Tiller­son walks fine line be­tween Trump, global com­mu­nity

Mixed mes­sages raise ques­tions

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Pres­i­dent Trump is in front of the rhetor­i­cal brinkman­ship with North Korea, but it’s Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son who has the tough be­hindthe-scenes role of manag­ing fall­out from the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first gen­uine in­ter­na­tional cri­sis, sparked by re­ports that Py­ongyang may now have a nu­clear bomb small enough to fit on a mis­sile that could hit the U.S. main­land.

The stand­off is a defin­ing mo­ment for America’s top diplo­mat six months into his ten­ure at Foggy Bottom. Mean­while, many key lead­er­ship posts — in­clud­ing am­bas­sador to South Korea — re­main un­filled, fears of bud­get cuts and re­or­ga­ni­za­tions are high, and ques­tions swirl over how much clout the former Exxon Mo­bil chief has with the pres­i­dent.

But Mr. Tiller­son, who has been crit­i­cized from the left and scru­ti­nized from the right over spec­u­la­tion that he is not on mes­sage with Mr. Trump, has built a rep­u­ta­tion for cool non­cha­lance un­der pres­sure that sup­port­ers say is ex­actly what is needed to pro­vide a foun­da­tion of calm be­hind a pres­i­dent bent on con­fronting North Korea.

How­ever, no­body said it was going to be easy. Take last week: It be­gan with Mr. Tiller­son in East Asia pri­vately cel­e­brat­ing how he and U.S. Am­bas­sador to the U.N. Nikki Ha­ley had pulled off the sur­prise tri­umph of get­ting a unan­i­mous United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to ap­prove a res­o­lu­tion with the most se­vere sanc­tions pack­age ever against

North Korea.

By Tues­day, how­ever, the whole idea of diplo­macy with Py­ongyang was turned on its head when Mr. Trump made in­ter­na­tional head­lines by vow­ing to meet any fu­ture threats from the regime of Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

What came next was as good an ex­am­ple as any of Mr. Tiller­son’s del­i­cate role, State Depart­ment watch­ers say.

The sec­re­tary of state backed up his boss by say­ing the pres­i­dent’s strong words were needed “be­cause [Mr. Kim] doesn’t seem to un­der­stand diplo­matic lan­guage.”

But Mr. Tiller­son also threaded a diplo­matic nee­dle by im­me­di­ately adding that he didn’t be­lieve there was any im­mi­nent threat of an at­tack by Py­ongyang and by ex­press­ing con­fi­dence that diplo­macy — with help from China and Rus­sia — can work.

The sub­tle mes­sag­ing may have worked on the world stage, but Mr. Tiller­son quickly found him­self in a storm of me­dia scru­tiny over whether or not he was breaking ranks with Mr. Trump.

James Carafano, a scholar at The Her­itage Foun­da­tion who ad­vised Mr. Trump’s tran­si­tion team on for­eign pol­icy, de­fended the sec­re­tary of state. He ar­gued that the var­ied mes­sages were aimed at dif­fer­ent au­di­ences, with Mr. Trump speak­ing to the Amer­i­can peo­ple and Mr. Tiller­son fo­cus­ing on the global com­mu­nity and ner­vous U.S. al­lies in the re­gion.

Writ­ing in The Na­tional In­ter­est jour­nal over the week­end, Mr. Carafano ar­gued that Mr. Tiller­son is so fo­cused on be­hind-the-scenes diplo­macy and not on gen­er­at­ing head­lines that when he does speak pub­licly, his words carry un­usual weight in the press.

“Re­porters and pun­dits,” Mr. Carafano wrote, “stam­pede to find some sen­tence that will al­low them to as­sert that the sec­re­tary ‘breaks with the pres­i­dent.’”

“Tiller­son has lit­tle use for over­hyped con­tro­versy that does not con­trib­ute to get­ting the depart­ment’s mes­sage out or ad­vanc­ing U.S. for­eign pol­icy,” the an­a­lyst said. “So he just doesn’t en­gage.”

Slammed by the me­dia

Mr. Tiller­son hasn’t been pop­u­lar with many in­side his depart­ment since he as­serted months ago that its spend­ing lev­els were not sus­tain­able and vowed to im­ple­ment Mr. Trump’s call for a 28 per­cent cut to U.S. diplo­macy and for­eign aid spend­ing next year. Law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill, in­clud­ing a num­ber of top Repub­li­cans, seemed more ea­ger to de­fend the depart­ment’s bud­get than did the sec­re­tary of state.

Un­ease about the sec­re­tary’s plan has grown while more than a dozen top depart­ment man­age­ment po­si­tions and am­bas­sador­ships re­main un­filled. In the ab­sence of hard news on how Mr. Tiller­son and his aides plan to over­haul the depart­ment, leaks have been com­mon and even the most in­nocu­ous pol­icy changes of­ten give a neg­a­tive spin.

The few man­agers who have been ap­pointed say the rea­son for the de­lay is that the sec­re­tary wants first to finish a ma­jor re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of the depart­ment aimed at mak­ing it run more ef­fi­ciently and bet­ter fo­cus­ing its op­er­a­tions to­ward im­ple­ment­ing Mr. Trump’s “America first” pri­or­i­ties.

But in­ter­nal strife over the re­or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gan spi­ral­ing in April, when it was leaked that Mr. Tiller­son was think­ing about elim­i­nat­ing 2,300 jobs in a depart­ment with 30,000 em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing about 8,000 For­eign Ser­vice of­fi­cers.

In the months since, there have been bit­ing news­pa­per cri­tiques and claims of diplo­mats flee­ing Foggy Bottom in anger over cuts and ide­o­log­i­cal rifts with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. “An ex­o­dus is un­der­way,” said a New York Times col­umn in late July. “Trump seems de­ter­mined to hol­low out the State Depart­ment in a strange act of na­tional self-am­pu­ta­tion.”

Mr. Tiller­son has opted against ad­dress­ing such claims head-on. In­stead, he has fo­cused on be­hind-the-scenes mes­sag­ing. He told staff and fam­i­lies at the U.S. Em­bassy in Malaysia last week that he was aware of the un­cer­tainty and ap­pre­ci­ated “what is going through a lot of peo­ple’s minds.”

But he also stressed that the re­or­ga­ni­za­tion will take into ac­count the con­cerns of the depart­ment’s rank and file and said “sit-down, lengthy, face-to­face in­ter­views with over 300 peo­ple in the depart­ment” have helped guide the process. “No one knows bet­ter what gets in the way of you be­ing ef­fec­tive than you, and that was re­ally what we’re want­ing to have some un­der­stand­ing of,” Mr. Tiller­son said. “An­swers are going to come from all of this.”

Deputy Sec­re­tary of State John J. Sul­li­van de­fended Mr. Tiller­son last week by telling re­porters at Foggy Bottom that neg­a­tive press cov­er­age fu­els “a mis­per­cep­tion both of the depart­ment and what we’re do­ing and [the sec­re­tary’s] role in the depart­ment.”

“I see those ar­ti­cles, [and] I try not to pay at­ten­tion,” Mr. Sul­li­van said. “I’m from Bos­ton and a New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots fan, and those of you who know foot­ball know Bill Belichick’s motto is: ‘Do your job and don’t pay at­ten­tion to the noise out there.’”

“But in this town,” he said, “it’s kind of hard to miss when your friends and col­leagues start call­ing you and email­ing you about the lat­est ar­ti­cle that ap­peared.”

Mr. Tiller­son and his team also seem in­dif­fer­ent at best to ar­gu­ing their side of the story, at least in pub­lic. Mr. Tiller­son’s first for­eign trips have in­cluded far fewer brief­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties than those of his pre­de­ces­sors, and the daily State Depart­ment press brief­ing, a tra­di­tion dat­ing back to the 1950s, has gone by the way­side.

While some brief­ings have re­sumed, ac­ri­mony re­mains among the press corps cov­er­ing Foggy Bottom over the sec­re­tary’s re­stric­tions on me­dia ac­cess.

What re­mains to be seen is whether the Tiller­son-Sul­li­van mes­sage will help defuse crit­i­cism in the me­dia, where Mr. Tiller­son is of­ten por­trayed as a lackey car­ry­ing out Mr. Trump’s or­ders while hav­ing his own le­git­i­macy un­der­cut by the pres­i­dent.

Crit­ics say the White House ve­toed Mr. Tiller­son’s early choices for key man­age­ment slots and that the pres­i­den­tial team, not the State Depart­ment, was han­dling broad swaths of for­eign pol­icy.

“Un­der Trump, the White House has seized con­trol of key for­eign pol­icy is­sues,” ar­gued a re­cent anal­y­sis in The New Yorker.

“The pres­i­dent’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, a real es­tate de­vel­oper, has been charged with bro­ker­ing Mid­dle East peace, nav­i­gat­ing U.S.-China re­la­tions, and the Mex­ico port­fo­lio. … Wash­ing­ton scut­tle­butt is con­sumed with tales of how Trump has stymied his own Sec­re­tary of State.”

On the same page?

There is also some ev­i­dence that Mr. Tiller­son and Mr. Trump are not al­ways on the same page. Their dif­fer­ent tones on the sever­ity of the cri­sis with North Korea is just the lat­est ex­am­ple.

While some an­a­lysts say the two are tac­itly en­gaged in a kind of “good cop/ bad cop” rou­tine to bol­ster Mr. Trump’s over­all ne­go­ti­at­ing lever­age, Mr. Tiller­son op­posed the de­ci­sion to with­draw from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord and is said to be a lead­ing voice against Mr. Trump’s clear de­sire to scut­tle the Iran nu­clear deal.

Meet­ing with re­porters last week at his golf course in Bed­min­ster, New Jersey, Mr. Trump sent his clear­est sig­nal to date that he is in­tent on declar­ing Tehran to be non­com­pli­ant with the 2015 ac­cord ne­go­ti­ated by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and five in­ter­na­tional part­ners. He in­sisted that Iran was vi­o­lat­ing the terms and the spirit of the deal.

But Mr. Tiller­son, ac­knowl­edg­ing he and Mr. Trump dif­fer on the is­sue, has ar­gued that such a move would have mo­men­tous neg­a­tive con­se­quences with U.S. al­lies party to the deal and that the U.S. would have more lever­age to pres­sure Iran if it stays in the agree­ment.

On a sep­a­rate front, Mr. Trump and Mr. Tiller­son worked at cross-pur­poses in June when, just after Mr. Trump de­liv­ered his highly an­tic­i­pated speech in Saudi Ara­bia re­assert­ing U.S. lead­er­ship in the Mid­dle East, a vi­cious spat be­tween Qatar and its Gulf Arab neigh­bors broke into the open.

Sev­eral na­tions, led by Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt, abruptly cut ties with Qatar over its al­leged sup­port of ter­ror­ism, pro­mo­tion of Al Jazeera and re­la­tion­ship with Iran, di­vid­ing cru­cial U.S. al­lies at a time when Mr. Trump hoped to present a united front against Iran and Is­lamist ter­ror­ist groups.

Mr. Trump quickly jumped into the fray on Twit­ter, seem­ing to side with the Saudis in their con­tention that Qatar, home to one of the crit­i­cal U.S. mil­i­tary bases in the re­gion, was sup­port­ing ter­ror­ist groups.

Mr. Tiller­son ap­pealed for a diplo­matic truce and prod­ded the dis­put­ing sides to at least start talk­ing. He also helped se­cure amend­ments to Qatar’s anti-ter­ror­ism laws.

But the cri­sis re­mains at a boil­ing point, and some re­gional an­a­lysts say it is not helped by the ap­pear­ance that Mr. Trump is be­hind the Saudi-led bloc and Mr. Tiller­son sup­ports Qatar, where he once had deep re­la­tion­ships as CEO of Exxon Mo­bil Corp.

The whis­pers about Mr. Tiller­son’s long-term plans — there was briefly talk of a pos­si­ble “Rexit” this sum­mer when the sec­re­tary’s frus­tra­tion was said to be mount­ing — show no signs of sub­sid­ing.

The pres­i­dent and the na­tion’s top diplo­mat were again forced to deny there was day­light be­tween them as re­cently as Fri­day, when Mr. Trump mixed more hawk­ish rhetoric with an as­sur­ance that he and Mr. Tiller­son were “to­tally on the same page” when it comes to Py­ongyang.

Mr. Tiller­son, stand­ing at the pres­i­dent’s side, said some­times it takes “a com­bined mes­sage if we’re going to get ef­fec­tive move­ment out of the regime in North Korea.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Trump spoke after meet­ing with Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son and U.S. Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions Nikki Ha­ley on Fri­day. Mr. Tiller­son and Mrs. Ha­ley last week man­aged to get a unan­i­mous United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to ap­prove a res­o­lu­tion with the most se­vere sanc­tions pack­age ever against North Korea.

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