Rex Tillerson was a titan of American industry, a man who ran a company with virtually its own foreign policy. But as U.S. secretary of state, the job that is supposed to come with vast influence over the nation’s foreign policy, he left nary a trace. On the U.S.-Israel relationship, his impact was nonexistent.
Though a man of obvious patriotism, talent and decency, his tenure was marked by several fatal flaws. He cut himself off from the State Department’s talent pool, the professional foreign service, declining their advice or even to hear it presented, and cloistering himself behind a small team of gatekeepers. He further squandered the goodwill of the agency he led by refusing to defend it from draconian budget cuts and allowing consultants to monopolize vast amounts of people’s time pursuing obvious or pointless management reforms.
But what made him truly the least effective secretary of state in memory was his strained relationship with President Donald Trump.
Their mutual disrespect was obvious – from Tillerson’s private disagreements with Trump that became public and his occasional voicing of their differences, to the president’s vicious undercutting of Tillerson’s diplomacy to defuse the Qatar crisis and to open a diplomatic channel to North Korea.
This gap placed a burden on Tillerson’s international credibility that it could not bear. Why, foreign leaders must have asked themselves, should we pay any attention to what Tillerson tells us, when it may be undone in 30 seconds by the next presidential tweet? It’s bad for the secretary to have his word so devalued. It’s worse for the nation. So he had to go.
But were his firing not splashed across the international headlines Tuesday, it is not certain Israeli leaders would notice his absence. Tillerson played virtually no role in the conduct of U.S.-Israeli affairs. Alone among secretaries of state in recent decades, he never made a solo trip to Israel – even last month when a regional tour took him to three of Israel’s neighbors only days after an Iranian drone incursion from Syria, and the ensuing exchanges in which Israel lost an F-16. The traditional expressions of solidarity and coordination of messaging to Israel’s neighbors and adversaries were not on his agenda.
That does not mean Tillerson did not care about Israel. Whenever he spoke on the subject, his words were supportive. But it does mean that in his tense exchanges with the White House, it had been made clear to him that Israel was not in his portfolio. Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt handled Israeli-Palestinian issues, and related coordination with Arab states. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster led the consultations with Israel on Syria. Tillerson’s staff may have been conducting negotiations with the Europeans on possible changes to the Iran nuclear deal, but the question of whether to fix it or nix it was a matter left to President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss.
Since Tillerson differed with the president, and with Israel, on key priorities – he argued against withdrawing from the Iran deal and opposed the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – both Trump and Netanyahu found it more comfortable to keep him out of the day-to-day of the relationship.
With the nomination of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to succeed Tillerson comes the prospect of restoring the traditional participation by the secretary of state in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Unlike Tillerson, who had never been to Israel before joining President Trump’s visit last May, Pompeo is familiar with the country from visiting while a member of Congress. His position on the Iran deal, of which he has been a vociferous critic, will make the conversations with Netanyahu far more comfortable and far more representative of Trump’s views. Those same views will make Pompeo a welcome guest in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, another arena in which Tillerson struggled.
The challenge on the U.S. side of integrating the secretary of state into the conduct of U.S.-Israeli discourse that has been conducted by others will not be difficult to manage, even if a few feathers get ruffled. Pompeo’s clear identification with many of Trump’s views will make him far more effective than Tillerson ever was with friends like Israel, and in projecting messages to adversaries.
But the bigger challenge for Pompeo will be solving the puzzles of Trump’s policies themselves. If the United States withdraws from the Iran deal, as now appears far more likely, what pressure, with what allies, can the United States and Israel generate to prevent Iran from resuming its nuclear program? How will President Trump conduct nuclear negotiations with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, at the same time the United States is canceling the nuclear deal with Iran? Can Pompeo, a longtime hard-liner on Russia, hold Moscow’s feet to the fire on election interference, Iran’s military installations in Syria, and now a chemical weapons assassination attempt in the United Kingdom if Trump refuses to criticize President Vladimir Putin?
For the first hint at the answers, tune in to Secretary-designate Pompeo’s confirmation hearings.
Daniel B. Shapiro is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and former United States Ambassador to Israel (2011-2017). Follow him on Twitter: @DanielBShapiro
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now