Rex Tillerson, R.I.P.

Few people will miss Rex Tillerson. Certainly not the State Department officials whose lives he upended with a “reform” that seemed to have no discernible goals. Certainly not the diplomats and experts whom he ignored and undermined. Certainly not the foreign diplomats he dealt with either: Tillerson didn’t have the background in diplomacy or politics to be impressive. More to the point, nobody was ever quite sure that he had the president’s ear, and nobody knew whether it was worth talking to him at all.

Tillerson himself was never quite sure that he had the president’s ear either, of course, and over time seemed to grow less interested in getting it. Not long ago I asked somebody who works at a senior level in U.S. diplomacy about the constant tumult. How did anyone work on long-term projects in all that chaos? Weren’t President Trump’s tweets distracting? “We just ignore them,” he told me, “and get on with the job.” That seems to have been Tillerson’s modus operandi too – but it backfired.

Clearly, Trump does not want a secretary of state, or any Cabinet colleague, who ignores his tweets and gets on with the job. He wants someone who will respond to his constantly changing whims, who will cater to his moods. If he decides one week to insult the leader of North Korea, he doesn’t want to hear any objections. If he decides the next week that he wants to fly to Pyongyang, then he doesn’t want to hear any criticism of that either. He lives in a fantasy world of his own making, a nonstop television show in which he is the only star; he doesn’t want people who keep telling him that the real world looks somewhat different or that extravagant gestures might have severe consequences.

For that reason alone, there will be something to miss when Tillerson is gone. At least the man lived in the real world and grappled with actual facts. At least he had run the sort of company that bought and sold things such as oil and gas, and didn’t make profits out of “brand names” and advertising. Instead of Tillerson, we will now have Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who agreed, at the president’s request, to meet a conspiracy theorist who believes Russia did not hack the Democratic National Committee; and who has lied about his own agency’s report on Russia’s election interference as well. In other words, we will soon have a secretary of state who has agreed to share at least a part of Trump’s fantasy world. Expect U.S. foreign policy to change accordingly.

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