EDI­TO­RIAL: “He was a steady hand in an un­steady ad­min­is­tra­tion,”

He was a steady hand in an un­steady ad­min­is­tra­tion

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page -

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.

Jonathan Ernst/the As­so­ci­ated Press

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