Self-absorbed says it best. The U.S., if not fully isolating itself from the international community, is so self-absorbed that it is pulling back from global commitments. Already in his eight weeks in office, Trump has done much to anger and concern allies and adversaries alike. As Keith Wilson mentioned yesterday in his post, our allies are already concerned and mistrustful of the current administration, quite understandably.
On February 1st, Rex Tillerson was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Secretary of State, but is he qualified, and does he have the power of the office, or is he merely a shadow figure? Trump failed to consult with Tillerson on his policy change on Palestinian statehood or putting Iran “on notice” for its most recent ballistic missile test, and he nixed Tillerson’s choice for his deputy, Elliot Abrams, because last year, Abrams questioned Trump’s fitness for the job of president. Abrams, by the way, is highly qualified, having served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and is currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In reality, Abrams is more qualified to be Secretary of State than Tillerson, who has no prior government experience.
Tillerson was absent from the president’s key meetings with the leaders of Israel and Canada and largely invisible in Trump’s encounters with the prime ministers of Japan and the United Kingdom, as well as the White House’s diplomacy with Mexico so far.
Trump’s budget plan, submitted to Congress last week, calls for a 29% cut to the State Department budget, a cut that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an enthusiastic Trumpeter, called ‘inappropriate’. “America being a force is a lot more than building up the Defense Department. Diplomacy is important, extremely important, and I don’t think these reductions at the State Department are appropriate.”
Many analysts believe that Tillerson has been largely kept out of the loop when it comes to key foreign policy decisions. Neither he nor his staff were consulted on Trump’s initial executive order imposing a travel ban. When Trump decided over a dinner to approve a special forces counter-terrorist raid in Yemen, there was no one from the state department present who would normally have highlighted the dangers of civilian casualties from such operations for wider US interests in the region. The raid on 29 January went badly wrong and 25 civilians were killed, including nine children under the age of 13. The purpose of having advisors is to listen to their advice, but this thought apparently evades Trump.
Analysts further suggest that the budget cuts, lack of staffing, and keeping Tillerson in the dark on key issues may be the work of none other than Steve Bannon, self-professed disruptor of the Washington establishment and its normal ways of functioning. Early on, Bannon gave himself, through an executive order signed by Trump but drafted by Bannon, a full seat on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC). It is speculated that Bannon is second only to Jared Kushner in terms of influence on Trump. Neither Bannon, nor Trump, nor Kushner are educated in matters of foreign affairs and none are qualified to be making decisions. But then, neither is Secretary Tillerson, whose background is in business, and whose Russian ties are circumspect, at best. And in fact, Tillerson claims he never wanted the job to begin with:
“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job. My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”
Which brings us to this week, and the endpoint of this post. Tillerson has announced his plans to skip an April meeting of NATO foreign ministers in lieu of attending a meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Washington. This is seen by some of our closest allies as a snub. Some reactions from the foreign policy community:
“Unprecedented.” – Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO and current president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“US allies are alarmed and worried.” – Jenny Mathers, a Russia expert at Aberystwyth University.
“I would say as a NATO veteran, a NATO junkie, that the presence of a U.S. secretary of State, particularly his first opportunity to join his counterparts, at a ministerial is something that shouldn’t be passed up, especially when we face so many challenges.” – Alexander Vershbow, the former No. 2 official at NATO
“I think it’s a most unfortunate signal. I would blame it on schedulers. I do think that is part of the problem. He will have met with a lot of ministers in other venues, but given the discussion that’s going on about NATO, I think it’s an unfortunate scheduling problem.” -Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The NATO meeting of foreign ministers is April 5-6, and Xi Jinping will be in Washington April 6-7, so conceivably Tillerson could have worked his schedule to accommodate both. To add insult to injury, at the same time he announced he would skip the NATO meeting, he also announced that he would travel to Russia the week after.
President Trump has come under scrutiny for his overtures on improving relations with Russia. Trump has also repeatedly blasted NATO as “obsolete” and questioned whether he would come to the defense of allies if they didn’t pay more for their defense. And now the Secretary of State is casually blowing off an opportunity to meet with NATO ministers, but planning a trip to Russia. One must ask the question: do we actually have a Secretary of State, or is Rex Tillerson merely another of Steve Bannon’s puppets?