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Critiques Fly as Tillerson Struggles to Define his Mission

  • Associated Press

FILE - U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson gestures before the 10th Lower Mekong Initiative Ministerial Meeting, part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Manila, Philippines, Aug. 6, 2017.

In a wood-paneled stateroom in the Philippine presidential palace, Rex Tillerson sat across from a leader who boasts of hunting down drug dealers to personally kill. Whether he'd confront his host for letting police kill thousands — and how forcefully - was being closely scrutinized for proof the Trump administration has any commitment to human rights.

When the secretary of state ultimately broached it last week with President Rodrigo Duterte, he backed into it, rattling off U.S. death tolls and addiction rates that tell the story of America's opioid crisis. Then he noted matter-of-factly that Americans have voiced concern about Duterte's approach to his country's drug war. He offered U.S. help, two of the meeting's participants said.

To Tillerson's critics, it was the latest underperformance by a secretary of state they see as abdicating traditional roles and aspirations of American diplomacy. To Tillerson, aides said, it was a concrete solution to a problem, rather than grandstanding for grandstanding's sake.

Since taking office in February, Tillerson has earned praise from President Donald Trump despite policy differences, top Cabinet members and even some Democrats, including those who take solace in the tempering role he plays in an otherwise frenetic and unpredictable administration.

Yet he's also stoked deep doubts about his leadership among many U.S. diplomats and the traditional foreign policy establishment, with a daily drumbeat of editorials like "Why Has Rex Tillerson Belly-Flopped as Secretary of State?" and "How Rex Tillerson is Wrecking the State Department."

And so difficult has Trump made Tillerson's job at times that it's sparked talk of a "Rexit," a potential early departure from the job. As with the histrionic headlines, Tillerson has brushed it all off, calmly telling reporters last month, "I'm not going anywhere."

This account of Tillerson's first six months draws on interviews with roughly two dozen State Department officials, foreign diplomats and other Tillerson associates. Some weren't authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

In private conversations, Tillerson has taken issue with the approach of his predecessors, and especially John Kerry, whose high public profile, constant travel and impulse to plunge himself into every crisis became a running State Department joke.

Tillerson has told those in his orbit he can get more done if countries know they can negotiate in confidence without their positions being dissected in the press.

That argument hasn't caught on among the chorus of diplomats and foreign policy scholars who have piled on, claiming he's squandering the only real tool in his arsenal. After all, diplomats don't have weapons at their disposal, only words.

There are questions about why he took the job if he doesn't have a particular mark he hopes to leave on the world. In a Washington Post column entitled "Rex Tillerson is a Huge Disappointment," former Bush administration official Michael Gerson asked, "Who would want to be known as the secretary of state who retreated from the promotion of justice and democracy?"

Many past secretaries reached eagerly and early for Nobel Peace Prize-worthy achievements. Tillerson's most enthusiastic focus has been streamlining the State Department's inner workings, a project expected to extend the rest of the year or longer.

"I think he came to the job with a feeling that America was approaching foreign policy with too much of a missionary zeal. We were telling the world what they ought to do," said John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where Tillerson served 11 years on the board. "He's not a missionary for grand causes. He's a pragmatist."

Two decades ago, as Tillerson was rising through Exxon's management, the oil company merged with Mobil to become the world's biggest, with revenues exceeding many countries' economies. Tillerson has told aides the State Department redesign is tougher than the merger ever was.

"This takes time," said R.C. Hammond, a senior Tillerson adviser. "We're not changing one light switch. We're rewiring an entire house."

On his first day as America's top diplomat, Tillerson spoke in the marbled lobby of the State Department's Harry S. Truman Building headquarters. He told assembled employees that he knew the election was "hotly contested" and that while all were entitled to their beliefs, it mustn't overwhelm "our ability to work as one team."

Much of the diplomatic corps was deeply suspicious of the new administration's worldview. An astonishing 900 signed a rare "dissent memo" - before Tillerson even arrived - objecting to Trump's initial travel ban on people from seven mainly Muslim countries.

Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil CEO until just weeks earlier, represented to some the prospect of a sober, levelheaded "adult in the room" for Trump's national security decisions. As Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, put it in Tillerson's confirmation hearing, "You don't strike me as someone likely to be naive."

Addressing State Department workers, Tillerson emphasized honesty, respect and accountability for all - themes borrowed from the Boy Scouts of America that he once led.

Then he started talking about efficiency. He predicted "changes to how things are traditionally done." The mood in the room changed.

"Change for the sake of change can be counterproductive, and that will never be my approach," Tillerson said. "But we cannot sustain ineffective traditions over optimal outcomes."

When, two months later, Tillerson embraced a 37-percent cut to foreign aid and diplomatic spending, lawmakers of both parties balked, accusing him of weakening diplomacy and U.S. influence. Trump's final proposed budget softened the cuts somewhat, but still calls for roughly one-third less money, fewer workers and consolidation of many offices.

Tillerson locked in his reputation as an under-the-radar secretary on his first trip abroad, when he told the one reporter allowed to travel with him he was "not a big media press access person" and said, "I personally don't need it."

In Texas, that approach paid off for Tillerson, and Exxon flourished. Corporations are rarely harmed by their CEOs avoiding the limelight.

But in Washington, the same approach has denied Tillerson the chance to define his own narrative — or to effectively calm the inevitable concerns when a workforce of 75,000 is told big cuts are coming.

"I will say this: It's very Rex," said Paul Tetreault, director of Washington's Ford's Theatre, where Tillerson was involved for a decade. "He is disciplined, he is methodical, he has a plan. You, me, we may not know what that plan is, but I think he does."

Still, the vacuum has been filled by a steady stream of rumors, leaks and reports about impending changes that, left largely unchallenged by Tillerson, have reached sky-is-falling proportions. Among them:

- That promotion of a just and democratic world may be removed from the State Department's mission statement. An early draft that relied on employee feedback didn't include it, but officials say the final version likely will.

- That Tillerson wants to move passports and visas to the Homeland Security Department. Outside consultants recommended it, but Tillerson and Deputy Secretary John Sullivan oppose the move.

- That a micromanaging Tillerson has taken back all authorities previously delegated to subordinates. In fact, Tillerson rescinded a few, left most in place and issued a dozen-plus other new ones.

"There are elements of truth in some of these stories," Sullivan, Tillerson's deputy, said. "But then they're twisted in a way that makes it sound as though the secretary is out of touch, mismanaging, whatever. I see him, when he's in town, three or four times a day. The guy is committed to the mission."

On one critique, even Tillerson agrees.

So slow has Trump's administration been to staff the State Department that nearly the entire upper echelon of assistant secretaries who oversee specific regions and functions is vacant. Foreign embassies, reluctant to publicly criticize Tillerson, privately complain they have no point person- or only an "acting" official with limited authority.

"No," Tillerson said last month when asked if he's satisfied with the pace of hiring. "I'd like it to go faster."

The empty offices are due in part to Trump, in part Tillerson. While political spats with the White House have stalled some of Tillerson's preferred picks, in some cases he's leaving positions vacant because they might be eliminated or combined with other posts in the overhaul.

Many "special envoys" and issue-specific offices are expected to be merged into related State Department bureaus. That's sparked concern among some lawmakers and special interest groups but also enjoys support from some diplomats who have long complained about a notoriously unwieldy bureaucracy.

No secretary before Tillerson has faced the unique challenge of working for a president like Trump. So often does Trump contradict or undermine him that foreign diplomats have struggled to determine when Tillerson truly speaks for his boss.

No sooner had Tillerson tried to calm the nation by downplaying prospects for a North Korea military conflict than Trump reaffirmed his "fire and fury" threat and boasted about U.S. nuclear weapons.

But Trump also defends Tillerson, saying Friday they were "totally on the same page." Tillerson often downplays signs of incongruity between their messages, and on North Korea, Tillerson says boss was merely "trying to support our efforts by ensuring that North Korea understands what the stakes are."

There have been similar divisions over Qatar, Iran and the Paris climate accord.

In the Cabinet, it's Tillerson who's made the most concerted effort to translate Trump's "America First" mantra into cohesive policy. In a May speech, Trump said alliances remain critical but that as the world changed economically and militarily over the last two decades, things grew "out of balance" and no longer serve U.S. interests as well.

What Tillerson said next fueled growing concerns that traditional values of human rights, democracy and global well-being were falling away under Tillerson and Trump. The secretary said America's values are not its policies, and that forcing values on others too heavily "really creates obstacles" for U.S. interests.

Tillerson's aides argue he's actually promoting those values more effectively than his predecessors, by using a "light touch" and offering specific solutions or help rather than issuing demands or self-righteous lectures. In each case, aides said, Tillerson emphasizes why doing the right thing advances another country's self-interests.

Six months in, Tillerson presides over a State Department deeply uneasy about its future, but still hopeful he'll lead American diplomacy more successfully than the panicked editorials predict.

Insigniam, a consulting firm Tillerson hired for the department's redesign, warned in a 110-page report that prolonged uncertainty would have negative repercussions. Tillerson says he's mindful of that but hopes the uncertainty will ebb as the redesign takes shape.

"It's to be expected that we will go through some morale issues early on," Tillerson said this month. But, he added, "I cannot change what we're doing from a policy standpoint, if that's what's behind people's unhappiness."

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