EDITORIAL: “He was a steady hand in an unsteady administration,”
He was a steady hand in an unsteady administration
In the scrum of American politics, Rex Tillerson didn’t last long. After little more than a year, the secretary of state is now out even as the world is still absorbing the news from last week that President Donald Trump decided on the fly to personally meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un later this year.
The world moves pretty fast, but before we all get lost in the details of why Tillerson is out and why the man Trump derisively calls Rocket Man is in, or at least on the president’s personal dance card, let’s consider what the secretary’s of state’s departure means.
In Tillerson — the former CEO of Exxon Mobil — the president had someone whom world leaders respected and that sober-minded Americans came to believe was a steady hand in an unsteady administration. Those lines might sound like filler, but here is why they are important: It is essential for Americans to have confidence in top officials if they are also to have confidence in our foreign policy. There is a tendency in this country to turn inward even as circumstances require engaging the world. And a lack of trust in those at the top only feeds those tendencies.
If Americans were just getting the presidency they were promised when they elected Trump, we might say that elections have consequences and move on. But there is a larger point here. Tillerson had become a check on the president’s impulses. He served the president best by serving the country well.
Now with Tillerson’s unceremonious dismissal, that’s gone. And it is being replaced by the president’s gut instinct, on-and-off-again enthusiasms and transactional approach. What’s lacking is a guiding set of principles that can orient American support and inform future policy decisions.
Trump’s choice to succeed Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, might supply those principles. He’s a former congressman best known for his hawkish views on foreign policy. But he is known more recently for his fervent defense of Trump while serving in his current role as CIA director.
That bodes well in at least one respect. No secretary of state can succeed without the sustained public support of the president. Tillerson had something close to the opposite of that as he tried to carry out the duties of what has traditionally been seen as the most important Cabinet position.
But Trump’s problem has never been so simple as a lack of loyalty among his advisers. What’s missing is any capacity to accommodate a diverse range of views and approaches — and through the alchemy of inspired leadership offer a coherent path forward others can follow.
Trump has steadily undermined any who would seek to constrain his unorthodox and often break-the-windows governance. He has belittled Attorney General Jeff Sessions and clashed with others in his inner circle, from his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. Mcmaster, to chief of staff John Kelly. Like those leaders, Tillerson had sought to fit Trump’s policies within a framework, especially on the world stage where basic respect for the international institutions and norms has served previous administrations well.
That’s a bumpy way to pursue a domestic political agenda, even if it can also reset expectations that have often become too rigidly enshrined as either liberal or conservative orthodoxy.
But on foreign affairs, that bumpy approach can lead to crash landings. And be it possible trade wars or the risk of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, crash landings can lead to dire consequences.
Tillerson had his shortcomings, but an unsteady hand wasn’t among them. With his ouster, Trump is showing he wants no hands but his on the steering wheel as he charts the course for this nation’s foreign and domestic policies. The problem is, his strategy seems to intentionally be an unsteady hand.