Tillerson makes low-key start to new job

Mr Tillerson addressing State Department employees on Feb 2, the day after he was sworn in. Mr Tillerson is learning how to coexist with an extrovert President who is inclined to make snap statements on foreign policy.
Mr Tillerson addressing State Department employees on Feb 2, the day after he was sworn in. Mr Tillerson is learning how to coexist with an extrovert President who is inclined to make snap statements on foreign policy.PHOTO: REUTERS

US Secretary of State has had little media interaction, did not attend meetings with foreign leaders

Virtually lost in the high-decibel din of Washington's news cycle, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week made a brief trip to Mexico - his first to the crucial neighbour.

Relations with Mexico have turned tense under United States President Donald Trump, so it was an early test for Mr Tillerson, 64, a former oilman who has no foreign policy experience and faces his own challenges in Washington, where he has brought a new style to the State Department.   

That style was evident last week, at least in terms of communications. Mr Tillerson, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and their Mexican counterparts read out statements to the media in Mexico City last Thursday but did not take questions. On an earlier trip to Bonn for a Group of 20 meeting, Mr Tillerson also did not take questions. 

In Mexico, officials were guarded but blunt. Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Videgaray Caso expressed "worry and irritation" about US policies that could be harmful to Mexico and its people.

FIRST SIX MONTHS

The news is what steps the Secretary takes over the first six months to accomplish those tasks, while keeping his eye on the job.

DR PATRICK CRONIN, Asia-Pacific security programme director at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, on Mr Tillerson establishing a relationship with the White House , building a team and developing a voice.

Back in Washington, Mr Tillerson is shaking up the State Department while learning how to coexist with an extrovert President who is inclined to make snap statements on foreign policy. Mr Trump appointed several ambassadors before Mr Tillerson was sworn in, and has essentially given the Israel portfolio to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a neophyte in foreign relations. 

Underlining Mr Trump's emphasis on personal loyalty, Mr Tiller- son's choice for deputy - Mr Elliott Abrams, who has years of foreign policy experience under former Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush - was rejected by the White House for penning an article last year entitled "When You Can't Stand Your Candidate".   

Though he had a working dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Tillerson was otherwise absent from Mr Trump's meetings with foreign leaders. He was represented instead by acting deputy Tom Shannon at meetings with Canada's and Japan's prime ministers.

This has raised eyebrows. Last Wednesday, The Washington Post quoted former diplomat Aaron David Milleras saying that Mr Tillerson is "caught up in an administration with too many competing power centres and a President who's unwilling or unable to decide who he wants to play the lead role in implementing his foreign policy". 

But Mr R.C. Hammond, a former State Department spokesman now working on Mr Tillerson's team, told Reuters that his boss does not have a problem and is in touch with Mr Trump over the phone regularly.

It is unfair to compare Mr Tillerson with predecessor John Kerry, Mr Hammond said. 

Early indications are that Mr Tillerson's relationship with the media will reflect Mr Trump's jaundiced view.  Since he was sworn in on Feb 1, there have been no regular daily briefings by the State Department, a decades-long practice.

Dr Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security programme director at the Centre for a New American Security, cautioned that "a new Cabinet member, especially one entering the political fray from outside the beltway, needs time to establish a relationship with the White House, build a team and develop a voice".

Many appointed positions have yet to be filled in the State Department, he noted - a process that could take months.  

"The news is what steps the Secretary takes over the first six months to accomplish those tasks, while keeping his eye on the job," he told The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Tillerson makes low-key start to new job'. Print Edition | Subscribe