Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson Faces A New Onslaught Of Criticism
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
At the United Nations, a whirlwind of diplomacy is underway. The annual General Assembly brings leaders from nearly 200 nations to New York. And normally, front and center in the fray would be America's diplomat in chief, aka the secretary of state. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has kept an unusually low profile in the job, prompting the question, how low is too low? Let's bring in the voice of Eliot Cohen, who served in the State Department under President George W. Bush.
He has founded a foreign policy initiative alongside Tillerson's top adviser Brian Hook. And he's here in the studio this morning. Good morning.
ELIOT COHEN: Good morning.
KELLY: You argue that Tillerson is going to go down as one of the worst secretaries of state this country has had. Those are your exact words, speaking to the website Axios - strong words. I wonder what evidence you would marshal to back up that charge.
COHEN: Well, there have been plenty of secretaries of state who've had to implement foolish policies and haven't done particularly well and haven't had the confidence of the president. There haven't been that - any other secretary of state that I can think of who's then also taken a pick axe to his own department. And I think that's really a large part of Tillerson's failure.
KELLY: You're talking about the big staffing cuts we've seen and...
COHEN: Well, a whole bunch of things.
KELLY: ...Lots of positions unfilled.
COHEN: Big staffing cuts, accepting tremendous cuts to the budget, cutting off the programs that bring in some of the most talented young people into service, you know, almost willfully shutting out the press, which means that you can't represent the state to the American people. This has led to an exodus of senior diplomats and a demoralization that's unlike anything I've ever seen. And I served in the Bush State Department.
You know, a lot of people were not particularly supportive of Bush. But there was nothing like this kind of crisis. That's why I do think he will probably go down as the worst ever.
KELLY: Is it crystal clear to you that these cuts are Tillerson's doing or is he acting at the direction of the White House?
COHEN: No, the cuts are largely the White House's doing but - although I think Tillerson is perfectly willing to go along with them. Part of the job of a cabinet secretary is to fight for his department and not simply go along with something that's stupid just 'cause the White House wants it. And I don't think he ever conceived his role in that way, unfortunately.
KELLY: I want to play a clip of Secretary Tillerson. This was Sunday on "Face The Nation." He was asked about the Paris climate accord, which the administration has said it is pulling out of. Tillerson sounded like maybe he's leaving the door open. Let's hear that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")
REX TILLERSON: I think under the right conditions, the president said he's open to finding those conditions where we can remain engaged with others on what we all agree is still a challenging issue.
KELLY: Eliot Cohen, what do you hear there? Is Tillerson in sync with the president or is he maybe carving out a little distance?
COHEN: Well, I don't think he's in sync with the president. And to his credit, he was not in sync with him over Charlottesville where he said, you know, the president speaks for himself, which is an amazing thing for a secretary of state to say. I think actually what you see here is the incoherence of this administration. H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser, was on the Sunday talk shows. He was saying something completely different.
So this is an incoherent administration. It is clear that Tillerson is not the voice of American foreign policy. And, you know, you mentioned the U.N. General Assembly. That's a critical thing. I went with Secretary Rice to that. You know, she was clearly this country's lead diplomat. He should be the lead figure there. The fact that he's not tells you something.
KELLY: Well, let me ask you this, though. Does a secretary of state have to be loud, have to be visible to be effective? I mean, maybe he's practicing very deliberate behind-the-scenes, quiet diplomacy.
COHEN: In this day and age, absolutely. You have to speak for the United States. You have to speak for the United States not only to foreign diplomats, you have to speak to the American people. You have to speak to populations around the world. And he has almost willfully shut that down. And I think it's partly because he's a somewhat introverted CEO of an oil company who's miscast for this job and probably 'cause he just doesn't understand why it's important to do that.
KELLY: He comes to this job with no government service. Is there an argument to be made for keeping a low profile while he learns the job? He's still only months in.
COHEN: You know, these senior jobs are unforgiving. And the truth is if you cannot get up to speed very, very quickly, you don't belong there. And there isn't a whole lot of evidence of learning that I see. We haven't even talked about his management of the department, which has been based around a tiny coterie of aides cutting out most of the rest of the building, which, again, is foolish.
KELLY: You're basing this on things you're hearing...
KELLY: ...From colleagues...
KELLY: ...People you know at the State Department.
COHEN: Yes, yes.
KELLY: Give us a sense on why this matters. I mean, what is at stake for the U.S. if the secretary of state is operating in a less than effective way?
COHEN: Well, you know, the United States exercises an enormous amount of influence in the world or potentially can. That is exercised, in part, by the secretary as a very visible spokesman. It is partly by the constant work of diplomacy, which involves a lot of kind of detailed little things that are not particularly visible. If most of the State Department is shut out, those things aren't going on. And what the result is that you're going to get more things that fall through the cracks.
And when you couple that with a really willful president, we're in trouble.
KELLY: Thank you, Eliot Cohen.
COHEN: You're welcome.
KELLY: Eliot Cohen is director and founder of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He served in the State Department under George W. Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.