By Jonathan Stevenson, Senior Fellow for US Defence, Editor of Strategic Comments
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom President Donald Trump fired on Tuesday without warning by way of a typically childish and vindictive tweet, had been marked for dismissal for several months. Unlike Trump, Tillerson had favoured continuation of the Iran nuclear deal, keeping the United States in the Paris climate accord and taking the diplomatic initiative with North Korea. He also manifested rising concern about Russia’s interference with the US political process. Added to these policy differences, Tillerson allegedly made disparaging remarks about the president’s mental acuity.
Tillerson survived until last week only because of the White House’s reluctance to appear even more chaotic and abandoned than it already did, and perhaps because of a residual hope that, as a former ExxonMobil chairman who had established a strong relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tillerson might yet deliver on the president’s promise of better relations with Russia.
The final straw appeared to be Tillerson’s statement that the US was ‘outraged’ by the attempted murder of a former Russian spy and his daughter with military-grade nerve agent in the United Kingdom on 4 March, for which he said Russia was ‘clearly’ responsible. In any other administration, to be fired for castigating Moscow over an assassination operation undertaken in a close American ally’s territory would be extraordinary. In any case, the causes of Tillerson’s departure were cumulative, and its consequences are likely to be significant.
Mike Pompeo – a hawkish Trump loyalist
Tillerson’s nominated replacement is Mike Pompeo, presently director of the CIA. Pompeo is an unabashed Trump loyalist who has endorsed the president’s policy-by-tweet as an effective means of eliciting informative international reactions; he has also recast the president’s daily brief to accommodate Trump’s distaste for nuance and detail. Pompeo has downplayed the CIA’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and tended to veer outside his professional lane.
Earlier this week he not only aired his doubts that North Korea would ever bargain away its nuclear weapons, but also guaranteed that ‘no concessions’ would be made to Pyongyang while any bilateral talks were under way – a promise that was clearly above his pay grade as CIA director, even if it was probably made in anticipation of his elevation.
The main concern is that whereas Tillerson was at least a moderate realist, Pompeo is a hawkish ‘America First’ primacist, which means he will tend to reinforce Trump’s most impulsive and bellicose tendencies. Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, another realist at heart who has supposedly questioned Trump’s intelligence, may also leave as national security adviser. One rumoured replacement is John Bolton, a notoriously reactionary and excitable hawk who has served in several senior State Department positions; he may now have the upper hand over former National Security Council executive secretary Stephen Biegun, a more moderate choice.
Expect a more disruptive US foreign policy
Though not a Trump loyalist, Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s proposed replacement at the CIA and presently CIA deputy director, is also controversial. She oversaw the infamous CIA ‘black site’ in Thailand and supported the agency’s illegal destruction of videotapes of waterboarding. Her tentative promotion seems to imply Trump’s sanitisation of torture as a US counter-terrorism tool – something that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Senator John McCain had initially dissuaded him from doing.
In this light, the recent shakeup could set the stage for an appreciably more disruptive Trump administration foreign policy. In particular, the administration will become more apt to conclusively disavow the Iran nuclear deal, unleash US forces against Iranian proxies in the Middle East and launch a military strike against North Korea. In turn, Mattis and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, who alongside Tillerson and sometimes McMaster have reportedly blunted Trump’s recklessly aggressive impulses, would face greater pressure to acquiesce to them.
The actual and prospective turnover in the Trump administration also exposes discomfiting bureaucratic dynamics that are likely to further degrade the country’s performance in the foreign policy arena and lower international confidence in American leadership.
In choosing Pompeo to replace Tillerson, Trump has continued to indulge his penchant for appointing people primarily on the basis of political and stylistic compatibility rather than experience and competence. Tillerson was unschooled as a diplomat or government bureaucrat, and presumed to use his corporate sensibility to streamline the State Department and make it more efficient.
Instead, he isolated himself and decimated the ranks of experienced Foreign Service officers and State Department civil servants, rendering the department dispirited, understaffed and dysfunctional. Pompeo is not a professional diplomat either, just as he was not a professional intelligence officer, and he is unlikely to be motivated to repair the severe institutional damage that Tillerson has done to the State Department.
Pompeo probably will not face serious difficulties in Senate confirmation hearings. Haspel, however, could meet stiff resistance over her supervision of CIA detention and interrogation policies. This could overwhelm the positive optics of Trump’s appointing the first female CIA director.
In Trump’s White House, only sycophants survive
In any case, Tillerson’s frustrations – and to some extent McMaster’s – have made it increasingly clear that, with the qualified exception of Mattis, for a principal in the Trump administration to be truly effective, he or she must become something close to a sycophant who parrots the president’s often ill-considered views and works to advance them. On that basis, the greatest risk posed by the shakeup is not that Trump’s new appointees will be less effective than their predecessors, but rather that they will be more so.