smooth, and Tillerson is a Washington neophyte, unversed in diplomacy, an oilman trying to build a relationship with an erratic boss, President Trump.

Still, that shove captured the rudeness and remoteness that have undermined trust at Foggy Bottom. Stephenson began to understand the many distressed people coming to her “asking if their service is still valued.” The lack of communication between the secretary and the rest of the building has been deeply disturbing.

An exodus is underway. Those who have departed include Nancy McEldowney, the director of the Foreign Service Institute until she retired last month, who described to me “a toxic, troubled environment and organization”; Dana Shell Smith, the former ambassador to Qatar, who said what was most striking was the “complete and utter disdain for our expertise”; and Jake Walles, a former ambassador to Tunisia with some 35 years of experience. “There’s just a slow unraveling of the institution,” he told me.

The 8,000 Foreign Service officers are not sure how to defend American values under a president who has entertained the idea of torture, shown contempt for the Constitution, and never met an autocrat who failed to elicit his sympathy. Trump seems determined to hollow out the State Department in a strange act of national self-amputation. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump assigns White House team to target Iran nuclear deal, sidelining State Department

Foreign Policy reports: After a contentious meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, President Donald Trump instructed a group of trusted White House staffers to make the potential case for withholding certification of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nuclear deal. The goal was to give Trump what he felt the State Department had failed to do: the option to declare that Tehran was not in compliance with the contentious agreement.

“The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department,” a source close to the White House told Foreign Policy.

The agreement, negotiated between Iran and world powers, placed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of economic sanctions.

On Tuesday, Trump relayed this new assignment to a group of White House staffers now tasked with making sure there will not be a repeat at the next 90-day review. “This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s gift to Putin in the Mideast

Vali Nasr writes: Over the past two months, even as American-trained forces were driving Islamic State insurgents out of the major Iraqi city of Mosul, the war next door in Syria was taking a dangerous but little-remarked turn — one far more favorable for Russia’s ambitions to regain a position of broad influence in the Middle East.

First, a major gaffe by President Trump helped Saudi Arabia split a Sunni Muslim alliance that was supposed to fight against the Islamic State — so much so that Qatar and Turkey moved closer together and became open to cooperation with Iran and Russia. Later, when Mr. Trump sat down with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Germany, the American president virtually handed the keys to the region to his adversary by agreeing to a cease-fire in Syria that assumed a lasting presence of Russian influence in that conflict — which only consolidated the likelihood of wider regional influence.

With Mr. Trump’s inner circle often at odds with one another and the president going his own unpredictable way, Mr. Putin seems never to miss an opportunity to expand Russia’s presence in the region. That has helped to blur even the longstanding lines of sectarian division between Sunni and Shiite states and to complicate America’s strategic position.

To be sure, Mr. Trump sent his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to the region to sort out the mess. But among the monarchs of the Middle East, an underling’s voice stood no chance of undoing the damage already done by his master’s tweets. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Going around Trump, governors embark on their own diplomatic missions

The New York Times reports: Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a Democrat, huddled with the leaders of Mexico and Canada in the space of 48 hours this spring, racing to Mexico City from Seattle for back-to-back discussions on climate change and trade.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, toured Europe last month to deliver what he called a “reassuring” message to business leaders, declaring that Americans would not “retreat” from international commerce.

And Gov. Pete Ricketts, Republican of Nebraska, recently announced he would visit Canada this summer with a message of thanks — for the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact that President Trump has harshly criticized and says he intends to renegotiate.

In ordinary times, most American governors tend to avoid international exploits, boasting of their consuming interest in balancing budgets and operating the machinery of state government. When they venture abroad, it is mainly to hawk products manufactured in their states.

But under the Trump administration, that has begun to change: Leadership at the state level has taken on an increasingly global dimension, as governors assert themselves in areas where they view Mr. Trump as abandoning the typical priorities of the federal government. They have forged partnerships across state and party lines to offset Trump administration policies they see as harmful to their constituencies. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s plan to team up with Putin in Syria — and leave Assad in power

The Daily Beast reports: For once, Rex Tillerson is not freelancing.

Late Wednesday, ahead of the first-ever meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the secretary of state suggested that the U.S. is willing to explore “joint mechanisms” with Russia to stabilize the vicious Syrian civil war.

After a dizzying series of policy shifts on Syria, administration and congressional sources tell The Daily Beast that Team Trump is introducing the beginnings of a new strategy for Syria—one that, in the short term at least:

• leaves dictator Bashar al-Assad in power;

• acquiesces to the idea of “safe zones” proposed by Russia and its allies;

• leans on cooperation from Moscow, including the use of Russian troops to patrol parts of the country.

It’s the sort of plan that observers have long suspected would ultimately emerge as Trump’s approach—despite his pledge that Assad has “no role” in governing the Syrian people. Top Trump aides from Jared Kushner to former national security adviser Michael Flynn have pushed for closer coordination with Russia on Syria for months. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Kim Jong Un has nukes, now he has an ICBM, and he will use them to threaten the U.S.

Jeffrey Lewis writes: North Korea wanted a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States for a very simple reason: Kim Jong Un and his cronies in Pyongyang watched as the United States assembled a massive invasion force against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, then used airpower to aid the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. The latter was especially frightening for the North Koreans, because Gaddafi had abandoned his WMD programs in a disarmament deal and was then offered up by the Bush Administration as an intermediary who would vouch to North Korea that the U.S. keeps its promises.

The deal ended with Gaddafi’s gruesome death on camera. North Korea doesn’t plan to wait around like Saddam or Gaddafi. Instead, once a war starts, North Korea plans to hit U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan with everything it has, including nuclear weapons, hoping to shock the United States and blunt an invasion. U.S. officials often dismiss that possibility by saying it would be suicide for Kim. But Kim is counting on nuclear-armed ICBMs that can target the United States to ensure that Trump realizes that suicide would be mutual.

Trump doesn’t have the slightest idea what to do about this. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, having said we are done talking about North Korea, said nothing. But then again, I am yet to be convinced Tillerson is actually alive and this isn’t some reboot of the Weekend at Bernie’s franchise set at the State Department. Nope, there is no plan.

To the extent that there is any coherent Trump approach, one might infer from his tweets that he believes his new friend, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, will bail him out like his Korea policy was an underwater condo development. But Xi’s interest is transactional and it isn’t clear to me that China is worse off if North Korea can threaten the United States with nuclear weapons. Moreover, if Beijing had so much sway over North Korea, Kim wouldn’t have sent to two assassins to rub VX in the face of his half-brother living under Chinese protection.

It’s not just Trump, though—the Obama Administration didn’t know what to do, either. The idea that the United States could work through China or use cyber-attacks to halt North Korea’s missile program was just a collective exercise in denial that our effort to prevent a nuclear-armed North Korea was an abject failure. For eight damned years, I kept hearing about strategic patience in one form or another.

While I think we did have a chance to pick some different outcome in the mid-1990s, the window for denuclearization closed a long time ago. If Kim Il Sung once calculated that he could trade nuclear weapons he had not built for international recognition of his bizarre little dictatorship, his grandson has clearly decided that real nuclear weapons are a lot better than promises on paper. That is our new reality. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail