by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Before entering my harsh words about of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s op-ed essay “I am proud of American diplomacy” published in the The New York Times on 29 December, I owe it to readers to acknowledge that from the moment Tillerson was nominated for the post, I was an enthusiastic supporter, seeing in him one of the very few candidates for high office placed before the Senate by Donald Trump who appeared to have the intellectual, psychological and experiential preparation to take office fully prepared for his mission.
Bearing in mind Donald Trump’s heavy emphasis on foreign policy during his campaign and his brave denunciation of the regime change and democracy promotion policies that had gotten the United States into a never-ending string of foreign military adventures from the mid 1990s, there was good reason to hope that Tillerson’s mission would be to change policy direction from the path of war to a path of accommodation with the world at large and to cut his department’s headcount in keeping with the more modest ambitions of the new foreign policy. Cutting personnel would have two elements: delayering those specialized units that had special responsibility for democracy promotion and humanitarian actions and winnowing out the ideological zealots who had infiltrated all of the State Department under the direction of Dick Cheney in the period following 9/11.
At the start of his confirmation hearings in the Senate, Rex Tillerson read from a prepared speech in which he made reference to the formative elements in his education, his later career in business and his charitable work with Boy Scouts of America. Foremost among these was the guiding principle of seeking the truth and following it wherever it would lead him. Against the background of a President renowned for contempt for facts, this seemed to be a powerful and very relevant plus in favor of the incoming Secretary of State.
For most of the past nine months, Tillerson’s work at State was in the shadows. He avoided the press. We heard only about his disputes with his boss in connection with what he felt was inappropriate meddling by Trump’s relatives and associates in selection of his subordinates. Then we heard Tillerson’s remark that Trump is a “moron” after they had a falling out in a cabinet meeting at which Trump reportedly asked what is the value of our nuclear arsenal if we never use it. We heard about large scale retirements of senior staff in policy making at State’s seventh floor, and about the dozens of unfilled ambassadorial posts. In sum, what we heard about Tillerson seemed to confirm that he was meeting our expectations from his swearing in.
However, from the very start we were perplexed at the sharp contradictions between what seemed to be the reasonable tone of Tillerson and the verbal excesses of our U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who continued directly the anti-Russian invective that was the trademark of her predecessor under President Obama, Samantha Power. Then there were the contradictions between Tillerson’s initiatives, as for example, his suggestion of opening talks with North Korea without preconditions and the brutal dismissal of such notions by Trump. The result was a vision of the administration as uncoordinated, even chaotic.
To be sure, there were also worrying signs of inconsistencies within Tillerson’s own scope of action and speech that we preferred to ignore. The first jolt came in the context of Trump’s cruise missile attack on the Sheirat air base in Syria on 7 April. Within hours of the event, there was Tillerson repeating the entirely unproven allegation of a Syrian government chemical attack on civilians in Idlib province that cried out for such a riposte from America. There was Tillerson turning a deaf ear to Russian calls for a full and impartial investigation of the incident. One could conclude that Tillerson’s search for truth to guide policy had died early in his tenure.
Then in the autumn, we heard from Tillerson that the United States will never acknowledge Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, and that sanctions against Russia will stay in place so long as there is no full implementation of the Minsk Accords, which means forever.
Now, with his new essay in The New York Times, Rex Tillerson has shown us that there are no contradictions, that he has become a mouthpiece of Trump and of the aggressive, shall we say obnoxious America Firsters, who have been standing on the front of the stage ever since Trump took office. What seemed like impartiality at his swearing in was nothing more than an empty head, which has since taking office been steadily filled with the vicious prejudices of the staff he was supposed to turn around or dismiss.
Fine comb reading of the op-ed
From start to finish, Tillerson’s op-ed piece repeats allegations as facts, repeats and builds on outright lies fabricated in Washington, and makes false claims about the achievements of US foreign policy on his watch.
His opening claim that the United States State Department has made encouraging progress “in pushing for global peace and stability” would be laughable if it were not tragic, given the tensions that the country has stoked in Syria, in Ukraine, in North Korea by the intemperate language and deeds of his President and colleagues, now of Tillerson himself.
With respect to North Korea, the most dangerous issue currently facing U.S. foreign policy, Tillerson points to the success of his department in achieving imposition of ever tougher sanctions with the unanimous agreement of the UN Security Council. He ignores the military provocation posed by U.S. joint exercises and dispatch of a nuclear armed naval force to Korean waters, all of which arguably made the missile and nuclear tests of Pyongyang more brazen than ever.
Tillerson claims success in relations with China by defending U.S. interests against that country’s unfair trading practices and “troubling military activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere.” However, that is a totally empty boast.
Equally empty and still more offensive to an informed audience is his claim that by its delegation of authority to American military commanders in the field, the Trump administration has led its Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS to victory, having recaptured “virtually all of previously held Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria.” Not a word here about the Russians and their vastly more effective leadership within the Syrian military theater acting together with the army of Bashar Assad, the Iranians and Hezbollah, in cooperation with Iraq and Turkey. To add insult to injury, Tillerson claims that his diplomats “were following up with humanitarian aid and assistance.” This is a claim without any demonstrated substance, whereas the Russian assistance in food, mine-clearing and restarting infrastructure is shown daily on television.
Tillerson’s remarks about Russia make one wonder aloud where are his brains. He says “we have no illusions about the regime we are dealing with.” This is a page straight out of Samantha Power’s playbook. What follows is the familiar Washington litany. Russia is “resurgent,” it has “invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine.” For good measure, Russia has “undermined the sovereignty of Western nations,” a reference to “meddling in our election and others.” And once again, “there cannot be business as usual with Russia” till the Minsk agreements are strictly adhered to.
As for Syria, Tillerson has flip-flopped to where we were before he ever took office: the Geneva talks on the country’s future must “produce a Syria that is free of Bashar al-Assad and his family.” In the context of the Sochi talks soon to begin under patronage of Iran, Turkey and Russia at which all minorities and stakeholders in the future Syrian constitution are represented, Tillerson’s remarks are absurd.
Tillerson also puts the full weight of his office behind the Iran-bashing policies of his boss. He is busy building alliances in the region against Iran and planning to “punish Iran for its violations of…commitments.”
Finally, the Secretary of State mentions the restructuring of his department which he has overseen this past year. The objective, he tells us is “streamlining our human resources and information technology systems…., better aligning personnel and resources with America’s strategic priorities.” To anyone with an ear attuned to corporate double-talk, this utterly false description of the HR wreckage in his department will sound very familiar.
The only consolation in the entire op-ed is Tillerson’s optimism “about the power of diplomacy to resolve conflicts and advance American interests.” What grounds he has for such optimism in the context of the deceipt and lies that riddle his presentation are a mystery to me.
How could this be? Tillerson does not need the State Department post to cap his career, which already had so many laurels from his chairmanship of Exxon. No, something else is operative, and I venture it is the same as what explains the inconsistent and frequently changing policy positions of his boss: namely that in his own way, Tillerson is also a “moron.”
Let me be very explicit here. IQ is not the issue. There are very few folks who will perform poorly on intelligence tests among Trump and his administration. But stupidity is as stupidity does. And the reason for the commonality, say, between Trump and Tillerson, is that both have come to office with empty heads. Devoid of the facts and education essential to independently and competently make sense of their surroundings and of all incoming data so as to formulate and implement appropriate strategies.
This conclusion may be counter-intuitive when we are speaking of captains of industry. However, I am not speculating, I am speaking from my personal experience working for and with Vice Presidents, International and other members of the board of major US, UK and Canadian multinational corporations.
I have rubbed shoulders with my share of highly paid and widely respected business leaders, who left me astonished at their low intellectual merits, disregard for factual briefings prepared by their assistants and reliance on “gut instinct” to take major decisions on investments, joint ventures and other business initiatives. How then do you explain the undisputed success of American big business in terms of profitability, investor confidence and entrepreneurial dynamism?
The answer is simple: brute force. Market dominance allows the number one, maybe also the number two player in any given market to absorb very big losses from bad business decisions, recoup the losses from the revenue flow of their main clientele, and tweak the failing initiatives until they pay off, which they often will, again due to market dominance.
These are the lessons which Messrs. Trump and Tillerson and others in the Trump Administration have brought with them to high office. It is what feeds the animal spirits of America First. It is behind the Realist School thinking of the new National Security Strategy which Trump rolled out in December. Put in simpler language: under Trump U.S. foreign policy comes down to “might makes right.” Forget facts. Forget all the claptrap about human rights and democracy promotion. We stand for “might makes right.” That, and a good dose of raw selfishness.
Here Trump, the real estate developer and Tillerson, the boss of the country’s largest oil company are indistinguishable.
None of this makes for “Soft Power.” And it is no surprise that the concept of ‘soft power’ is OUT in this administration. It is the new passé.
It is unclear whether the “might makes right” foreign policy will be more or less prone to armed aggression abroad than was Humanitarian Interventionism or Neocon prodding of History’s eventual course towards global and universal democracy. But it is clear that the new transparency in US foreign policy will upset a great many allies, for whom there is no longer a fig leaf to justify knee-jerk agreement with every demand coming from Washington. That was perfectly clear in yesterday’s statements by EU chief diplomat Frederica Mogherini during her visit to Cuba that the EU will ignore what Washington says and continue its policy of no-sanctions and growing rapprochement with Havana in pursuit of Europe’s commercial interests. We saw the same in the recent UN General Assembly vote on the resolution against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, when the United States found itself isolated, abandoned by nearly all friends, allies and vassals. The “i” was dotted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his press conference yesterday with Emmanuel Macron. With reference to the UN General Assembly vote, Erdogan explained that while some countries may believe that “might makes right,” they are sadly mistaken. It is the other way around, he insisted. Only the truly hard of hearing in Washington will miss this cue.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/ For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg