Rumours of Tillerson’s departure raise deeper questions about US policymaking in the Middle East

Sunday 30/07/2017
Rexit? US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at the Capitol in Washington, on July 20. (AFP)

Washington - Cable news outlet CNN and The Hill, a publication widely read in Washington policy circles, reported that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was considering leav­ing the cabinet of US President Don­ald Trump.

The Hill, whose reporters said they spoke with unidentified friends of Tillerson’s, said the secretary’s “doubts about President Trump are growing.”

The US State Department denied the reports and Tillerson said at a State Department briefing: “I’m not going anywhere.”

It really does not matter whether the rumours of Tillerson’s departure are true; more important is that they are believable. Most likely, Tillerson is unsure how long he wants to re­main in the job but the reasons for his unhappiness are no mystery and reflect the often-confusing and con­tradictory foreign policy messages from the Trump administration.

It is easy to imagine Tillerson’s grievances. In the early weeks of the administration he was side­lined from foreign policy decisions and was conspicuously absent from several meetings the president had with foreign leaders. US diplomacy related to Israeli-Palestinian peace was handed to Trump’s son-in-law and a former bankruptcy attorney with no evident role by the State De­partment, although Tillerson may secretly be happy not to have this futile portfolio.

Tillerson has had difficulty se­curing White House approval for his choices to fill critical State De­partment positions. Most recently, Susan Thornton, a career diplomat and fluent Mandarin-speaker who was Tillerson’s choice for US envoy to Asia, was vetoed by the White House. Politico reported that the de­cision led to an explosive outburst from Tillerson during a White House meeting.

The Near East Bureau of the State Department is headed by a holdo­ver from the Obama administration who serves in an interim capacity.

The conflict that erupted between Qatar and its erstwhile Gulf Coop­eration Council partners offered Tillerson an opportunity to shine when Trump sent him to the region to mediate. However, his shuttle di­plomacy led nowhere and, while the secretary was in the region, Trump issued statements that contradicted his positions.

Tillerson returned from the Gulf to face a fight over certifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Tillerson opposes escalating the conflict with Iran but had to fight against White House hardliners to get Trump to agree to certification, which the International Atomic En­ergy Agency already had confirmed. Foreign Policy reported that the ex­change between Trump and Tiller­son was “contentious.”

That fight is expected to resume in October and Trump has signalled that he was likely to decertify Iran at that point. Foreign Policy report­ed that the president established a White House task force to advise on the decision, sidelining the State Department and perhaps laying the ground for Tillerson’s resignation.

The fact that the rumours of Till­erson’s early departure are so believ­able is one more factor, along with the president’s comments and ac­tions, undermining the credibility of US foreign policy. Trump clearly has little respect for diplomats or diplo­macy, preferring the advice of “my generals,” as he refers to Secretary of Defence James Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other members of the administra­tion with military background.

Ordinarily, US ambassadors and diplomats speak with the authority of the administration in represent­ing US foreign policy. Under Trump, it would be understandable if for­eign leaders were baffled over what and who to believe.

Further uncertainty about Trump’s Middle East policy was created on July 27 when the White House announced the departure of Derek Harvey, the Middle East direc­tor on the National Security Council. Several Washington media outlets reported that Harvey, considered hawkish on Iran, was fired by Mc­Master.