Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has differed with President Trump over a number of significant foreign policy issues — North Korea, Iran and Qatar, to name a few. But when Tillerson distanced himself from the president on the question of American values — telling Fox News Sunday that the president “speaks for himself” by blaming “both sides” for violence that took place during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — questions grew over whether he would soon be out of office.
There have already been a number of changes in the president’s national security staff. But while the circumstances of Trump’s administration may appear especially chaotic, historians say first-year tumult isn’t unexpected.
The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has been documenting the first year of each of the last six administrations, offering some lessons and guidance on what should be avoided.
University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler says the research shows some common mistakes, from a failure to appoint key advisors who work well together to a lack of clear foreign policy priorities.
“What we have seen is that the Trump administration has repeated many of these errors,” Leffler tells NPR — “in fact, I would say, magnified them in significant ways so that the country is in a perilous state.”
As Leffler points out, most recent administrations have faced big foreign policy challenges in their first year. For the Clinton administration, it was an attack on U.S. forces in Somalia, often referred to as “Black Hawk down.” The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, tested George W. Bush.
President Bush had experienced advisors in key positions, but they didn’t work well as a team. Some officials in other important positions at the State Department were just getting in place at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. So, Leffler says, when the attacks took place, there were simply not enough people to help design and implement policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the Bush administration’s case, Congress was mostly to blame for a slow confirmation process for many national security positions. That is part of the problem today. But “an even more significant part is the failure of the administration to make appointments,” Leffler says, “and this is particularly true in the Department of State.”
Tillerson has had trouble getting the White House to approve some of his State Department picks, but at the same time, he is also redesigning the agency and cutting many positions, taking a sort of corporate approach. Tillerson is a former Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO with no prior government experience.
University of Virginia historian William Hitchcock says he is “puzzled” by those who believe that private sector experience is an “adequate preparation” for government. He’s also alarmed that President Trump and some of his advisors don’t seem to trust career State Department employees.
“The last time we had this degree of hatred, outright hatred toward professional diplomats who were worldly cosmopolitan, knowledgeable about other places, who traveled, who knew foreign languages … was in the [Joseph] McCarthy period” in the 1950s, Hitchcock says.
But, says William Antholis, who runs the Miller Center, institutional damage may not be long-lasting: “We tend to have reactions. Obama was a reaction to Bush, Bush was a reaction to Clinton. We will have a reaction to Trump, whether Republican or Democrat. And that reaction will come back to the fact that you have institutions for a reason.”
President Trump has been surrounding himself with generals, including his chief of staff, national security advisor and defense secretary. Leffler says normally he would be worried about that — he calls the number of generals “unprecedented” — but in the current circumstances, he thinks it is a good thing.
“We have a president who is ill-informed about foreign policy and national security policy, who is inattentive to process and organization and who seems at least to be a bit deferential to military people and military leaders,” he says. The generals, he says, are officials “who are attentive to process, who understand the importance of alliances, who are sensitive to the consequences of using force. So they can help constrain the president’s arbitrariness and lack of coherence.”
The problem is many of the challenges facing the U.S. — from Afghanistan to Iran, North Korea to Russia — require a political strategy, says Philip Zelikow, who was a top State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.
“If we can’t tell what our political strategy is on all these different subjects, I can’t give the secretary of state a good grade,” he says.
Zelikow teaches at the University of Virginia and was there when white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville earlier this month. He wasn’t surprised that President Trump was slow to condemn them.
“He’s an open book. He wants to be an open book. The book is written in large letters with pictures, so it is easy to read,” Zelikow says, adding he made up his mind about Trump long ago and has been a critic.
He says he is not surprised that Tillerson is trying to distance himself from the president’s words about Charlottesville.
“I think most of the challenge for the government now is how to try to make the government work despite and around the president,” Zelikow says.
The question he has: Will the government be prepared to handle a first-year international crisis, like the one brewing with North Korea? President Trump doesn’t seem interested in diplomacy there. On Wednesday, he tweeted: “Talking is not the answer!”