Tillerson may be on shaky ground, but Trump is the State Department’s real problem

The Trump White House apparently fired Secretary of State Tillerson publicly without telling him so privately on Nov. 29 as articles in the New York Times and Washington Post announced his imminent replacement. CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: Trump's Russia moves demoralize his team | Congress drops effort to block ZTE deal | Rosenstein warns of foreign influence threat | AT&T's latest 5G plans Dem lawmaker calls on Pompeo to keep export restrictions on 3D gun-printing software Questions mount over Trump-Putin discussions MORE will reportedly replace him and Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonBipartisan group introduces retirement savings legislation in Senate Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war Hillicon Valley: DOJ appeals AT&T-Time Warner ruling | FBI agent testifies in heated hearing | Uproar after FCC changes rules on consumer complaints | Broadcom makes bid for another US company | Facebook under fire over conspiracy sites MORE (R-Ark.) will replace Pompeo.

The more one looks into this story it reveals a White House that is even more dysfunctional than had been previously believed. While the papers reported, probably accurately, that Trump had lost confidence in Tillerson — and presidential confidence is the most indispensable asset required by a secretary of State — at the daily White House press briefing press secretary Sarah Sanders denied that Tillerson was leaving. Moreover, these newspapers reported that chief of staff Kelly had engineered this shift but that it was unclear whether or not the president was involved.

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Furthermore, Pompeo had apparently been quietly preparing a team to help him take over at the State Department while this reshuffle was being prepared.

            This outcome makes it look like President Trump does not control his own staff or its chief and that the intriguing and backstabbing in the White House is even worse than previously imagined. It also highlights the utter disarray in which U.S. foreign policy is now mired.

We have a situation where Pompeo was preparing to become secretary well in advance of any formal announcement, an apparent blindsiding of Tillerson. Meanwhile, Trump also seized this time to insult our closest ally, the U.K, and Prime Minister Theresa May. Moreover, North Korea’s newest missile test on Nov. 28-29 publicly called Trump’s bluff and highlighted the fundamental hollowness of the administration’s North Korea policy. Recent public criticisms of that policy by both China and Russia also underscored just how misconceived is the administration’s belief that those two governments can be induced to carry our water in Korea and isolate North Korea.

Finally, if the reported upcoming transition is true Pompeo will take over a department that is in free fall due to Tillerson’s mismanagement and the White House belief that the State Department is the enemy. Starving the department of resources, engaging in a clumsy and clearly floundering reorganization, — Tillerson’s deputy for that program resigned abruptly earlier in the week — and the mass resignation of foreign service officers who are not being replaced all betoken a general crisis in foreign policy.

We must hope that if Pompeo becomes secretary of State he can restore the State Department to its rightful place at the center of American diplomacy. While reorganization is necessary it should be done with intelligence and pruning shears not a meat cleaver.

Without adequate resources the State Department cannot conduct foreign policy effectively under any administration. But the need for coherent and steady foreign policy making and execution is even greater now. First, crises now beset the U.S. across the globe and second, it is clear that Trump cannot control himself to stop his tweets insulting world leaders in Asia and Europe and cannot give presidential guidance to his subordinates who also appear to be out of control.

We obviously don’t know what the new team will do but past indicators are not encouraging. Both Pompeo and Cotton are vociferous advocates of a strong line against Iran. Yet tearing up the JCPOA without an alternative or a viable anti-Iranian strategy in the Middle East merely invites Iran to accelerate its nuclear program with impunity. On Russia policy, Tillerson has been relatively firm, as his Nov. 28 speech on European policy showed. But as long as the president will not admit what is clear to everyone, namely that Russia intervened in our electoral process (and is likely to do so again if not stopped), then Russia policy will remain incomplete.

But beyond Europe, the illusion that China and Russia will pressure North Korea on our behalf to denuclearize in advance of negotiations or promise to do so and that this will actually happen is one of the many delusions and fantasies that have gripped U.S. policy on North Korea. Likewise, the idea that North Korea’s regime is likely to collapse if we exert sufficient pressure appears to most experts to be another fantasy.

Therefore a rejuvenated State Department is an urgent necessity and the new secretary must also fight for more resources that are indispensable to the conduct of a foreign policy that not only defends our interests, but also the interests of our allies and our values. If this new team cannot bring about order — and it would be a brave man who would predict that they can — then our multiple crises will probably worsen and then become intertwined, making them even harder to resolve.

Last week’s events, North Korea’s missile test, the insults to Great Britain, and this story all indicate that at present nobody is in control of our overall policy. But as Harry Truman observed, “the buck stops here” — at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.