Happy Trails, Rex

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, via Twitter no less, and nominated current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place. The termination was both unexpected and long overdue, as Tillerson was seemingly on rocky ground vis a vis the President for nearly his entire tenure at State, but he reportedly had no early warning of his impending firing. This follows other staff shakeups, including last week’s resignation of top economic advisor Gary Cohn and the earlier resignation of Hope Hicks, the former Communications Director. This is also not likely the end of the administration’s ‘spring cleaning’, as reports have stated that National Security Advisor HR McMaster is also on thin ice. As news is constantly breaking in this chaotic White House, it is worthwhile to take some time to break down Tillerson’s tenure at State, discuss Pompeo’s takeover of the position, assess the nominee for CIA Director to replace Pompeo, and preview what may come next in this never-ending game of ‘Musical Chairs’.

Rex Tillerson, former Secretary of State

I never thought I would say this, but I’m sorry to see Rex Tillerson go. He is and was undoubtedly the worst Secretary of State of modern times, at least going back to the 1970s or 80s, and presided over a historic tear-down of American diplomatic strength. His lack of clear leadership, reticence to deal with the press, and fundamental inability to understand State’s mission has led many to call him the worst ever in the position. I haven’t done enough historical research to assess this claim, but it is not all that farfetched. So why am I somewhat sad to see this awful Cabinet secretary go? Well, there are a few reasons.

First, it was seeming like Tillerson was finally beginning to understand his job and was starting to make progress on rebuilding our alliance relationships. His recent trip to Africa, the first for any Trump administration official, was met with relatively high marks. He looks to have had solid relationships with many of our Persian Gulf friends, and was moving towards positive relationships with our European and Asian allies. This should have never taken so long, but progress is progress. Next, I found Tillerson’s generally traditional Republican foreign policy views as extremely necessary in an administration that has gone off the international relations rails about as often as Amtrak trains do (Hint: that’s a lot). Tillerson’s embrace of diplomacy above and before belligerent threats of military action were issued showed me that he at least had a decent head on his shoulders when it came to dealing with America’s challenges abroad. He was a proponent of keeping the JCPOA (aka the Iran Deal) and working through that international framework to constrain the Iranians. He also was a fan of free trade (being the former CEO of the largest corporation in the US may help that) and other international agreements like the Paris Climate Accords, both of which I agree with. Finally, I’m concerned about Rex’s departure due to the man slated to replace him.

Mike Pompeo, new Secretary of State and former CIA Director

By all accounts, Mike Pompeo has been a good CIA Director who has steadfastly led his agency despite the Trump administration’s negative attitude towards our intelligence community. He was well-qualified for the job, having a background in politics, military matters, and the intelligence community. I personally had very few problems with Pompeo’s tenure at CIA, yet I am worried about his ascension to Secretary of State. I’m not concerned about the same issues that Tillerson struggled with, as Pompeo has shown a much clearer willingness to speak with the press and can lead a Cabinet department, having done so with CIA. What I am worried about are Pompeo’s views on the world and his hawkish attitude when it comes to most of our global problems.

Mike Pompeo
Mike Pompeo, former CIA Director and new nominee for Secretary of State.    Image Credit: New York Times

Pompeo is far more militaristic than Tillerson was, as well as being an advocate for regime change in North Korea, tearing up the JCPOA with Iran, and underplaying the dangers posed by Russian interference in the 2016 election. His views are far closer to the President’s own than Tillerson’s were, which greatly concerns me as the President clearly knows nothing about international relations or foreign policy. I am worried that a more hard-line Secretary of State could cause immense damage to our interests abroad, and further entrench many of the negative developments happening in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. I doubt that Mr. Pompeo will take on the increasing radicalization of European politics, or the drift towards authoritarianism in formerly democratic nations like Hungary and Poland. He is likely to increase tensions in the Middle East, as his strong views favoring Israel and our Gulf partners and against Iran are looking like they are set in stone. Ripping up the JCPOA with Iran would be a terrible mistake, as it would possibly lead to a new arms race in a region already rife with issues. It could turn the many proxy wars in the region (Syria, Yemen) into outright wars between far more powerful belligerents (Saudi Arabia and Iran), something nobody should wish for. Pompeo’s strident attitude towards the North Korean regime is also potentially problematic, as there have been recent diplomatic breakthroughs, especially between the two Korean states. Further threats of military action, or even regime change (a phrase that should strike fear into the hearts of all Americans given our historic experiences in that arena) in the despotic North, will likely entrench Kim Jong-un’s pursuit of a credible nuclear deterrent and garner him greater loyalty than he currently receives, as nothing unites a people like an external threat.

Gina Haspel, new CIA Director

Embedded within the tweet firing Rex Tillerson and promoting Mike Pompeo to the State job was the President’s nominee for CIA Director: Gina Haspel. She would be the first-ever woman to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, which sounds like an awesome step towards greater inclusion for women in the national security apparatus. However, she is absolutely not the right person for this job, regardless of her gender and the glass-ceiling-breaking that she would bring to the agency.

Gina Haspel
President Trump’s new nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel.      Image Credit: NY Post

Gina Haspel, in 2002, was an officer with the CIA and ran what could be fairly stated as a torture camp in Thailand. She oversaw the most infamous CIA ‘black site’, a secret prison where terrorist suspects would be deprived of any and all Constitutional rights, as well as being treated outside of the laws of war. This ‘black site’ and its operatives, including Ms. Haspel, tortured multiple terror suspects via techniques like waterboarding and smashing one’s head repeatedly into a wall. These episodes, occurring shortly after the devastation of September 11, 2001, may be seen by some as appropriate treatment for those suspected of killing nearly 3,000 American civilians. That view is wrong. The ‘extraordinary rendition’ (illegal capture and secret imprisonment of suspects, outside of the US so as to avoid the Constitution) and CIA ‘black site’ prisons that were established and run in this era are America’s greatest disgrace of my lifetime. The fact that we chose to avoid and discard our own Constitutional prerogatives, as well as the international laws of war, immeasurably reduced the positive view of America that many abroad held after the 9/11 attacks. It made us not only look like hypocrites, but turned us into purveyors of acts nearly as terrible as those allegedly perpetrated by those being tortured. These actions should have resulted in the ignominious resignation of all involved, yet today our new nominee for Director of the CIA was intimately involved in this illegal torture. Any positives that could come out of Ms. Haspel’s appointment are far exceeded by the Presidential embrace of attitudes and techniques that garnered only hatred and anger across the world.

What comes next?

At this point, who knows? As I stated earlier, there have been persistent rumors of the termination of National Security Advisor HR McMaster, which I feel would be an even worse decision than firing Secretary Tillerson, as McMaster is clearly qualified for the job he is in and has reasonable views of the issues facing the United States (although he is a bit too hawkish on Iran for my tastes). The potential replacements for McMaster, were he to be fired, include former George W. Bush UN Ambassador John Bolton, who has repeatedly called for military action against both Iran and North Korea. His tenure at the UN was replete with problems and led to a further split between the US and our European allies over the war in Iraq. Bolton would bring nothing positive to the administration, besides his extremely luxuriant mustache, and would drive us closer to a disastrous war in the Middle East or on the Korean peninsula. I am not optimistic about future changes in administration or Cabinet personnel, as the Trump team seems to be pushing ever more for an interventionist and militaristic foreign policy, directly counter to his 2016 campaign statements. There are absolutely some problems that are best solved by force, but when some hold a big hammer (the US military), most everything looks like a nail.

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