Some insist that the president is determined to appoint the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, as Tillerson’s replacement, not just because she has the same hawkish position as Trump on North Korea and Iran, but also because he wants to replace her at the UN with current Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, to keep her away from federal investigations into allegations of collusion with Russia. Others surmise that Trump is unsatisfied with Haley; they say he considers her a lightweight who could not fill the post at the State Department.
This tragi-comic drama will not threaten US national security because the military trio — Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly — remains in charge, and the president is fine with that as long as the key principles remain the subject of agreement. According to informed sources, these are: Maintaining the US foreign policy status quo, including the nuclear deal with Iran albeit with an attempt to improve or tighten it; maintaining accord with Russia, in Syria and elsewhere; and third, containing any surprises.
Some in Washington believe the “safety valve” protecting foreign policy from utter chaos is Rex Tillerson himself. These voices say that Trump is dangerously irrational and incoherent, and that Tillerson must therefore stay at the helm of US foreign policy.
Yet those who respect Tillerson want him to step down for being “tainted,” after Trump mocked him publically a few times, most recently when he said: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” in reference to the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. On more than one occasion, Trump undermined his secretary of state and his efforts, for example during the Qatar crisis when Trump sided with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain while Tillerson tried to take the middle ground.
This week, Tillerson had to adapt to the situation. He preferred to keep the post and accept the terms that come with it. “He surrendered. They wrote him the script and he caved,” one Washington observer said, in reference to the military trio. Tillerson dismissed reports this week that he had called Trump a moron, and denied that he intends to resign. “I serve at the appointment of the president and I’m here as long as the president thinks I can be useful to achieving his objectives,” he said.
This means the crisis with Tillerson has been contained on Trump’s own terms, which require Tillerson to stick close to the script in all circumstances. It also means that Nikki Haley’s hopes of replacing him have hit a solid wall, at least for now.
There are two views regarding Haley and what Trump wants for her. One says Trump greatly admires her and he has been making trouble for Tillerson because he wants her to replace him. The other, according to a source close to the White House, says this view is wrong. The source says President Trump is as furious with Haley as he is with Tillerson, because “they are both freelancing and competing with each other, when their job is to implement the president’s policy.” The source adds: “President Trump believes that Nikki Haley is selling Nikki Haley in the media, acting like a politician when she should act like an ambassador and not steal the limelight from the president.” President Trump, according to the source, and many in the White House, see Haley as “not substantive,” as someone who is using the post to further her political ambitions, which include running for president, as the source said.
Many in Washington also dispute reports suggesting Dina Powell could serve as the US envoy to the UN as replacement for Haley, and argue that Steve Bannon, who still has some influence over the White House, would not allow it.
Now that Rex Tillerson has swallowed his pride and chosen not to resign as Secretary of State, the first test of the newfound coherence in US foreign policy will be if the Trump administration speaks with one voice on the Iran nuclear deal.
None of this chaos is unusual in the era of Donald Trump and the many sackings and resignations that have affected his administration. The president himself is seen as “lame” by half of Americans, as one source put it. Not only is he the object of division between the Republicans and Democrats, but also among Republicans themselves, whose party had reluctantly nominated Trump. Thus, the US domestic political landscape remains on the edge of collapse.
Under Trump, foreign policy, as furthered by the military men now in the administration, is a continuation of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, with exceptions regarding relations with the Gulf states and Egypt. Barack Obama had placed the Iranian priority above all other considerations, and accepted distance with the Gulf nations and Egypt to safeguard his bid to effect a qualitative shift in US-Iranian relations, culminating with the nuclear deal. He turned a blind eye to and even sanctioned Iran’s regional incursions into Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon for the sake of that deal.
Trump pledged to mend these gaps in Obama’s policies in relation to Iran’s actions in the Arab world, but in reality he is implementing the “sequel” to these policies. For this reason, his administration is doing little to nothing to stop Iran from dominating the territories retaken from Daesh in Syria and Iraq, via its arms and proxies. Nikki Haley is engaging, meanwhile, in verbal one-upmanship at the Security Council, but reality on the ground indicates that the accords with Russia, which include rewarding Iran on the ground in Syria, is a fixed tenet of US foreign policy, designed by the president and his military men led by Mattis, McMaster and Kelly.
Trump relies on this military trio to avoid any surprises and safeguard the status quo. The crisis with Tillerson has been contained and no further independence or improvization is to be expected of him. Foreign policy may thus be less incoherent, at least publically. And most probably, Nikki Haley will restrain her media gymnastics now that it is clear Tillerson will be in his post for now.
The first step for this newfound coherence will be when the Trump administration speaks with one voice regarding the review next week of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The defense secretary, addressing the Senate last week, expressed support for the deal: “The point I would make is if we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interests, then clearly we should stay with it. I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something the President should consider staying with.”
This narrative diverges from earlier threats made to tear apart the agreement. So does Trump’s announcement regarding decertification of the nuclear agreement. But the impact is not lost on Iran who backed down this week and bowed to Trump’s demand that ballistic missiles must be discussed as part of the future of the nuclear agreement.
The clash of personalities in the Trump administration is likely to be contained only temporarily. The next chapter will soon reintroduce the matter of who will be the next Secretary of State. In the meantime, the question on whether Trump’s policy is the sequel to Obama’s policy is manifested clearly so far in Syria.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham