Photo: Cliff Owen, FRE
WASHINGTON – During a walk through a park in Switzerland this fall, with reporters in tow, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was drawn to a sphere-shaped sculpture of two figures huddled together, embracing.
Only two weeks earlier, the former Exxon Mobil CEO had gone before cameras to deny he was resigning his post as his relationship with President Donald Trump soured over tweets undercutting Tillerson’s foreign policy agenda and reports that Tillerson, in a moment of frustration, had called the president a “moron.”
Looking at that sculpture, Tillerson quipped: “Some days I feel like I need to do that. Curl up in a ball.”
After a career spent through the ranks of the Texas oil industry to arrive at the CEO’s suite at one of the world’s largest oil companies, Tillerson’s grand attempt to transition into political life has run repeatedly into turbulence, most recently shaken by a White House leak that chief of staff John Kelly has drawn up a plan to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a former congressman who has developed a close relationship with the president. Both Tillerson and Trump – Tillerson in a brief comment to reporters, Trump in a tweet – have denied efforts are afoot to push the secretary of state out of office, but many in Washington believe its only a matter of time, perhaps weeks, before Tillerson makes his exit.
To read this article in one of Houston’s most-spoken languages, click on the button below.
“I’m surprised he’s lasted this long with the personality he has,” said Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who knows Tillerson from his days running Exxon Mobil. “He is very serious and matter of fact, and President Trump is more … theatrical, I guess is the word.”
This latest round of palace intrigue has raised the question of whether Tillerson’s struggles were inevitable, given the vastly different personalities of the taciturn Texan and the flamboyant New Yorker, or of Tillerson’s own making. An engineer by training who spent his entire professional career at Exxon, Tillerson struck many in the foreign relations community as an odd choice from the start.
Unlike his predecessors, Tillerson, 65, had never worked in Washington, a town with its own rules and mores, and a world away from the technocratic culture of Exxon. He has struggled to make allies in Congress and among the State Department’s career diplomats, who can help ensure success, analysts said.
Headquartered outside Dallas, away from massive operations in Houston and other global energy centers, Exxon has operated for decades under a strict management strategy that promotes efficiency and the relentless pursuit of minimizing risk – the legacy of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Tillerson came up through the executive ranks of Exxon under that strategy, and when he arrived in the State Department’s historic Foggy Bottom headquarters, on the banks of Washington’s Potomac River, he set about overhauling a bureaucracy more than 200 years in the making with almost 70,000 employees worldwide.
In a speech to State Department staff in September, Tillerson told staff, such a “redesign” would “enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient, and for all of you to take great satisfaction in what you do day in and day out.”
But so far, Tillerson has been short on details, and delays in hiring and promotions while he carries out his grand strategy have turned many within the State Department against him, prompting condemnation from former top department officials and members of Congress from both parties.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and its really sour” at headquarters, said Ronald E. Neumann, a former ambassador in Africa during the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “He talks about he wants to make everything better and then there’s a bunch of management gobbledygook. There has been no coherent briefing of the Hill, and Congress is frustrated.”
As the head of one of the world’s largest oil companies, Tillerson had both experience working abroad and longstanding relationships with leaders in parts of the world that have long occupied an outsized share of U.S. attention abroad. Foreign policy analysts particularly saw the potential for Tillerson to have an impact in the Middle East, where civil wars are raging in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
Tillerson’s relationships within Middle East players like Russia and Saudi Arabia raised expectations among diplomats that might be able to help move the warring factions toward peace talks. But this summer, after Tillerson urged the Saudis and other Middle East leaders to resolve differences and end a blockade of Qatar, Trump threw Tillerson’s peace broker strategy into question, tweeting that Qatar was a “funder of terrorism at a very high level” and “the time had come to call on Qatar to end that funding.”
“Once that happened, U.S. neutrality fell by the wayside,” said Jim Krane, a fellow in energy geopolitics at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy.
With Trump taking sides, it undermined Tillerson’s chances for what might have been an early foreign policy accomplishment in a region that has long bedeviled secretaries of state. Trump also has undercut Tillerson on North Korea with belligerent “fire and fury” statements and tweets as Tillerson sought to calm escalating tensions around North Korea’s nuclear program situation through quieter diplomacy.
Department’s budget cut
Meanwhile, Tillerson’s attempts to conciliate the rank and file at Foggy Bottom were complicated by the White House’s call for an 8 percent cut in the State Department’s budget, a move that would inevitably force large-scale layoffs in the diplomatic corps. And any hope Tillerson might have had of getting his restructuring completed quickly were likely dashed by the announcement that Maliz Beams, the former CEO of a retirement services firm hired to help execute Tillerson’s plans, quit after just three months on the job.
“There’s going to be a lot of stories trying to fathom what happened, but 90 percent of this is going to be [Tillerson] just wasn’t up to doing the job,” said Gary Schmitt, a former intelligence official in the Reagan administration and now a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “He didn’t get people hired. People wouldn’t work for him. It was chaos. A new CEO can come in and decide we’re going to have four divisions instead of 10, and that’s fine. But Washington doesn’t work that way.”
In a media briefing last month, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert acknowledged a morale issue, but defended Tillerson’s overhaul efforts as a collaborative one involving veteran members of the department.
“That’s why I say, you know, ‘Folks, hang in there,’ ” she said. “‘We have a lot of work to be done. Please don’t give up.'”
Foreign affairs analysts say that Trump, whose contradictions of the secretary of state’s policy positions have little precedent, shares the blame for the turmoil at State. Early on, Tillerson and Trump seemed to share a rapport, with Tillerson a regular visitor to the White House, but those visits have diminished in recent months, with Pompeo instead the more regular guest, Schmitt said.
Kelly, who was long seen as an ally of Tillerson’s, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, is believed to have tired of the drama coming from Foggy Bottom.
“Tillerson has made some enemies at State,” Krane said. “People usually quiet, under the radar are speaking out about the gutting of the department, which put him in an impossible situation. He’s lost the confidence of the folks above him, and if you’re antagonizing the people below you, it’s a pretty tough working environment.”