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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Tillerson, Trump and the collapse of America's standing and credibility

There are many takeaways from the recent rupture between the US president and his secretary of state, writes David Rothkopf

Donald Trump speaks to reporters outside the White House earlier this month. Alex Edelman / AFP
Donald Trump speaks to reporters outside the White House earlier this month. Alex Edelman / AFP

The most titillating news to flow out of the great swamp that is also known as Washington, DC, this past week was the revelation that the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had called his boss, the president of the United States, a “moron”. Actually, he went further than that, modifying the word “moron” with another term not normally seen in a newspaper of this calibre.

Immediately, the president set about proving Mr Tillerson’s point. He did so first by asking him to clarify his remarks. Mr Tillerson, of course, would not (and did not) deny something he had said in front of many people, and therefore the story quickly became that the president’s secretary of state not only called him a “moron” but that he then would not deny that he had said it.

In Washington politics, we call this a self-inflicted wound by the White House that should have known what Mr Tillerson was going to say before he said it. But they were not in thinking mode over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. According to subsequent reports, the president fumed for two hours straight about the Tillerson revelation. (Then again, imagine how long Mr Tillerson has been fuming at the slights, policy gaffes and erratic behaviour of his boss, who just days earlier had denigrated Mr Tillerson’s North Korea negotiations publicly in one of his many inflammatory tweets on the subject.)

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Mr Trump also spent this past weekend offering up more bizarre tweets, including some attacking television comedians and demanding equal time to respond to the (many) jokes they were telling about him. He also sought to pour more fuel on the crisis in the Koreas with a tweet saying there was only “one way” to solve a problem like Kim Jong-un and implying that way was war. Some around the president argue that this approach is a gambit known as the “madman strategy” designed to intimidate Mr Kim into capitulation. The problem with this strategy is several fold. First, the most prominent prior example of the “madman strategy” didn’t work when Richard Nixon adopted it during the Vietnam conflict.

Next, Mr Kim will never give up his nuclear arsenal because he believes that so doing was precisely what led to the end of Muammar Qaddafi. Next, there is a big difference between playing at a “madman strategy” and actually being a madman and Mr Trump’s growing recklessness and bizarre behaviour seems to be suggesting he is more in the latter category than deftly playing out the former approach. Finally, it is probably not a great idea to play “who can act crazier” with a guy like Kim Jong-un, who himself has often seemed quite a few cards short of a full deck.

But here is the problem. Yes, it's clear that Mr Trump has little grasp of history and has made some mistakes as president … and before. But, being a “ moron” is different. It implies that you are not just dumb but something even worse. It suggests that you are hopelessly incapable of doing your job, in denial about that and likely to cause a great deal of damage as a result. (One well-known Washington commentator said to me the other day that calling out Mr Trump this way may go down as Mr Tillerson's defining moment as secretary of state.)

Further, this rift within the administration has multiple consequences. First, Mr Tillerson is done.

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He may stay in the job longer but no foreign leader will ever again think he has a good relationship with the president, because he does not. That’s fatal for a top diplomat.

Worse than the damage to Mr Tillerson is the damage to Mr Trump. The incident shows that his top team is fragmented and dysfunctional and that they do not trust their boss. This undercuts his credibility too.

Mr Trump, the would-be statesman, can ill afford such blows. He has already hurt himself with being caught out lying about exchanges with allies and in public statements on everything from the size of crowds at his inauguration to the performance of his administration. Compounding this and doing damage that is quantum levels worse, he has serially broken America’s word on a host of international agreements, including the Paris climate accords, Nafta, TPP and, he has indicated, he will soon have America decertify Iran on the recent nuclear deal, despite even those in his own administration arguing there are no grounds to do so.

The international system of the past 70 years has been built on two things: the strength of the world’s most powerful nation and the belief that its leaders would honour their commitments and were, in general, true to their word. Thus, Mr Trump’s credibility crisis is not just amusing political theatre; it is a threat to the underpinnings of American leadership and the entire system on which global security has depended for decades. As a consequence, while what is happening in Washington may be amusing from afar, it’s probably best to contain your laughter. The complete collapse of the credibility and standing of America’s president is dangerous for everyone, everywhere.

David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a columnist for the Washington Post, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow

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