Analysis

Tillerson's Sacking Will Shock America and the World - but Delight Israel

The secretary of state’s cardinal sin was that he didn’t kowtow to Trump to the degree that the president craves and requires

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a news conference in Bogota, Colombia. February 6, 2018
\ JAIME SALDARRIAGA/ REUTERS

Israel and its right wing American supporters will rejoice in the unceremonious sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his replacement with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Tillerson was seen as reserved and distant about Israel, while Pompeo is viewed as a warm supporter. Tillerson sought to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, while Pompeo is aligned with the demand of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu to fix it, or, in greater likelihood, abandon it altogether. The appointment of Gina Haspel as Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA could also be seen as advantageous: She was in charge of “black” counterterrorist operations for many years and was implicated in alleged use and cover-up of torture against radical Islamic ringleaders.

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Throughout much of the world and inside America, however, the reactions could be markedly different. Tillerson’s dismissal heightens fear of an isolationist United States that thumbs its nose at traditional allies. Even though it was generally known to be in the works, the abrupt dismissal, which Tillerson learned about from Twitter as he made his way back from a tour of Africa, highlights the constant chaos that seems to be a hallmark of the Trump presidency, with once trusted aides and cabinet members ignominiously coming and going through his eternally revolving door. And while both Pompeo and Haspel are considered more hawkish than Tillerson on Russia, his removal less than 24 hours after bluntly accusing Moscow of responsibility for the attempted murder of its former spy Sergei Skripal in Great Britain can only enhance suspicions that Trump gets his marching orders directly from the Kremlin.

Trump and Tillerson were an odd couple from the outset. The president did not know the former Chairman of Exxon when he lured him to forego his multi-million dollar salary at Exxon for a stint at the State Department. Tillerson was unhappy with Trump’s unilateral decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum, suspecting that the move could launch an international trade war as well as strain already tense relations with America’s closest allies, especially in Europe. White House sources asserted on Tuesday that one of the main reasons for Tillerson’s removal was his reservations about Trump’s shock-decision to meet Kim Jong Un; Pompeo is said to have been more supportive of a high-risk meeting with the North Korean dictator.

But Tillerson’s cardinal sin was that he didn’t kowtow to Trump to the degree that the president apparently craves and requires, for which he was rewarded with a constant stream of insults and put downs emanating from the White House. His goose may have been cooked as early as last October, when he was quoted as describing Trump as “a moron”, and according to some accounts, “a f..king moron”. As someone who built his career on the oil industry’s discrete, backdoor parlance, Tillerson was often appalled by Trump’s blunt vitriol in both domestic and international affairs. Tillerson, who devoted long years to the Boy Scouts movement, was certainly horrified to hear Trump include harsh political attacks as well as sexual innuendo in his July address to a Boy Scout jamboree.

But Trump wasn’t the only one who was unhappy with Tillerson. World leaders realized rather quickly that the secretary of state didn’t always speak for his president. Like many Israeli foreign ministers, Tillerson didn’t think highly of the cabinet department he was in charge of: He accepted draconic cuts in the State Department budget, declined to make many senior appointments and spurred ranking diplomats to seek their futures elsewhere.  In rare unison with Israel backers like Sheldon Adelson, the so-called “Arabists” in the State Department won’t be shedding tears over Tillerson’s departure either.

Pompeo, on the other hand, seems to be more in tune with Trump, personally if not on all matters of policy. Unlike Tillerson, who was a stranger to Washington’s wily ways, Pompeo served for six years as a Congressman from Kansas and is widely liked on Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans. His appointment could mitigate some of the bedlam and mayhem that have been the hallmark of Trump’s foreign policy. He will certainly have an easier time securing Trump’s approval for senior appointments, including the vacant and now vital spot of ambassador to South Korea.

On the other hand, Tillerson’s removal highlights Trump’s continuing purge of officials who were more loyal to their mission than to him. The next in line could very well be National Security Adviser  H R McMaster, who, like Tillerson, has already been forewarned from leaks in the press about his impending removal, which would also delight Netanyahu, Adelson et al. Secretary of State James Mattis, who got along famously with Tillerson, is also bound to be displeased. The abrupt manner of Tillerson’s sacking certainly won’t encourage others to accept senior positions in the Trump administration, for fear that their exit will be just as fast and furious.

Tillerson’s departure might signal a certain toughening of Trump’s rhetoric on Russia, as evidenced on Tuesday by his first explicit mention of Russia in the context of the poisoning plot in England. Knowing Trump, the timing of his shock announcement could also be part of an effort to deflect attention from the possible humiliation of a Democratic win in Tuesday’s special elections in western Pennsylvania’s perennially Republican 18th Congressional District. What is certain is that Tillerson’s firing increases the world’s apprehension about the capricious and impulsive nature of Trump’s presidency, who, contrary to his self-adulation as the consummate business tycoon, runs his administration like an unstable manager of a grocery store. Many world leaders are wary of what they perceive as Trump’s willingness to betray allies abroad and loyalists at home when it suits him, a fate from which Netanyahu, for some reason, feels himself immune.