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Exit Rex: Tillerson's Brief, Tumultuous Tenure As America's Chief Diplomat

Rex Tillerson leaves a State Department with morale reportedly low and major international challenges outstanding.
Rex Tillerson leaves a State Department with morale reportedly low and major international challenges outstanding.

WASHINGTON -- With the announcement of President Donald Trump's firing of the United States' top diplomat, Rex Tillerson's tenure as secretary of state now enters the history books as one of the shortest ever for a new administration.

Major diplomatic overtures are under way over nuclear-armed North Korea. Russia is thumping its chest in Europe, the former Soviet space, and the Mideast even as Britain suspects Moscow of a brazen assassination. A landmark nuclear deal with Iran is still in place despite Trump's vows to renegotiate it and further squeeze Tehran. With all this, it is unclear how history will ultimately look back on Tillerson's tenure.

Like Trump, Tillerson had neither government nor public-sector experience when he entered public office; an engineer by education, his professional career was ultimately forged as the head of the world's largest oil company, ExxonMobil. The native Texan's outsider status in Washington was embraced by surprise 2016 presidential victor Trump but also by others who expected Tillerson to shake up the State Department's vast bureaucracy and U.S. foreign policy.

In impromptu remarks to journalists on the White House lawn soon after the announcement on March 13, Trump praised Tillerson but cited a "different mind-set."

The two appeared not to see eye to eye on many issues, foreign and domestic. Tillerson's purported exasperation with the White House spilled into the open in October when news reports said that he'd called Trump a "moron" in private conversation months earlier. Tillerson never fully denied the reports; the mutual mistrust never appeared to recede.

Despite a term that at 13 months was among the briefest in history for an incoming administration's top official at the State Department -- and an unceremonious sacking seemingly delivered via Trump's famously blunt Twitter account -- Tillerson did manage to make his mark as the chief U.S. diplomat.

Here are a few of the highlights, and lowlights, of his 405 days at Foggy Bottom.

Overhauling State

One of Tillerson's main stated objectives when he joined the administration was to reform the State Department's operations. With nearly 75,000 employees, including 14,000 Foreign Service officers, and a combined budget of $50.3 billion in the year prior, the State Department was targeted from the outset for major cuts.

Tillerson's private-sector experience, overseeing ExxonMobil's more than 71,000 employees, was seen as essential to pushing through reforms that included budget cuts that initially totaled 30 percent. (Leading senators killed the idea of such a drastic cut.) He brought in outside consultants to find ways to streamline operations.

Tillerson succeeded in shrinking the agency. Early retirement, buyouts, or other attrition trimmed staff by 2,000 people, or around 8 percent.

But former and retiring diplomats openly complained about a perceived loss of experience and institutional knowledge, saying U.S. diplomacy was being severely harmed. Many of the department's most senior positions have gone unfilled, as have ambassadorial appointments to critical hot spots including South Korea or Afghanistan.

Richard Haass, former top adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell and current president of the Council of Foreign Relations, in October called on Tillerson to resign.

Elliot Cohen, a top adviser to former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, called Tillerson "a disaster." Tony Blinken, who recently stepped down as former deputy secretary of state, accused Tillerson of presiding "over the hollowing-out of the State Department." Last year, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the number of vacancies at the State Department "a national security emergency."

With the public chatter over his fate mounting in November, Tillerson pushed back against such criticism in a speech at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

"There is no hollowing out," he said.

Russian Reset

For some, ExxonMobil's Russian investments suggested Tillerson had a wealth of experience to draw on in dealing with one of Washington's thorniest foreign relationships. The former oil man had received a medal of appreciation from President Vladimir Putin, and the public warmth with which some Russian officials greeted Trump's election and Tillerson's selection as secretary of state gave some observers hope that the nosedive in relations between Washington and Moscow could be reversed.

But U.S. intelligence assessments accusing Moscow or its surrogates of a concerted campaign to influence the 2016 election in favor of Trump have dogged relations.

Optimism was further eclipsed by investigations by Congress and a special counsel, Richard Mueller, into Trump or his campaign associates' contacts with Russian officials in the context of the election.

Tillerson (left) with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Vienna in December
Tillerson (left) with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Vienna in December

Faced with those and other factors, Tillerson did not arrest the slide in relations between Moscow and Washington, according to James Goldgeier, the former dean of American University's School of International Service.

Near the top of the list of problems plaguing the U.S.-Russian relationship has been Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Tillerson last year appointed Kurt Volker as a special envoy focused on resolving the conflict in Ukraine, signaling a desire for progress on a conflict that has prompted sanctions and countersanctions, and broadly plagued relations since Russia effected the first shifting of borders by force in Europe since World War II.

"I think it's important that Ambassador Volker is engaging in that conversation" with the Russians, Goldgeier told RFE/RL. "If we're going to create a list of net pluses, I would say here's one: that Tillerson appointed Kurt Volker."

But the fighting also continues in Ukraine.

And in a defiant speech to lawmakers and other Russian VIPs on March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent nearly one-third of his time presenting a bristling arsenal of new, mostly nuclear-capable, weapons that he suggested were a response to U.S. policies since the fall of the Soviet Union.

'Rocket Man' Diplomacy

Efforts to counter North Korea's defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons and its increasingly bellicose rhetoric were a public source of friction between Tillerson and the White House.

The secretary of state appeared to have been sidelined, or at times even undermined, by tweets and other statements emerging from the commander in chief or other sources within the White House.

Like Trump's last three predecessors, the current U.S. president has been bedeviled by North Korea's push for a nuclear arsenal and an advanced missile program. During the election campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to tackle the most important issues with Pyongyang, which has contributed to insecurity that has kept thousands of U.S. soldiers on alert on the Korean Peninsula for decades.

During a late September trip to China -- North Korea's most important sponsor -- Tillerson revealed that U.S. officials had engaged in quiet "back-channel diplomacy" with North Korea.

Trump subsequently needled North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "Little Rocket Man" and suggested that Tillerson was wasting his time.

It was an almost-unheard-of course for a U.S. president to issue such contradictory statements while his chief diplomat was out of the country, engaged in difficult overseas negotiations.

"Tillerson was ineffective in reining in North Korea. But it wasn't so much a problem with his policy as with the mixed messages coming from the White House," Jean Lee, a longtime Koreas expert now with the Wilson Center, told RFE/RL by e-mail, adding, "Tillerson's policy of exerting 'maximum pressure' while keeping the door open for dialogue is a sound one on North Korea, and clearly benefited from the guidance of" experts at the State Department and the National Security Council.

John Hannah, a national security adviser for former Vice President Dick Cheney, said Tillerson deserved credit for helping push two UN Security Council resolutions, passed unanimously, that ramped up sanctions against North Korea.

On November 29, North Korea fired a missile that appeared to put the continental United States within range.

In early March, Trump gave a jolt to ongoing U.S. efforts with respect to Pyongyang by announcing he had accepted an invitation from Kim Jong Un to meet for talks. No date or format for the talks has been announced.

But if they go forward, they would mark the highest-levels talks between the two countries since a North Korean visit by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.

In the announcement of Tillerson's firing, the White House specified that Trump "wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations."

Ceding Syria?

Of the Arab Spring uprisings that erupted during President Barack Obama's first term, the fallout in Syria has been the most brutal and arguably the most consequential. The devastating civil war there has led some critics to call it Obama's most haunting foreign policy failure.

Trump vowed to change the calculus there.

But aside from a missile strike in April that targeted a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack and the decision to arm Kurdish militias over Turkey's objections, many analysts suggest Trump's policy in Syria has largely been a continuation of his predecessor's approach.

Mona Yacoubian, a former U.S. Agency for International Development official now with the U.S. Institute for Peace, suggested at one point that Tillerson's involvement in negotiations to bring about a political settlement in Syria appeared secondary to special envoy Brett McGurk, who was originally appointed by Obama.

"So I'm not sure how much credit goes to Tillerson's leadership on [Syria]," she told RFE/RL in late 2017. "The administration has clearly stepped back from the diplomatic track, ceding the ground to Russia."

"Bottom line: mixed record -- measurable success on countering ISIS" -- the militant group Islamic State, whose so-called caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria has been virtually wiped out -- "but a real decline in U.S. leadership on Syrian peace process and diplomacy efforts," Yacoubian said.

The challenges appear to have intensified more recently, with President Bashar al-Assad and ally Russia proclaiming victories over extremist and rebel forces in one area after another of Syria. In February, U.S. coalition forces bombed a group that included Russian mercenaries after an attack on allied Kurdish forces in eastern Syria, one of the deadliest confrontations between U.S. forces and Russians since the Cold War.

Then General Valery Gerasimov, head of the Russian General Staff, warned on March 13 that Russian forces would respond if the United States conducted any missile strike on the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Meanwhile, NATO ally Turkey is waging war on Kurdish forces in Syria, putting it at direct odds with Washington, which has long supported Kurdish forces.

Nuclear Iran

Like Trump, Tillerson has been unsparingly blunt in his language about Iran, whose leadership has long drawn U.S. ire for its alleged sponsorship of terrorism and intervention in the region, rights abuses, ill-treatment of women and minorities, and a highly contentious nuclear program.

"The regime in Iran continues activities and interventions that destabilize the Middle East," Tillerson warned in comments to a Senate committee in June. "We and our allies must counter Iran's aspirations of hegemony in the region."

Those remarks reflected Trump's public statements and the reported consensus among his foreign policy advisers. Such distrust was cited as a source of opposition to the landmark nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 and signed by other world powers and Tehran, curtailing Iran's nuclear programs in exchange for lifting many economic sanctions. Trump has called it the worst deal in U.S. history and insisted it should be scrapped. Although he has "decertified" it, he has stopped short of quitting it outright.

But Tillerson has also appeared to stray from the Trump page on Iran policy.

In October, ahead of a deadline on an element related to the nuclear deal, Tillerson said he had "differences" with Trump but added that he agreed with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the United States should not pull out of it.

Tillerson appeared to stray from the Trump page on Iran policy.
Tillerson appeared to stray from the Trump page on Iran policy.

Trump's decision to not abandon the deal and instead kick the question to Congress was regarded by some as a Tillerson success. The secretary of state had predicted that U.S. allies in Europe would be "very supportive" of such a Trump strategy.

Colin Kahl, a top adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, has suggested that Tillerson, and the Trump administration as a whole, has made it harder to build allied support for targeting Iran's other policies.

"And it probably threatens the very consensus that the administration wants to create around Iran's destabilizing activities in the region," Kahl said in a speech at the Wilson Center in October. "By creating the perception that we're implementing the deal in bad faith, it's hard to see how we are going to be taken sufficiently seriously to try to patch up or expand the deal."

Hannah, Cheney's national security adviser, said Tillerson deserves credit for an Iran-related strategy: helping draw Saudi Arabia -- a bitter enemy of Iran -- closer to Baghdad, whose Shi'ite-led government often leans toward Iran.

In December and January, street demonstrations erupted all over Iran to express anger at the Iranian government's social and economic policies and, more broadly, the country's clerical leadership.

Tillerson and Trump struck similar notes in response to the Iranian public's displays of frustration, although the secretary of state's statements were seen as slightly more cautious than Trump's Twitter suggestion that it was "time for change" in Iran.

Palestinians And Israel

John Kerry, Tillerson's immediate predecessor, had made resolution of the decades-old impasse between Israel and the Palestinians a goal for his time as secretary of state. Trump had trumpeted his negotiating abilities as evidence for why his administration would succeed where Kerry and others had failed.

But Tillerson was also seen to have been vying for influence with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who took on as part of his White House portfolio the issue of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Kushner effectively was a special envoy, yet many longtime watchers doubted that Kushner, who like his father-in-law had no diplomatic or government experience, could succeed.

Then the Trump administration roiled the Mideast status quo by announcing the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move its embassy there. That move left people like Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser on Israeli-Palestinians affairs, shaking their heads and Palestinian officials publicly reluctant to try to make peace with U.S. mediation.

"It's just the issues that separate the parties-- Jerusalem border security, refugees, recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jews, end of conflict in claims -- the gaps on those issues are huge," Miller said in a radio interview in December, around the time of the U.S. recognition announcement. "And why an administration, even if it had such a compelling plan, would want to inject Jerusalem into the mix right now is difficult for me to understand."

Half Full Or Half Empty?

Perceptions of Tillerson as a calm, deliberate Texan contrasted with Trump's publicly fiery and impulsive nature. The former was often grouped together with Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, as well as national security adviser H.R. McMaster, as tempering forces within the White House.

"A good and talented man thrust into difficult, perhaps impossible, circumstances," Cheney national security adviser Hannah wrote in an op-ed in Foreign Policy. "For that, and for answering his nation's call to service when he didn't have to, Tillerson deserves our thanks, not our disdain."

With Tillerson gone and current CIA Director Mike Pompeo named by Trump as his choice to replace him at the State Department, it is unclear how policy might be affected.

Goldgeier suggested that one of Tillerson's main accomplishments could be considered his efforts to curb the Trump administration's most impetuous inclinations with respect to foreign policy, "to the extent he's been a moderating influence at the top."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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