I ask the question with regret. Before this year, Tillerson had a long and distinguished career as chief executive of one of the world’s most complex companies. At ExxonMobil, he led a global workforce of thousands, and was no stranger to tricky politics, earning praise for navigating his company’s position on climate change and helping to end the discriminatory, homophobic policies of the Boy Scouts of America.
Although new to public policy, Tillerson was no stranger to global politics, having rubbed shoulders and brokered deals with many world leaders. […] So I was ready to do more than just give Tillerson a chance — I actually expected good things.
After six months on the job, the secretary of state entered August enduring one of Washington’s hallowed rituals, the career deathwatch, as leaks about his frustrations grew and rumors spread that he might walk. A few months ago it seemed reasonable to bet that he would not survive much past the 2018 midterms, and be replaced by Nikki Haley, the current U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Now it would be surprising if he even made it that far. Things are so bad that when the State Department press spokeswoman recently said Tillerson would be taking a few days off, many immediately guessed he was on the brink of resigning. The chatter has even produced a new word in the Washington vernacular: “Rexit.”
Tillerson is easily the most invisible top diplomat since Christian Herter. But as a devastating report by Foreign Policy and many smart observers have pointed out, the institutional damage is far greater and more lasting.
How could someone with such an accomplished private-sector career have turned out to be such a disappointment? Consider four possible reasons.
First, there’s the excuse one hears most often from Tillerson’s defenders: This is a short-term hiccup and in fact he’s playing a long game.
This spin worked for the first few months, but its shelf life has long expired. […] We used to read a lot about Tillerson and Trump dining together, and how Tillerson talked to Secretary of Defense James Mattis all the time. Now we hear more about Tillerson fighting with the White House over personnel, see him get out-hustled by the Pentagon, and witness the public spectacle of he and Trump differing on policy issues like the fight between Saudi Arabia and Qatar or the fate of the Iran nuclear deal. The president regularly brags about his generals, but never says very much about his Rex.
Now the knives are out for him, as some of the chatter about Tillerson’s ineffectiveness are coming not just from the State Department, but sources in the White House. He has very few admirers in Congress.
A second explanation is that since Tillerson genuinely believes the State Department needs to be better managed and reformed to be effective in the 21st century, he is taking the time to make that happen. […] Previous secretaries have undertaken major reform efforts that reshaped the organizational chart. […] So Tillerson’s “redesign” follows in these footsteps.
But there are some big differences. All of these prior efforts were undertaken in the service of making the State Department stronger — to enhance America’s diplomatic power with greater resources and people. They were about investing in the institution. Tillerson, on the other hand, seems perfectly content with diminishing the department’s role.
Tillerson has some highly capable people around him — friends and former colleagues I greatly respect. But when it comes to building a State Department for the next generation, I am hard pressed to name a single thing Tillerson has said or done to attract the best talent. […] He appears fine with all the senior level vacancies. He has told senators privately that he thinks that the State Department is way too big and has too much money — as evidenced by his shocking decision not to spend nearly $80 million allocated to the department to fight terrorist propaganda and Russian disinformation.
So despite all the earnest management consultant talk, few are really convinced Tillerson’s reform initiative is about making diplomacy more effective or actually driven by the “bottom-up.”
Which leads to a third reason Tillerson is off to the worst start ever: because, management issues aside, he has embraced a policy framework that relegates the State Department to second-tier status, and America itself to being a back-row kid. Tillerson is the first secretary of state to preside over an “America First” policy. I don’t know if he really believes in it, or just parrots these lines to stay in Trump’s good graces. But unlike Mattis, he goes out if his way to defend the concept. It is telling that when the world wants reassurance that the U.S. will maintain its leadership and stand by its commitments, it looks to the Defense Secretary, not America’s top diplomat.
A fourth explanation for Tillerson’s flop is the simplest and most innocent: He never wanted the job, doesn’t really like it, and is just trying to stay afloat and counting the hours until he can make a graceful exit.
I have my own theory: He was just following
Putin’s the boss’s orders.