“As Donald Trump uses a tweet to dismiss Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the conduct of US foreign policy is at its most chaotic point since 1945.”
Published in partnership with The Conversation:
To fire one advisor is a misfortune. To fire two appears careless. To fire yet another by Twitter is an omnishambles.
Let’s be clear. As Donald Trump uses a tweet to dismiss Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the conduct of US foreign policy is at its most chaotic point since 1945. Even in the dying months of the Nixon Administration, with Henry Kissinger trying to prop up an often-drunk and sometimes-drugged President, there was a semblance of competence and order.
In 2018, we have a Chief Executive who relies on Fox TV and was called a “f****** moron” by the Secretary of State he has now removed. The State Department is gutted: seven of nine top posts vacant even after current CIA Director Mike Pompeo is confirmed to replace Tillerson, hundreds of positions unfilled or slashed, an imminent budget cut of more than 30%. In its place, foreign policy is driven on an ad hoc basis by the whims of Trump and the interests — political and financial — of family and friends: son-in-law Jared Kushner, hard-right advisor Stephen Miller, yes-man Pompeo, billonaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
How in the world did we get here? And is there a way out?
No Crossing the Trump Ego…or the Family
Lots of ink will be spilled today ruminating about the reasons for Tillerson’s long-planned but sudden termination. But the headline is a combination of a President who has to have the spotlight and a son-in-law who wants to be share that light as chief foreign policy advisor.
Trump never forgot the “f****** moron” remark, uttered after Presidential thought bubbles over American’s nuclear weapons and US involvement last July. He bristled whenever Tillerson made a comment which grabbed media attention, such as the Secretary of State’s revelation last December that the US was ready to talk to North Korea. On Monday night, hours before he was fired, Tillerson again took over from Trump, this time issuing the statement of alliance with the UK — which the President would not give — over Russia’s suspected nerve agent attack in southern England on former spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Julia.
Meanwhile, the Kushner faction faced its own Tillerson obstacle. Trump’s son-in-law might be the envoy to the Middle East, declaring that he will bring peace to the region. He might be the key contact for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman; he might have Russian links — some of which involve his business; he might see himself as the mover-and-shaker in discussions with China, Israel, the UAE, and Mexico (all of whom identified Kushner’s eagerness and financial interests as vulnerabilities which can be exploited). But as long as Tillerson was in post, Trump’s wannabe Henry Kissinger — who has advised Kushner — faced someone who might not accommodate the agenda.
So last December, Kushner’s group started telling the media that the secretary of state was out and would be replaced by Pompeo by the start of 2018. They could not quite get Trump to pull the trigger then, but the pressure was sustained with the help of allies in the media, who cast doubt on Tillerson’s loyalty to Trump. There was a foreign element, too – both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with ties to Kushner, railed about Tillerson because he called for moderation in their blockade of Qatar. His position was further weakened because of staff demoralised by department cuts.
The Kushner camp’s chance came when Tillerson left for Africa while Trump fumed over the Russia investigation. With the president desperate for credit for his I’m-meeting-Kim manoeuvre – and possibly seeing Tillerson as casting shade on it – the pressure paid off.
McMaster Next to Go?
Last summer, after months of White House turmoil and amid the expanding Trump inquiry, the story line was that the generals would maintain a semblance of order over foreign policy. General Jim Mattis was the bulwark as Defense Secretary since Trump took office. General H.R. McMaster had replaced Michael Flynn, forced out because of his Russia links, as National Security Advisor. General John Kelly became Chief of Staff.
But Kelly, far from containing Trump, has increasingly provided cover for the President’s whims and the latest revelation of disorder. And McMaster now could be vulnerable with Tillerson out of the way.
The Kushner faction are no fans of the National Security Advisor, and he is also a villain for the hard right who have had so much influence with Trump. An immediate threat was removed when White House chief strategist and hard-right icon Steve Bannon was dismissed last August, but paradoxically the firing only fed the determination of Bannon’s allies — using outlets such as Breitbart and Fox — to oust the general.
A #McMasterOut campaign, fed on social media not only by domestic opponents but by Russia-linked accounts, came up short in the autumn. But already, as Trump hinted at more dismissals on Tuesday with his “I’m close to getting the Cabinet I want”, McMaster’s name is at the top of the list for Downfall of the Day.
The “Family and Friends” Foreign Policy
Last month I wrote:
One key difference from his predecessors is Trump’s promotion in certain areas of a foreign policy set and pursued on an ad hoc basis by his family and their business allies.
Tillerson’s firing ratchets up that matter-of-fact assessment another chaotic notch. Almost half of the White House staff from January 2017 are gone. The chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, gave up last week after the protectionists who now surround the President, such as Wilbur Ross, got their tariffs on steel and aluminum. Even Trump’s close confidante, Communications Director Hope Hicks, has jumped.
As Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on Trump, as foreign affairs are just too complicated to understand let alone control, the President fall from an ever-decreasing inner circle to give him comfort and the affirmation that he is #Winning. There is always Jared and daughter Ivanka. Stephen Miller, the scourge of immigrants and the author of Trumpian insults like “Little Rocket Man”, holds forth. Pompeo is brought in as a defender of the camp.
That won’t reassure American allies from Canada to South Korea to Europe, even as Vladimir Putin smiles at the discord which Russia’s political and “information” strategy has been seeking.
But Donald Trump’s priority is not American allies. It is not even the Presidency, at least in the orderly and effective manner in which it is supposed to operate.
Donald Trump’s priority is Donald Trump. All else — including a US foreign policy for a modicum of stability — falls before this.