Rex Tillerson was one of the worst secretaries of State in American history – and his firing might be the worst development of the Trump presidency thus far.
Tillerson’s attempts to pare back his department’s “inefficiencies” chased 60 percent of America’s top-ranking diplomats out of government – and depressed new applications to the foreign service by half. He leaves the State Department demoralized and understaffed, in a moment when the United States is in dire need of diplomatic expertise.
But the former Exxon CEO was also one of the administration’s staunchest defenders of the Iran nuclear agreement – and among its most ardent opponents of a belligerent approach to North Korea. By contrast, Tillerson’s replacement – outgoing CIA director Mike Pompeo – was the only senior White House official who encouraged Trump to decertify the Iran deal, even as his colleagues in the intelligence agencies affirmed Tehran’s compliance with the agreement.
Pompeo’s promotion is unlikely to soften his views on Iran. While in the House, the Kansas congressman made opposition to Barack Obama’s diplomacy with Tehran a signature issue. On the day that Pompeo was nominated for CIA director, his most recent tweet read, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Pompeo’s hawkishness toward Iran is informed by a virulent bigotry toward Muslims. In 2015, the congressman argued that “every time there has been a conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic East” Barack Obama had taken the Muslims’ side. Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Pompeo defamed the entire American Muslim community. Speaking from the House floor, the congressman falsely claimed that Muslim leaders had refused to condemn the bombing, and contended that their silence “made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts,” while also casting “doubt upon the commitment to peace among adherents of the Muslim faith.”
All this would be alarming enough if maintaining a successful nuclear agreement with Iran – and avoiding another military intervention in the Middle East – were the only top-tier foreign policy objectives at stake. But the downside risks of Pompeo’s elevation extend beyond Iran.
Last week, Donald Trump accepted (on a whim) Kim Jong-un’s invitation for a face-to-face meeting. At first, criticism of this decision focused on the prospect that our prodigiously ignorant, easily flattered commander-in-chief would get suckered into a lopsided peace deal. But Victor Cha – Trump’s tentative pick for ambassador to South Korea, who (reportedly) lost that gig for his off-putting opposition to a preemptive strike on Pyongyang – highlighted a more ominous possibility in an op-ed for the New York Times this week:
Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have “run out of road” on North Korea.
Even if Tillerson had stayed on board – and the U.S. continued to honor its nuclear agreement with Iran – there would still be a substantial risk of the Trump-Kim talks ending in failure. The gulf between the American and North Korean conceptions of what a “fair” denuclearization deal looks like is massive.
But if Trump withdraws from the Iran deal on May 12 – the next deadline for him to recertify the agreement – a diplomatic failure with North Korea will be all-but assured. After all, if Trump demonstrates that the United States cannot be trusted to honor the Iranian nuclear agreement – a deal more stringent and comprehensive than any North Korea has ever agreed to in the past, or that experts believe Pyongyang would accept in the near-term future – why on earth would Kim have faith in America’s promises?
The North Korean leader already has good cause to cling to his weapons: In 2003, Muammar Qaddafi took the U.S. up on its “denuclearization for security” deal — only to be tortured and killed eight years later by rebels whom the U.S. government had backed. If Trump reaffirms the emptiness of America’s pledges to rogue regimes on May 12 – which is to say, right around when his summit with Kim is tentatively scheduled – North Korea would have to be an irrational actor to cede to Trump’s demands.
And, according to Axios, Trump recently told Benjamin Netanyahu that he plans to do just that. Pompeo’s elevation lends credence to that report. And the president’s recent actions on trade provide further, circumstantial evidence that the Iran deal is not long for this Earth. In announcing steel and aluminum tariffs, Trump privileged his own gut instincts and campaign promises over the consensus advice of the White House staff. A flurry of reports have suggested that this declaration of independence was a conscious one; that Trump has decided to defy the experts and shoot from the hip.
It is true that, to this point, Defense secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have kept Trump from blowing up the Iran agreement. And the fact that nullifying that deal would compromise diplomatic efforts with North Korea surely won’t escape those officials.
But Mattis lost the internal fight over tariffs, and also, presumably, over Tillerson. Meanwhile, McMaster is reportedly on his way out of the administration – and one of the top candidates to replace him is an Iran hawk who is publicly rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to fail.
“How do you know the North Koreans are lying? Because their lips are moving,” John Bolton explained to Fox News last week. The former UN ambassador went on to argue that Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un was a positive development – because, as Cha warns, it could accelerate the breakdown of diplomacy and the onset of military action to combat the North Korean threat.
Bolton further suggested that unless Kim Jong-un agrees to tell Trump “what ports American ships should sail into, what airports American cargo planes can land at” so that the United States can load his “nuclear weapons program onto those as soon as beginning next week” – and, also, to step down as leader of North Korea, and “go live in a villa on the seashore of China for the rest of [his] life” – Trump should reject any deal Pyongyang puts on the table.
If rumors are true, this man will be the highest ranking national security adviser in the White House come May.
The Trump administration is unpredictable. To this point, the “adults” in the West Wing have prevented the president from triggering a catastrophic foreign policy crisis. But the path to such crisis has never been easier to envision than it is today.