Which would you rather have: a moderate Secretary of State with little influence – or a hardline Secretary of State with considerable influence?
Your answer to that question will likely determine how you feel about the news that U.S. President Donald Trump has dismissed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, to be replaced – assuming all goes well in the confirmation process – by current CIA Director and former Republican congressman Mike Pompeo.
The hardline Pompeo boasts a good working relationship with the White House as well as the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. Trump has commented that he is “on the same wavelength” as Pompeo. Tillerson’s access, on the other hand, was best captured in a headline in The Onion, a U.S.-based satirical publication: “Rex Tillerson Blindsided By News He Still Worked for State Department.”
For me, the departure of Rex Tillerson – who has over his tenure earned such flattering nicknames as “unmitigated disaster” or “worst Secretary of State in American history” for his poor management of the agency – is unfortunate, despite his impact on the institution.
In an administration full of truly terrible foreign policy ideas – from “bloody nose” strikes on North Korea to withdrawing from the Iran deal – Tillerson brought a moderate and pragmatic approach to his foreign policy thinking.
That may be why established Republican foreign policy hands like former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supported Tillerson for the job in the first place.
ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
Pompeo may not have any more respect for the people of the State Department than Tillerson did, but he will represent the institution more poorly in the policy process by advocating an approach at odds with the prudent mindset of most State Department officials. In a July 2017 event, for example, Pompeo appeared to advocate for regime change in Pyongyang, noting “the North Korean people I’m sure are lovely people and would love to see [Kim Jong Un] go.”
The timing is especially bad for North Korea policy
Why now? In this administration, it’s almost impossible to say.
Trump’s motivations could have encompassed everything from a knee-jerk reaction to some perceived slight from Tillerson, to a more opportunistic effort to create a story that consumes the news cycle and knocks off negative domestic stories (a tactic Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby calls “throwing a dead cat on the table”). Some even speculate that Trump was reacting to unusually tough comments Tillerson made yesterday about Russia.
Whatever the reason, the timing is especially bad for North Korea policy, because of the possible Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in May and the fact that key Korea vacancies – such as a U.S. ambassador to South Korea and a Special Representative for North Korea Policy – remain unfilled.
The most immediate danger comes in the period between Tillerson’s departure and Pompeo’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate. While this may happen quickly: Pompeo was a member of Congress and has already been confirmed once before for a position, the Trump administration’s slow pace on a range of nominations and possible heavy scrutiny from the Democratic Party opposition in the Senate gives us some reason for doubt.
In the interim, two months before a potential summit meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the State Department most likely won’t have the gravitas of a Cabinet secretary to push for its views and bring creative ideas to the planning process. And once Pompeo (a skeptic of talks with North Korea) formally becomes Secretary of State, he may not empower his team to bring those ideas to the table at all.
That’s a real shame because, if the United States doesn’t take the initiative in some way during this summit, North Korea will – on its own terms.
What can be done to keep the U.S. approach to North Korea stable and prudent in the aftermath of Tillerson’s departure?
First: senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should thoroughly question Pompeo on his views on North Korea. Get him on the record in public on every issue that matters: from whether or not he supports the use of military force to his position on the President’s summit with Kim Jong Un.
Second, Tillerson’s departure will mean more creative diplomacy is necessary from South Korea to keep engagement with North Korea headed in the right direction. It may be time for Seoul to informally float its own ideas for a broad framework for achievable results that could emerge from the Kim Jong Un-Trump summit.
While the transition at the State Department might empower North Korea hardliners and limit the ideas Trump hears, President Moon can offset that by reaching out directly to Trump. The U.S. President, having accepted the summit to much fanfare, won’t want to lose face and will be looking for ways to frame the summit as a success.
If the United States doesn’t take the initiative in some way during this summit, North Korea will – on its own terms
Finally: after Tillerson’s departure, it will fall to the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, now more than ever, to hold the line against the most harmful North Korea policy ideas of this administration – General Mattis may be the only person in Washington Trump shows any deference towards.
Members of Congress can reinforce this role by insisting on getting the Department of Defense view on any major North Korea matter on record before taking any action.
Rex Tillerson may enter the history books as the worst Secretary of State in American history – that is, if Mike Pompeo doesn’t beat him. So far, Pompeo’s record doesn’t give us much hope that he’ll be better, and plenty of reason to expect that he could be a lot worse on the issues that matter.
It will take a concerted effort from all of us – Congress, our allies, think tanks, and the public – to hold the Trump administration accountable in the post-Tillerson era – and curb its worst instincts.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Department of State
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