How to separate chaos from policy

The Trump circus has become the media narrative, but like a lot of what this administration has done, replacing Tillerson with Pompeo makes sense.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Another day, another Trump outrage.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson  (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, the world was shocked to learn that instead of being accorded the courtesy of a private meeting or at least a phone call, the U.S. secretary of state was fired by a presidential tweet.

The unceremonious exit of Rex Tillerson from the cabinet was reported as just another example of President Trump’s chaotic management system, coupled with his lack of what in a more civil era would have been described as good manners or gentlemanly behavior. The assumption on the part of most pundits and reporters was that whatever the merits of the case for replacing Tillerson with CIA chief Mike Pompeo, Trump’s style was more important than the substance of the decision.

Chaos has been a constant theme of the Trump administration, as a novice politician acts as ringmaster for a clown car filled with an endless stream of appointees coming and going, often before we even learned to spell their names. There’s also the argument some make that this bedlam is undermining U.S. influence abroad in a way that is as, if not more important, than the actual policies the government is pursuing.

But while incidents like the firing via a tweet reinforce the prevailing narrative about Trump being unfit for the presidency, they also distract us from the crux of the cabinet reshuffle.

Were we not all so mesmerized by the focus on Trump’s personality and tweets, perhaps we’d be talking more about why Tillerson had to go.

While even Trump’s critics concede that he has the right to choose his own staff, much of the coverage of the State Department in the last year had been about how the president was bullying the genial-looking former Exxon executive. Tillerson seemed at odds with both the White House on policy and the State Department bureaucracy. But the fact that he reportedly called Trump a “moron”—something Tillerson never denied—made him a hero to the president’s detractors and their media cheering section, while not exactly endearing him to the president.

But though Tillerson was a newcomer to government service, he was also a quintessential establishment figure in his approach to policy, as well as instinctually opposed to many of Trump’s key policy shifts with respect to the Middle East.

Tillerson opposed the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and was clearly stalling the moving of the embassy from Tel Aviv as long as he could. On the peace process with the Palestinians, he seemed to be more interested in recycling past policies than looking for new solutions.

Most importantly, he seemed to regard the preservation of the Iran nuclear deal as his primary mission. Tasked with demanding that America’s European allies join efforts to force Iran to end its sunset clauses and prevent Tehran from building missiles—and pursuing regional hegemony—Tillerson backed down rather than pursue his objective.

But while he enjoyed posing as one of the White House “grown-ups” who sought to put a leash on Trump, he also failed to point out to the president the inherent contradiction between his tough attitude towards Iran and his belief in détente with Russia.

By contrast, Pompeo is a strong opponent of the Iran deal and a firm friend of Israel who is not interested in repeating Obama-era mistakes. He’s also been tough on Russia and may have the ability to move the president to a more sensible policy with respect to Moscow. While, like everyone else in Washington and elsewhere, he may not have all the answers, especially when it comes to the North Korea puzzle, Pompeo should be a more effective secretary of state. He is in a position to support the best aspects of Trump’s instinctual approach while acting to check his less well-considered beliefs.

Like many of Trump’s accomplishments in his first year in office—the rout of ISIS, the strengthening of U.S.-Israel relations, a booming economy boosted by a regulatory rollback and the prospect of tax cuts—the benefits of change have been lost amid the cacophony of criticism about Trump’s statements, tweets and downright boorish behavior.

Part of this is the president’s own fault; he continually gets in the way of his message and policies with his big mouth and active Twitter account. It’s also true that some of America’s allies and foes may be distracted by the personnel changes, in addition to all the tweets.

But while the narrative of chaos can be self-reinforcing, that hasn’t stopped Trump from governing effectively. Contrary to the hysterical criticisms of his foes, he has shown a deft hand on many foreign-policy issues and avoided a number of crises. Though there is good reason to worry about his proposed meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, it does show his willingness to talk and reluctance to maintain the status quo. On the Middle East, he has consistently done the right thing, restoring trust to the crucial U.S.-Israel relationship.

Unlike other presidents, evaluating Trump requires observers to separate the atmospherics from the policies. That’s hard to do, especially when he speaks or tweets in a manner that does his presidency and the office no honor. But if we’re going to think seriously about this administration, that’s exactly what we must do.

Instead of buying into the chaos theory, it’s time for even some of the president’s critics to keep their eyes on the government’s deeds rather than Twitter feeds, and admit that he isn’t the failure they’d like to pretend he has been. Instead of an excuse for more outrage, this latest Trump foreign-policy move deserves some applause.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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