You might think if Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson were an honorable-though-displeased Cabinet officer, he would have it out in private with his boss, the president of the United States, and then resign, absent a meeting of the minds.
Mr. Tillerson did reject Mr. Trump’s equating left-wing intolerance and thuggery with right-wing intolerance and thuggery. People who share my values think the president was right because they think left and right totalitarians lead us to a Stalinist or a Hitlerian future that we would fight to the death against.
After noting that the president was “in Phoenix this week talking more about the media than he was about the neo-Nazis and the Klan,” Mr. Wallace asked Mr. Tillerson, “Does that make it harder for you to push American values around the world when some foreign leaders question the president’s values?”
Mr. Tillerson didn’t say yes or no but simply laid out his view of American values, leading Mr. Wallace to ask: “Are you separating yourself from that, sir?”— meaning “Are you separating yourself from your boss when it comes to what America’s values are?”
Mr. Tillerson’s measured response was, “I’ve spoken — I’ve made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week.” It was a speech that the establishments of both political parties could dance to all night.
But it also revealed an admirable grasp of what putting Trumpian nationalism into practice means.
In giving an “overarching view of how I think about the president’s approach of ‘America first,’” Mr. Tillerson said, “we must secure the nation” and “protect our people our borders our ability to be [the] voice of our values now and forevermore. And we can only do that with economic prosperity.”
The ex-corporate chieftain touches all the bases that Trump conservatives (and in theory “Never Trump” types) should care about, and with a refinement of definition that makes you think, “Yeah, maybe this guy gets it.”
Putting America first is a “foreign policy projected with a strong ability to enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military,” Mr. Tillerson said. “All of you that have been at this a long time understand the value of speaking with a posture of strength — not a threatening posture, but a posture of strength.”
I don’t know about you, but I like the nuance in that. It’s not often heard in the thunder of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, which I also like.
How to explain the apparent contradiction? A man of high demeanor with a silver lion’s mane, Mr. Tillerson associates with people who, in the main, think American values are what The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Atlantic and New York magazine say those values are. Mr. Tillerson does not let fall from his lips such gaucherie as “radical Islamic terrorism.” Back at the country club it is not politically correct to say the person who robbed and killed your neighbors is a blond woman. Clear case of sexism and hair-color insensitivity.
Whatever he thinks of phrases like “Muslim terrorism,” Mr. Tillerson has to get the best deal for the U.S. from 50 governments that preside over 1.8 billion Muslims. Most don’t take kindly to being lumped with the few bloodthirsty lumpen in their midst. A secretary of state’s job is to strike the right balance of admiration and fear of the U.S. abroad.
In pursuing that task, Mr. Tillerson does not think of himself as a man of the left, but he can do a pretty convincing job at times of not seeming like a man of the right either. He has held out for top aides at State to have a liberal establishment way of looking at the world.
Let’s face it, Mr. Tillerson has put in his time in the swamp. You don’t have to have been physically in the District of Columbia and working for, or be a consultant to, the federal government to be a swamp dweller. Mr. Tillerson’s corporation has sought tax favors and other special treatment from the federal government.
To do that he mixed and mingled many a time with the alligators who can make that happen. Call it the Establishment or the Military-Industrial Complex as President Eisenhower once called it, it’s the same swamp.
But its dwellers aren’t necessarily bad people, any more than an alligator that eats a human. It’s in his nature. Mr. Tillerson did for ExxonMobil what is in a corporate CEO’s nature to do — what the man once affectionately called “The Donald” acknowledged he did when he was a swamp-dwelling real-estate and show-biz mogul.
As swamp-dweller-turned-public servant, Mr. Tillerson went above and beyond the call of office. Instead of resigning in protest over a perceived values gap, he simply laid out his views, acknowledged the president had laid out his and left it up to Mr. Trump to deal with.
Does the leader of the Free World need to hang on to a man like that who can credibly explain to the striped-pants set at Diplomat Central the means and ends of America first?
Mr. Trump talks about total defeat of Islamist terrorism and the Taliban, which may be bridge too far for another 17 years. But Mr. Tillerson is wise enough to know that a military victory in Afghanistan as final and thorough as our defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan more than 70 years ago isn’t in the cards, instead he talks of a negotiated settlement. Ugly thought, but maybe the only way.
I can argue he has the right war goals but the wrong language, the wrong diplomatic slant — more internationalist than nationalist. But I can live with that.
I think so.
• Ralph Z. Hallow, the chief political correspondent of commentary, served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University and resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar.
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