Tillerson's mediation bids stymied by Trump

Mr Rex Tillerson's attempt to mediate in the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has put him in public disagreement with President Donald Trump. Others say it could be due to an internal power struggle.
Mr Rex Tillerson's attempt to mediate in the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has put him in public disagreement with President Donald Trump. Others say it could be due to an internal power struggle.PHOTO: REUTERS

Secretary of State is hitting roadblocks in bids to deal with Gulf crisis, N. Korea and Russia

WASHINGTON • When Mr Rex Tillerson arrived in Washington five months ago to become US Secretary of State, his boosters said he brought two valuable assets to the job: a long history of managing a global company and deep relationships from the Middle East to Russia that enabled him to close deals.

But his first opportunity to use that experience - as a behind-the- scenes mediator in the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia - has put Mr Tillerson in exactly the place a secretary of state does not want to be: in public disagreement with his president.

Some in the White House say the discord over Qatar is part of a broader struggle over who is in charge of Middle East policy - Mr Tillerson or President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser - and that the Secretary has a tin ear about the political realities of the administration.

Mr Tillerson tried to position himself as an intermediary and sought for all sides to put their demands on the table.

But President Trump has openly sided with the Saudis, first on Twitter, then again at a news conference. Mr Trump called Qatar a "funder of terrorism at a very high level", just as the State Department was questioning whether the Saudis were using the terrorism charge to cover for "long-simmering grievances" between the Arab states.

In his latest attempt, Mr Tillerson called on Sunday for a "lowering of rhetoric" between Qatar and a four-nation group led by Saudi Arabia after Doha denounced their sweeping list of demands.

Qatar is not Mr Tillerson's only problem. In recent days, each of his top priorities has hit a wall.

His effort to enlist China to force North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes has gone nowhere. The Russians, angry about a congressional move to impose new sanctions, disinvited one of his top diplomats - leaving that crucial relationship at its lowest point since the Cold War.

"While some of the elements will be very difficult for Qatar to meet, there are significant areas which provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to resolution," Mr Tillerson said in a statement, following days of telephone diplomacy. He urged the countries to "sit together and continue this conversation".

Qatar, however, is not Mr Tillerson's only problem.

In recent days, each of his top priorities has hit a wall.

His effort to enlist China to force North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes has gone nowhere.

The Russians, angry about a congressional move to impose new sanctions, disinvited one of his top diplomats - leaving that crucial relationship at its lowest point since the Cold War.

And in Congress, where Mr Tillerson once found members giving deference to his plans to reorganise and shrink the State Department, there is now anger and defiance.

Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, declared Mr Tillerson's proposals for a 30 per cent cut in the department's budget a "waste of time" and expressed disbelief that the reorganisation plan would not be ready until the end of the year, at the earliest.

Three foreign ambassadors - one from Asia and two from Europe - say they have taken to contacting the National Security Council because the State Department does not return their calls or does not offer substantive answers .

Mr Tillerson recently shut down the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example - a role diminished since Mr Richard Holbrooke held the job during president Barack Obama's first term - and has yet to appoint an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, as the Taleban's return and Pakistan's instability are threats.

There is also no one in line for the Asia policy job, just when there is talk about whether the North Korea crisis will be defused by negotiation or steam towards conflict.

His rough beginning has led to senior Republican officials from past administrations - including Dr Henry Kissinger, Ms Condoleezza Rice and Mr Robert Gates - to reach out with advice.

Mr Tillerson has remained publicly stoic, proceeding at his own pace, though former Exxon colleagues say they see little evidence he finds much joy in the job.

Running one of the world's largest oil and gas companies, Mr Tillerson had complete authority. At the State Department, he finds himself negotiating with other power centres - from a White House with conflicting factions and priorities to the Defence Department - while managing a bureaucracy that largely cringes at the President's approach to the world.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'Tillerson's mediation bids stymied by Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe