Photo by Alex Wong
Maybe you didn’t want to weigh in on Rex Tillerson too early. It could be Trump’s appointment of the Putin-approved ExxonMobil CEO would somehow promote global stability. Perhaps Tillerson’s total lack of official diplomatic experience would change the world for the better. Maybe the new Secretary of State, like his boss, would be a risky gamble that’d pay off, a much-needed shake-up to the status quo. It could be one of those “it’s so crazy, it just might work” ideas. Well, it turns out it’s more of a “so crazy so of course it isn’t working” idea and, if that’s where you placed your bets, the dealer has unfortunately beaten your hand.
Since Tillerson moved into John Kerry’s old office, he’s already carved out a role for himself as an media-averse mystery man amidst Trump’s gaggle of blowhards. Even the ostensibly elusive Steve Bannon has been more forthcoming and lucid about his own intentions for the country than Tillerson. Defense Secretary James Mattis and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley are far clearer about their foreign policy ideals and objectives, as is new National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. The only person as blatantly impenetrable as Tillerson in the new administration is Jared Kushner. But it must be hard for him to do much press since he’s busy singlehandedly solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ending violence in Mosul and brokering a deal between the US and China. Cue eyeroll.
In an administration where every paranoid thought from the Commander-in-Chief is broadcast on Twitter or TV, Tillerson’s behavior is especially odd. Trump may be antagonistic toward the press but he clearly feeds off the drama every time he drops a bomb on the media shibboleths. Tillerson doesn’t seem to want the spotlight at all. He’s been blatantly avoidant of the press and broken with tradition about media accompaniment on diplomatic missions.
In an interview with Erin McPike, the only newsperson he took with him on his trip to Japan and the Korean peninsula, he said, “What I’m told is that there’s this long tradition that the Secretary spends time on the plane with the press. I don’t know that I’ll do a lot of that. I’m just not . . . that’s not the way I tend to work.” The State Department has already done plenty of sketchy stuff even with this kind of press access. It doesn’t need elucidating that a move further into opacity is the last thing we need out of our government.
Then again, this lack of transparency may not be spurred on by some nefarious, secret agenda but by embarrassment there’s not really a coherent agenda at all. Sure, there’s the eyebrow-raising stuff like the fact he’s skipping a meeting with NATO last Secretary of State to do this was Colin Powell in 2003—for a G7 summit and then a trip to—take a wild guess—Moscow. He refused to meet with Turkish opposition to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership style, praising the US’s relationship with a country set to vote on giving their journalist-jailing, human-rights-violating leader boldly authoritarian executive powers later this month in a referendum. He also withheld from condemning Vladimir Putin or Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte’s egregious breaches of human rights.
But then there’s the “maybe this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing” stuff. He hinted at war with North Korea and later released a statement saying his department had already talked about North Korea enough. He brought up the potentiality Bashar al-Assad could remain in power, a chemical attack in Syria followed and he flip-flopped. He called for increased military spending from other NATO countries while defending massive foreign aid budget cuts by the US and applauded decreased spending on his own department.
So Tillerson, like everyone else in the Trump administration, is at least seemingly a mixture of equal parts ineptitude and corruption. The main difference is he’s a little quieter than his coworkers and much quieter than his boss. But so far, he’s stuck to the incoherent orthodoxy of Trumpism as a whole when it comes to foreign policy. His camera shyness doesn’t negate the positions he shares with Trump: affinity toward autocrats, tone-deafness to multiple actors in Middle Eastern conflicts and wishy-washy attitude toward standing US alliances. Like Bannon, he’s only a bogeyman if you want him to be. It’s pretty easy to connect the dots when it comes to what’s going on in his head, silence or no silence.
Not to mention, his behavior is following the predictable trajectory his forebears set for him. The department he now runs has been home to some of the worst ideas and most incompetent and/or immoral people to ever hold US government positions. This makes his silence and evasiveness with the press even more perplexing.
The fact he insists on carrying out his morally questionable work in shadows rather than broad daylight means he’s either more paranoid than his predecessors or ignorant of the department’s history. Eisenhower’s top diplomat, John Foster Dulles, organized the deposition of Iranian and Guatemalan leaders—which lit the fuse for nearly all our problems in the Middle East as well as Central America—and paved the way for the Vietnam war. Hate what the US did in Cambodia and Chile? Blame Henry Kissinger as much as Nixon. Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice were complicit in a host of lies about the endlessly reverberating faux pas affectionately known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for Libyan interventionism is a facepalm for the ages.
We desperately want to believe Tillerson, Trump and all the rest of these scoundrels are unprecedented leaps into stupidity or evil. We want to think we’ve never been anywhere close to this level of callous absurdity. Unfortunately, history doesn’t allow for such small comforts. Perhaps the most mystifying element of Tillerson and the rest of this administration’s hesitant or even caustic approach to the media is that it’s unnecessary. Did the media really thwart the host of injustices backed by the State Department over the last century?