Rex Tillerson’s humiliating (for him) stint as U.S. Secretary of State fittingly ended just after President Donald Trump had agreed to meet with North Korea’s dictator. No one seemed as much out of the loop about the White House’s back-channel diplomatic efforts on the Korean peninsula as the top U.S. diplomat, proof that he had come to hold his title in name only.
It is a mystery why Canadian officials had spent so much time and effort cultivating the now former secretary of state. While his appointment seemed to suggest the Trump administration would not throw the rules-based international order entirely out the window, it was clear shortly after his nomination that Mr. Tillerson would never have the ear of his boss. Despite his insistence otherwise, the latter has never been the “team of rivals” type. You’re either with him or against him.
Ironically, Mr. Tillerson had been the administration”s strongest advocate for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis. While Mr. Trump spouted fire and fury at Little Rocket Man, his pet name for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Mr. Tillerson held a peace conference in Canada with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. The White House didn’t even acknowledge it.
The announcement last week that Mr. Trump would meet with Mr. Kim in May does not signal that the U.S. President has finally come around to Mr. Tillerson’s way of thinking. Mr. Tillerson would never have recommended a meeting at the top right out of the starting gates, handing an invaluable propaganda victory to Mr. Kim.
In Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump will have a Secretary of State who believes Mr. Kim”s motives are not to be trusted. And, as head of the Central Intelligence Agency for the past year, the former Republican congressman likely knows more about Mr. Kim and North Korea than any member of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. He has led covert cyber-efforts to undermine Mr. Kim’s nuclear program and missile tests. He does not believe that the North Korean dictator would ever surrender his arsenal. He believes regime change in the North is the only solution to defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Compared to Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Pompeo is practically Mr. Trump’s best bud. Countless reports suggest the two men get along swimmingly, as Mr. Pompeo schools an information-challenged Mr. Trump in the basics of running the world during the daily intelligence briefing he gives the President. Mr. Pompeo’s hardline position on North Korea suggests that a May meeting with Mr. Kim may not happen at all, or not before the North Korean dictator makes major concessions. The new Secretary of State only plays hardball.
That’s why a confrontation with Iran could also be in the offing. Mr. Tillerson did everything in his admittedly limited power to temper Mr. Trump’s comments about pulling out of the 2015 agreement negotiated by U.S., British, French, Chinese and Russian officials to contain Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions on Tehran.
“I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was okay,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Tillerson on Tuesday after firing him in an early morning tweet. With Mr. Pompeo, the President said, “We have a very similar thought process.”
Indeed, the ex-CIA chief shares the opinion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Iran must at all costs be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons and arming and funding terrorists in other Middle Eastern nations, even if it means going to war.
Mr. Pompeo’s appointment scares many Senators, especially given rumours that Mr. Trump’s National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, will soon face the President’s axe. His departure would leave Defense Secretary General James Mattis as the only moderating influence on Mr. Trump’s foreign-policy team. As a result, Mr. Pompeo faces brutal confirmation hearings in the Senate and his nomination will cause indigestion in many foreign capitals.
And yet, U.S. foreign-policy types were nearly unanimously relieved to see someone with the President’s ear finally replace Mr. Tillerson, so painful it had become to watch the latter suffer. If, as it is said, there can be no daylight between a U.S. president and his secretary of state, light years separated Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Trump on the style and substance of U.S. foreign policy.
Under a different president, say, Hillary Clinton, Mr. Tillerson might have been an excellent secretary of state. Instead, he will go down as one of the worst.