WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 01:  US President Donald J. Trump (R) shakes hands with Rex Tillerson (L) after Tillerson was sworn-in as Secretary of State, in the Oval Office of the White House on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC.
White House may replace Rex Tillerson
02:00 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2005-2015, he was a member of the secretary of state’s Office of Policy Planning. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

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Miller and Sokolsky: Being well-liked and respected by the president is the number one rule to being a successful secretary of state

CIA Director Mike Pompeo seems to have Secretary Rex Tillerson beat on that one, write Miller and Sokolsky

CNN  — 

Today, multiple news outlets reported that according to administration sources a tentative plan for a double switch was in the works: CIA Director Mike Pompeo would replace Rex Tillerson at the State Department and Sen. Tom Cotton would replace Pompeo at CIA.

Meanwhile, the White House insists that it’s business as usual and there’s no immediate plan to replace Secretary Tillerson.

Aaron David Miller
Richard Sokolsky

Either this was serious miscommunication (dare we say fake news?) or a mighty strong signal by the administration to Tillerson that there’s no longer room for him at the inn.

The logic of the latter would be this: Like Attorney General Sessions, Trump won’t fire Tillerson; instead he wants an immaculate resignation. With a source now telling CNN that this was an elaborate public shaming of Tillerson, it’s also safe to say that the White House is behaving shamefully. Whatever the President thinks of Tillerson, he doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.

We can’t predict if/when the sad saga of Rex Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state is coming to an end. But we can weigh in on the impact, should the double switch become reality.

Tillerson was from the beginning a decent man caught in an impossible situation. But he played a bad hand badly. Sure, the President never empowered him to do his job. Trump’s twitter tantrums undercut Tillerson’s diplomacy on many occasions; he gave large chunks of traditional foreign policy turf to White House underlings and demanded large cuts in the State Department’s budget and personnel; and he left a trail of embarrassing foreign policy pronouncements in his wake that Tillerson (and others) had to clean up.

But in focusing on reform that turned unpopular quickly; keeping far too low a public profile and tolerating others like Nikki Haley expounding on foreign policy, Tillerson reduced his own prestige and relevance.

Pompeo is closer to the President personally and on matters of policy. But it’s far from clear that he will have any more success navigating the fraught line between a between a cruel and unforgiving world of unresolvable problems on one hand and a President with little regard for diplomacy or the State Department and no coherent process of formulating US foreign policy on the other hand.

Here are some quick takeaways to keep in mind, should Pompeo take over Tillerson’s post.

The railroad will run more smoothly

There’s little doubt that most of the broken crockery that undermined the Trump-Tillerson relationship will disappear should Pompeo actually replace Tillerson at State. Trump loves military men and admires big success even more. He often introduces Pompeo as a guy who graduated at the top of his class at West Point and attended Harvard Law School.

Being well-liked and respected by a President is rule number one for any successful secretary of state, and given the premium this President seems to put on loyalty, Pompeo checks that box, too. He’s rarely disagreed with the President publicly and was quick to defend his statements in the wake of Charlottesville.

Pompeo has taken a different view on Russian meddling in US elections than Trump. But, given the evidence, who hasn’t? And it’s inconceivable given the CIA role in monitoring these matters, that Pompeo could have adopted any other view. Bottom line: there are likely to be few head-exploding moments with the President openly contradicting his secretary of state if Pompeo is in charge.

Policy mind meld

Pompeo may also have a smoother relationship with Trump because they are more in sync on many policy issues. Both have taken hard line positions on the Iran nuclear agreement, jihadi terror, immigration and travel bans. Add the possibility that Cotton – a fellow hardliner on Iran – will go to CIA in Pompeo’s job and you’ll have a solid wall of opposition within the administration to sticking with the Iran deal.

That would leave Secretary of Defense Mattis – a relative pragmatist on the Iran deal – more isolated. The same is true for North Korea, where Pompeo and Trump have expressed skepticism of any diplomatic option and have pushed for more pressure on Kim Jung Un.

With the addition of Cotton, there will be a drastic reduction to any diplomatic counterweight to the President’s hawkishness.

Reform is out, but is the State Department in?

With his congressional tea party background, Pompeo likely shares Tillerson’s and Trump’s penchant to cut State’s budget and personnel. Given Tillerson’s travails in deconstructing the State Department, Pompeo isn’t likely to make reform his central issue. But Pompeo also knows where the President’s head seems to be when it comes to State – immortalized in his comment that he’s the only person who matters.

How eager he will be to champion the department on budgetary issues or to fight for a more central role for State in the formation of US foreign policy is far from clear.

If he’s smart, given the challenges he’s facing abroad, he will seek to mobilize the department’s expertise, rather than treat it with disdain. Indeed, at CIA he worked hard to reduce friction with the White House –and maybe he can do the same at State.

It’s a cruel world

To be a successful secretary of state you need three qualities: the support of the president; good negotiating skills and a world that offers up some opportunity for success. Pompeo has the first; we don’t know about the second. But it’s fairly clear that he faces long odds in the third category.

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    The US confronts an international environment that doesn’t offer up quick and easy solutions on some issues. (See North Korea.) It doesn’t matter how brilliant or plugged in you are as secretary of state; unless there are deals that can actually be made, you have very little chance of being truly consequential.

    Managing and containing Putin, fixing Syria, combatting jihadi terror and stopping North Korean nukes are the long odds issues that will frame Pompeo’s world. Pompeo may be closer to Trump than Tillerson. But he would still be dealing with an unpredictable, uncontrollable and idiosyncratic President who does what he wants when he wants and doesn’t have much regard or respect for the diplomatic mission of the department Pompeo will be running.

    Having spent decades at the State Department, we know how hard it is to get anything done. We wished Tillerson good luck when he started and for the good of the republic we wish Pompeo the same. He’s going to need it.