Rex Tillerson is unlikely to go down in history as one of our better secretaries of State. In the past few months, he has been the subject of not one but two Politico Magazine headlines accusing him of ruining the State Department by driving out its best diplomatic talent, whether through his corporate-style restructuring of the department or through the daily indignity of working as career public servants and nonpartisan experts in an administration that disdains both.
Yet if Tillerson quits or is fired before the end of the Trump administration, it will not be on account of those complaints from Obama-era diplomats. Rather, it will be because, as Rich Lowry puts it, “In a nationalist administration, he is a man without a country” — or more simply, because he doesn’t agree with the president about foreign policy and refuses to follow bad orders. There are only so many times a person can be undercut by their boss, whom they openly consider a moron, while trying to do their job, before they walk away.
As Donald Trump attempts to kill the Iran nuclear deal without getting any blood on his suit, the tensions between Tillerson and Trump have made themselves felt again. Earlier this week, CNN reported that Tillerson was working with some lawmakers to try to head off Trump’s plan to decertify the deal by amending its implementing legislation and removing the requirement that the president recertify it every three months.
At the moment, it looks like that effort either has already failed or will do so imminently, but the way a senior administration official described Tillerson’s take on the problem says a lot about the circumstances under which the former Exxon CEO is trying to work. “Tillerson has said the problem with the JCPOA is not the JCPOA,” the official told CNN, using the acronym for the deal’s official title, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “It’s the legislation. Every 90 days the president must certify and it creates a political crisis.”
During the Obama administration, this was not a problem, as the president was unlikely to cancel his own signature foreign-policy achievement before it had a chance to work. But now that we have a president who rode into office threatening to tear the deal up, the recertification process is a massive liability. In other words, the problem with the JCPOA is not the JCPOA: It’s Donald Trump.
In the words of CNN’s anonymous source, the virtue of ending this quarterly political crisis caused by Trump’s will-he-or-won’t-he game is that it would allow our diplomatic and national security corps to “get back to work on dealing with everything else that is a problem with Iran.” Tillerson’s proposal was to have the administration report to Congress about Iran’s allegedly aggressive behavior in general and American efforts to counter it, rather than specifically certifying compliance with the JCPOA itself. This would give Trump an opening to routinely denounce Iran’s ballistic missile tests, or its support for militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, without putting the nuclear deal in jeopardy and forcing Tillerson’s staff to constantly play defense.
In that regard, Tillerson seems to have a better handle than his boss does on what the point of the deal is in the first place. The Obama administration had no illusions about getting Iran to scuttle its nuclear ambitions once and for all (a politically unfeasible task for Tehran even if the government wanted to do it). Thus, the deal was never designed to do that. Instead, it was meant to give the U.S. and our allies the time, breathing room, and modicum of rapport to engage Iran diplomatically in a non-crisis environment. It was the start of a process, not a quick fix.
But this kind of long-term, trust-building diplomacy is anathema to Trump. In his doctrine, any deal in which he doesn’t “win” is worse than no deal at all, so the Iran agreement is a disaster because it does not compel Iran to give in completely and immediately to the demands of the United States. Trump apparently thinks that by throwing relations with Iran back into crisis mode, he can succeed where previous administrations failed at bullying Iran into submission.
The secretary of State would by definition be responsible for securing Trump’s hypothetical “better deal”; Tillerson would prefer not to be in that impossible position. He’d clearly prefer to keep the existing agreement in place, even if he doesn’t much like it, and attempt to make progress toward more achievable goals with Iran. Tillerson’s habit of running the State Department like an underperforming business division may be damaging U.S. diplomacy in the long run, but at least he knows how deals with foreign adversaries actually work.
Tillerson’s attempts to outmaneuver his boss on Iran and North Korea may also help explain why he hasn’t rage-quit his cabinet position yet despite having ample cause to do so. If he sees his role as a check on the president’s worst ideas and impulses, he might feel compelled to stick around as long as possible to keep catastrophe at bay. Perhaps Tillerson has calculated that it’s better to hang onto a job he never wanted and in which he has no hope of achieving great things than to resign and run the risk of being replaced by a nationalist lunatic in the Sebastian Gorka mold.