By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas*
President Trump’s decision to let Rex Tillerson go came as no surprise to anyone; in fact, perhaps the only surprise was that the decision took this long.
Tillerson was never the right man for the job of the top diplomat in an administration that is so determined to make things happen; indeed, his professional failings are strange for someone who spent his business career mining for deals and negotiating with governments.
At his office, Tillerson locked himself behind closed doors and wasted his time cutting costs and “restructuring” the State Department. One by one, career diplomats resigned in protest at his management style, and he did nothing to stem this leakage of the most important resource of all — human capital.
However, this is only a small part of why Tillerson will probably go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of state the US has ever had; not all diplomats can be great managers, but at the very least they must be good diplomats.
For Tillerson, a former oil executive who had extensive dealings with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, the Middle East should have been his playground; instead, his mishandling of almost all related portfolios turned the region into his political graveyard.
To start with, you don’t sit in your office while the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is about to reignite. Tillerson barely made any effort to calm the tension in Jerusalem. Perhaps he thought it wasn’t his mess to clean up, or to defuse. However, this is not TV’s “House of Cards”: This is a real-life crisis, and regional stability is on the line.
Furthermore, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem could have been used by a pragmatic diplomat as leverage to force the Israelis to the negotiating table, and to secure acceptable terms for the Palestinians. But that can’t be discussed over the phone from an office in Washington; Tillerson needed to be there, talking to the parties involved.
Then, despite the clear and present danger that Iran represents to Washington and its allies in the region, Tillerson sat on the fence while the White House took a more hawkish approach toward Tehran.
When the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — announced last year that they were boycotting Qatar over its terror ties and political meddling in the affairs of its neighbors, the former ExxonMobil executive proved to be “full of gas” more than anything else.
Despite initially toeing the White House line and warning Doha that it needed to act quickly on its support for terrorism (which would have been in the US and global interests), Tillerson quickly softened his position. While Qataris continued sipping champagne and revving their sports cars through the streets of Knightsbridge, and Paris Hilton performed at a Doha nightclub, Tillerson was busy preaching to the ATQ about the holiness of the month of Ramadan and how their boycott of Qatar was causing food shortages.
What he should have done was use his excellent connections to the ruling family in Doha to convince them to hand over wanted terrorists, and pledge to respect their neighbors’ sovereignty. Would he have been able to do so? Yes, for two reasons. First, these wanted terrorists put American lives in danger; and second, the Qataris would have listened to him because he played an important role in helping them to accumulate their enormous wealth. During his time at ExxonMobil in the 1990s, Tillerson helped to bring liquid-gas technology to Doha, and to develop the liquefaction plant at Ras Laffan in northern Qatar. By 2010, Qatari gas accounted for 30 percent of the global market.
Of course, while many people perhaps did not possess this information about Tillerson, the ATQ certainly did — and probably never accepted him as an unbiased mediator.
Is there reason to believe Doha had influence over Tillerson? Was he really biased toward Qatar? Or was he surrounded by so many State Department officials still stuck in the Obama era that they undermined his ability to act? None of this matters now.
With a former CIA chief taking the helm, one would hope that Qatar’s and Iran’s terror ties would be obvious — and the danger of ignoring the plight of the Palestinians would be a given. For the sake of regional stability, we wish Mike Pompeo all the best.