Is This as Good as Rex Tillerson Gets?
For r the past few weeks, the secretary of state has been the subject of endless chatter and several prominent reports about what he has been doing — or, more to the point, not doing — during his short tenure in Foggy Bottom. Despite a mostly steady if laconic performance in Moscow this week, it is hard to argue that he is off to a good start. The risk is that, after only a few months in office, he could be headed toward irrelevance.
Tillerson’s high water mark so far was his first day, the moment he walked into the State Department’s C street lobby on February 2 and gave a humble, well-received speech to a nervous crowd. It has been pretty much downhill ever since: a highly publicized squelching of his first choice as deputy; some unceremonious early retirements of senior Foreign Service officers, leaving a building empty of top-ranked officials; an anemic first trip to Europe, where he was easily overshadowed by the secretary of defense; bungling the schedule for his inaugural NATO meeting by initially thinking he could skip it; parroting Chinese talking points on his first trip to Asia; taking a meat axe to the State Department budget; and starting off terribly with the press. If you only get one chance to make a first impression, this is not the way to do it.
I have to say I am surprised and a bit puzzled. I thought the choice of Tillerson, while unexpected and somewhat unorthodox, was a clever one. The more I learned about him the more optimistic I became that he would succeed at State. I believed his experience at ExxonMobil prepared him to deal with the complex tangle of management, security, and policy issues facing the department, and that, having moved up the company chain to the top himself, he would prove to be an effective leader of the career Foreign Service workforce. So what’s going on?
Thinking about Tillerson’s bumpy start, it helps to recall two past secretaries of state who also had less auspicious beginnings: Alexander Haig in 1981 and Warren Christopher in 1993.