Should Rex Tillerson really leave?

Should Rex Tillerson really leave?
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Rumors originating in the White House that Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonPompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job Trump administration’s top European diplomat to resign in February MORE has lost the confidence of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral MORE and will soon be replaced have been complemented by several former senior State Department officials including Democrats, Republicans and (theoretically) career nonpartisans including a former secretary of State, that, in effect, Tillerson “must go.”

Among his critics outside the White House, the reasons for discontent are several and varied but center around two themes: First, that he is willing to be a mere figurehead in an administration in which an impulsive, vindictive president will make his own foreign policy decisions while deriding and diminishing his secretary of State, and second, that Tillerson has created his own mess by failing to manage the department, fill critical vacancies, push back against funding decreases, and that he capitulates on policy issues, even if he has done all of it at the direction of the White House. Any stronger, self-respecting senior cabinet official, let alone the secretary of State, would call the bluff or resign, they argue.

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But is that really the course which those calling for his resignation should be pursuing, given their own policy preferences and recommendations? Even taking their criticisms as gospel, would Tillerson’s resignation be better or worse than his remaining, especially when his apparent successor would seem to be Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo presses for resolution to Gulf dispute The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Dems put manufacturing sector in 2020 spotlight State Department blocks reporters from Pompeo briefing with faith-based media: report MORE, director of the Central Intelligence Agency?

A potential Tillerson resignation should be considered against his record and against the alternatives to his continued tenure. No one is suggesting that Tillerson is a runner-up against George Marshall, James Baker or Henry Kissinger, but that is not the realistic standard, especially given the president he serves. Together with Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisPentagon watchdog probing whether acting chief boosted Boeing Overnight Defense: Judge says Trump can't implement transgender policy | Trump floats admitting Brazil to NATO | Mattis returning to Stanford Mattis returning to Stanford months after Pentagon resignation MORE and, for the most part, White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, Tillerson has tempered Trump’s most impetuous instincts and comments on North Korea, NATO guarantees, the split among the Gulf states, the Saudi-led coalition‘s actions in Yemen, Pakistan, China and, until recently, Jerusalem.

To take only the most precarious potentials, notwithstanding Trump’s pointed and demeaning criticism that Tillerson is wasting his time talking with North Korea’s “Little Rocket Man” over the testing and potentially arming of missiles that can deliver nuclear strikes against our close allies and now even against U.S. territory, Tillerson has stayed the diplomatic course and arguably helped inhibit a preemptive first strike by the United States. He has sought to allay alarm in Europe about the U.S. commitments to NATO, especially Article 5, and the core of the alliance. He has walked back Trump’s urge to support the Saudi’s over the Qataris, encouraged discussion between them, helped avoid a complete rupture, and kept intact U.S. equities among them.

Pompeo, however, would almost certainly side with Trump on most such issues. He is more likely to commend, even celebrate, than temper Trump’s personal proclivities because he shares them. Had he been in Tillerson’s place, would there be any attempt to talk with North Korea? Or to work with Japan and South Korea on a common approach? Or to keep the Gulf allies from fratricide? Or to reverse Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation and keep Lebanon from imploding? Or to avoid an even greater decline in personnel and budget at the State Department?

The option on offer in a Trump administration is not John Jay, George Schultz or Colin Powell. It is not the policies most of Trump’s critics support. Pompeo might well be more effective at staffing senior positions at the State Department, but consider who the incumbents would be and what policies would they would advance? Whatever Tillerson’s policy and managerial deficiencies, his critics should consider his likely replacement and, in that context and from their own perspectives, urge him to stay, hope that he does, and lend him appropriate support.

Gerald F. Hyman is a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served with the U.S. Agency for International Development for 17 years and was director of its Office of Democracy and Governance from 2002 to 2007.