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United States

Rex Tillerson was fired for failing to check the Russian offensive, not because of politics

Hugh Dugan says the back-and-forth bickering between Tillerson and Trump should not hide the fact that the outgoing secretary of state was ineffective at his job, as evidenced by the mounting threat of Russia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 2:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 2:25pm

Outgoing US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been in the morgue for over six months. When I say morgue, I refer to the place where journalists store their draft obituaries on the rich and powerful, putting them on ice until the actual death occurs. The need to be quick to publish requires it.

But Tillerson was slow in moving towards a career death that was self-inflicted. Like a smoker, he committed suicide on the instalment plan. His personal and political differences with President Donald Trump fired up with regularity, and often on camera. Finally, the president had to act. Like most tobacco addicts, Tillerson refused to take the hints. He succumbed suddenly to the stroke of a blindsiding tweet.

Was Tillerson a wrong fit from the start, or did it happen over time? Trump did not have a television season of 13 weeks to hire his “apprentice” secretary of state.

As the most senior member of the cabinet, the secretary of state is fourth in line of succession to the presidency, and the most senior non-elected official in the federal government. Its face needs to vibe with the people’s choice in the Oval Office.

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In his search, I believe Trump looked for a relationship manager above all else. His secretary of state would prep the deals, maintain interest and arrange for the president to do the “closing”. Tillerson would be the adult in the room with troublesome world figures, one who understood the grit of business, resources and power. Tillerson’s Rolodex groaned under the names of titans of industry and foreign heads of state such as Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson would manage the testy relationship with Russia like no other, thought Trump.

This well-developed Tillerson-Putin relationship was the selling point in the secretary of state’s confirmation process. But instead of running the coach’s play and bringing the squad to the end zone, Tillerson played a middling defensive game of attrition that Trump couldn’t watch anymore.

Over the past 14 months, Russian bedevilments increased, pitchforking the White House and the US electorate this past year to distraction: all part of Putin’s ongoing “hybrid warfare” to undermine American resolve in the world. Tillerson was as missing in action as his Russian-recusing co-captain Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Was he on the team or not?

So, coincidentally on the same day British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats for Soviet-style treachery, the president expelled his top diplomat Tillerson for not being Moscow-oriented enough, for having failed to check Russian’s unrelenting offensive in international affairs.

Tillerson had little beyond his ‘relationship guy’ appeal to qualify him as a statesman

Tillerson in fact had little beyond his “relationship guy” appeal to qualify him as a statesman – someone who represents to the world above one’s domestic politics.

Tillerson never experienced public accountability in the political world. Not a household name, he lived his entire career in one corporate culture where he defaulted to a top-down management approach that had served him as ExxonMobil’s chief executive officer for years. And just as “deep state” power wielders in Washington habitually do, Tillerson assumed a prerogative that instead rightly belongs to voters and shareholders.

Like so many management-class employees who depend upon anonymity to authorise to themselves outsize salaries and private jets, he settled naturally among the deep state mentality within the State Department – to include levelling with the boss in public.

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Tillerson tried to appear otherwise by whacking the department’s organisational charts and office suite silos – the private-sector version of saying there’s a new sheriff in town. But doing so in that unfamiliar world marred his chances of survival.

So perhaps Trump’s choice was poor – recruiting a relationship guy, more “quarterly statements” than statesman. But CEOs come and go all the time, and they always land on their feet.

Hugh Dugan, a retired US diplomat, advised 11 US ambassadors to the United Nations from 1989-2015. He is distinguished visiting scholar and adjunct professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations