Tillerson makes low-key start as US’ top diplomat

By Nirmal Ghosh, The Straits Times/ANN

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has had little media interaction, did not attend meetings with foreign leaders.

Virtually lost in the high-decibel din of Washington’s news cycle, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week made a brief trip to Mexico — his first to the crucial neighbor. Relations with Mexico have turned tense under United States President Donald Trump, so it was an early test for 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. 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, 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 U.S. policies that could be harmful to Mexico and its people. Back in Washington, 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. Trump appointed several ambassadors before Tillerson was sworn in, and has essentially given the Israel portfolio to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a neophyte in foreign relations.

Underlining Trump’s emphasis on personal loyalty, Tillerson’s choice for deputy — 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, Tillerson was otherwise absent from 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 Tillerson is “caught up in an administration with too many competing power centers and a President who’s unwilling or unable to decide who he wants to play the lead role in implementing his foreign policy.”

But R.C. Hammond, a former State Department spokesman now working on Tillerson’s team, told Reuters that his boss does not have a problem and is in touch with Trump over the phone regularly. It is unfair to compare Tillerson with predecessor John Kerry, Hammond said.