Embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can’t seem to catch a break.
After months of having his diplomatic efforts and credibility contradicted and undermined time and again by President Donald Trump — the man whose views Tillerson is ostensibly supposed to represent — Tillerson is now being contradicted by his own State Department.
On Tuesday, Tillerson announced what seemed to be a new policy toward North Korea. Speaking at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, DC, Tillerson stated that the US would be willing to start diplomatic talks with North Korea without preconditions.
“Let’s just meet and let’s — we can talk about the weather if you want,” he said. “We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face? And then we can begin to lay out a map, a roadmap of what we might be willing to work towards.”
This statement got a lot of attention. The Trump administration previously said it won’t speak to North Korean officials unless and until they’re ready to discuss curbing the country’s nuclear and missile programs — something they’ve so far refused to do. So the fact that the administration had seemingly changed its position was a big deal.
Or so everyone thought, until the White House abruptly put out a statement about three hours after Tillerson’s big speech stating, “The President’s views on North Korea have not changed” — in other words, seemingly contradicting everything Tillerson had just said.
The next day it got even worse, with State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert tweeting Wednesday night:
Our policy on #DPRK has not changed. Diplomacy is our top priority through our maximum pressure campaign. We remain open to dialogue when North Korea is willing to conduct a serious & credible dialogue on the peaceful denuclearization, but that time is not now.— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) December 14, 2017
This isn’t the first time the president has undercut Tillerson. In June, Tillerson tried to calm tensions after Saudi Arabia launched a diplomatic war against Qatar. But just one hour later President Donald Trump inflamed tensions by calling Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism.
In September, Tillerson came out of a closed-door meeting with his Iranian counterparts and told the gaggle of reporters waiting outside that Trump was “still considering” whether to decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. One of the reporters then gently corrected Tillerson, explaining that Trump had actually told reporters just a few hours earlier that he had made up his mind on the matter.
And in October, just one day after Tillerson announced during a major trip to China that the US was in direct communication with the North Korean government and trying to pursue diplomatic talks, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting him time” trying to start diplomatic negations with North Korea.
But at least Tillerson was nominally still in charge of his own department. Now, even the State Department is openly contradicting him. And Tillerson’s own spokesperson, R.C. Hammond, announced Tuesday he would be resigning from the State Department.
It’s now painfully clear that Tillerson — the nation’s top diplomat whose entire job is to speak on behalf of the United States government — doesn’t speak on behalf of, well, anyone, really.
And that’s a big problem.
Mixed messages won’t help resolve the North Korea crisis — and could make it worse
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his officials listen closely to what the US says about them. But now they may not know who to listen to.
“Pyongyang speaks with one voice,” Paul Musgrave, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told me in an interview. “The United States is speaking with many and conflicting voices. So whom should the North Koreans — or other interested parties — take their cue from when trying to discern US policy?”
That’s concerning. If North Korea can’t tell what US policy toward Pyongyang is, the chance for miscalculation between North Korea and the US increases. That’s bad by itself, but worse when US government officials, like Iraq War veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), believe both countries are closer to war than most people realize.
So the US needs to speak with one voice on North Korea, but it increasingly looks like Tillerson has lost his.