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More coherent foreign policy post-Tillerson?

If confirmed as the next secretary of state, Michael Pompeo could become chief foreign policy spokesman for Trump and an effective operator when dealing with Congress and media

Mr Tillerson learned of his ouster as US secretary of state the same way everyone around the world did - from a morning tweet by Trump on March 13.

YOU haven't responded to the guy's 72 text messages, ignored his 98 phone calls, refrained from "liking" his posts on Facebook, and went on to defriend and then even to block him.

But for some reason, he does not seem to get any hint - big hints, in this case - that, hey, you are not interested in hooking up with him, and certainly not in going on a date or whatever, and just want him to leave you alone. Gosh! What can you do to get him off your back?

Now, talking about someone else who did not seem to get a hint. On Nov 30, 2017, The New York Times carried a front-page story headlined, "White House plans Tillerson ouster from State Dept, to be replaced by Pompeo".

According to the report by the Times' well-connected White House correspondents, Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman and Gardiner Harris: "The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson whose relationship with President Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, perhaps within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said on Thursday." That was four months ago.

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In Washington parlance, the Times story is called a "trial balloon". Top administration officials trying to send a message about a controversial policy or personnel move, testing the political waters and hoping that the leak to the media would help advance the changes they want to see happening.

It was clear that the three respected Times journalists would have not published such a report about a president planning to fire his chief diplomat, unless they received the information (aka "leak") from a source close to the White House. At the time, the talk in Washington was that President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner was the source of the story and that the leak was greenlighted by the Man himself.

It was not a secret that when it comes to personnel decisions, President Trump, the former reality show host, pays a lot of attention to whether the candidate for a certain position in business or government could play the role of, say, a CEO or, for that matter, a Secretary of State in a Broadway show or in a Hollywood production.

Hence it was rumoured that President Trump vetoed the nomination of John Bolton to the position of secretary of state because the moustached and toupee-wearing former United Nations ambassador, who had extensive experience in foreign policy, just did not look the part.

On the other hand, the Donald decided that Rex Tillerson, then chief executive of ExxonMobil, came out of Central Casting, as they say in Hollywood, looking the way a secretary of state should look: Tall and manly, distinguished and radiating confidence, and, yes, with a full head of grey hair, that distinctive look of an Elder Statesman.

But looks can be deceiving. In fact, notwithstanding Mr Tillerson's patrician demeanour, he was raised by a family of modest means in Texas, did not attend Harvard or Yale, and while as the chief of a multinational energy company he had travelled a lot around the world and met many foreign leaders and business executives, he lacked a coherent view of America's place in the world, and did not have what it took to manage US foreign policy.

Described by The Washington Post as an "unmitigated disaster" and "the most incompetent secretary of state in modern history", the former oilman did not seem to have a major impact on the new administration's foreign policy direction, with other top officials, including Mr Kushner, overshadowing him on the global stage.

And most importantly, while the somewhat low-key Mr Tillerson did not get along with his flamboyant boss on the personal level, the two also seemed to disagree on some policy issues, with the secretary of state - who tended to adhere to more traditional internationalist principles of American foreign policy - challenging the president's more nationalist approach and bombastic style.

That Secretary Tillerson would soon be out of a job became quite clear last year, especially after the former ExxonMobil executive was quoted in the press describing President Trump as "a moron". But for some reason or other, the State Department chief was not getting the message, and seemed to continue to believe that his boss still wanted him to stay around.

So the president and his aides decided that they had no choice but to take direct action, and on March 9 while Secretary Tillerson was at the tail end of his trip to Africa, the White House chief of staff John Kelly contacted him and told him, without elaboration, that he would soon be the subject of a tweet from Mr Trump. Mr Tillerson eventually learned of his ouster the same way everyone around the world did - from a morning tweet by Trump on March 13.

There was a certain irony about the timing of the move, as the secretary of state was touring Africa, in part to apologise for President Trump referring to those countries as "s-t holes" and while the White House was announcing two decisions that were challenged by Secretary Tillerson - an impending meeting between the American and North Korean leaders and the imposition of US tariffs on foreign steel and aluminium imports.

Indeed, according to a White House spokesman, President Trump "thought it was the right time for the transition with the upcoming North Korea talks and various trade negotiations" and the president later told reporters that his differences with Secretary Tillerson reflected a lack of personal chemistry and disagreements on foreign policy.

That Mr Tillerson's tenure as secretary of state lasted only 405 days, and that he would join a very long list of high-profile firings or resignations of Trump administration officials - most recently that of Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council - will add to the sense of bureaucratic and political chaos in Washington.

But there is no doubt that President Trump would feel quite comfortable with his choice to replace Secretary Tillerson, Michael Pompeo, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A former congressman from Kansas, Mr Pompeo is a conservative Republican and a member of the party's Tea Party wing. He is known for his hawkish foreign policy positions on issues like Iran and seems to share President Trump's nationalist instincts.

And, indeed, President Trump said on Tuesday that he and Mr Pompeo "have a very similar thought process", raising the hope that if confirmed by the Senate as the next secretary of state, the former Republican congressman could become the chief foreign policy spokesman for the president and an effective operator when it comes to dealing with Congress and the media.

So while some of America's allies would probably continue to oppose President Trump's foreign policy, there is a good chance that now they would at least be able to make some sense of it.


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