For a secretary of state who brought only prior private-sector experience to the job, Rex Tillerson got a lot right. He urged negotiations with North Korea and advocated upholding the Iran nuclear deal, despite President Donald Trump’s persistent criticism of the multinational pact. He supported the Paris climate change accord. And he backed the unanimous U.S. intelligence consensus regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But Tillerson got at least two things profoundly wrong in his brief tenure.
First, the nation’s top diplomat didn’t seem to fundamentally believe in diplomacy and focused on cutting costs instead of cutting deals. On his watch, scores of diplomats departed, key posts went unfilled and applications to the Foreign Service fell about 50 percent.
Second, and most important in this administration, Tillerson never seemed to gain Trump’s trust, as evidenced in the way America’s top envoy was undiplomatically fired — by a presidential tweet.
Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director tabbed to replace Tillerson, does have the president’s confidence and seems to share the same worldviews. (Importantly, Pompeo backed his agency’s assessment on Russia, a view the administration finally seemed to come around to on Thursday when it slapped sanctions on 19 Russians.)
Pompeo’s selection comes amid another key diplomatic development: Trump’s agreement to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Trump’s decision to agree to the summit without preconditions risks elevating Kim without gaining any concrete concessions. But it’s a better approach than the so-called “bloody nose” pre-emptive strike being mulled by the administration. Such an attack, which would intend to send a message to Pyongyang, could quickly spiral to a full-fledged conflagration that could kill hundreds of thousands on both sides of the border, including Americans. And that’s assuming warfare with conventional weapons, not nuclear ones.
Kim likely believes that nuclear weapons are the guarantor of the regime and will therefore be highly unwilling to unilaterally disarm. While denuclearization is and should be the objective, compromises may be necessary to freeze the North’s program and to avoid a full-scale war.
Denuclearization would be even more remote a prospect if the U.S. abrogates the Iran deal, which would signal to Kim that the U.S. cannot be trusted should North Korea make concessions. Pompeo’s hard line on the Iran agreement may endear him to Trump, but should give senators pause as they mull his confirmation.
Hard questioning on State Department gutting and other issues is warranted, too. This included the geopolitical impact and, more profoundly, the morality of confirming Trump’s CIA pick, Gina Haspel, who oversaw torture of some detainees during the George W. Bush administration.
The velocity of world crises doesn’t mean senators should avoid asking hard confirmation questions. Indeed, they’re more critical than ever.