Who’s Really Calling the Shots in Washington?

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By: Alex El-Ghaoui

News of turmoil between the US Department of State and the White House has been commonplace since Trump’s inauguration. Along with the CIA and the FBI, the State Department has been a favorite target of President Trump’s, who views the agency as too cumbersome and bureaucratic. Recently, this turmoil seems to have increased in significance as Rex Tillerson’s time and influence as Secretary of State seems to be dwindling. Reports indicate that Tillerson’s job is in jeopardy as Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are aiming to have him replaced with the current chief of the CIA Mike Pompeo, who in turn would be replaced by key Trump ally, Senator Tom Cotton (R., Arkansas). Tillerson’s ousting would mark the end of the shortest and one of the most tumultuous tenures of any Secretary of State in US History. President Trump and Tillerson have publicly disagreed on key foreign policy and national security matters such as the North Korean missile crisis, the Iran nuclear deal, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Israel-Palestine peace negotiations. Even more concerning is the fact that Tillerson and Trump have not only publically taken different sides on the rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar but have also proposed conflicting policy plans. News of Tillerson’s potential departure has sounded alarm bells in Brussels, as European Union diplomats scramble to decipher the Trump administration’s mixed messages towards the EU.

Highly marginalized, Tillerson’s influence and power have diminished to the point where he has been kept in the dark regarding foreign policy issues. For example, President Trump has appointed Jared Kushner as the lead American official in the Middle East peace negations, a role usually filled by the Secretary of State. Kushner is attempting to broker a deal with Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state in exchange for American indifference toward bin Salman’s power grabs and attempts to reform the Saudi Kingdom. Bin Salman wants to increase Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region by pursuing aggressive campaigns against Iran and Qatar, an American ally. Tillerson highly opposes this plan as he considers bin Salman’s cooperation with the United States an attempt to obtain a blank check from the United States. Tillerson has publicly challenged the crown prince in his attempts for regime change in Qatar, while Trump has tweeted his support for the Saudi prince. Trump and Tillerson have also publicly clashed over North Korea. Trump has vowed to destroy the so-called Hermit Kingdom, while Tillerson has opted to pursue a more diplomatic approach. It is clear now that Rex Tillerson, the United States Secretary of State, is no longer calling the shots in Washington.

The turmoil in the American foreign policy community is not limited to Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson. United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have also contributed to the perplexing messages coming from Washington. As the only global superpower, any turmoil in the American foreign policy community carries massive and serious implications around the world. These recent developments in Washington bring up the question, whose influence is greatest in American foreign policy?  

Jared Kushner has more influence on US foreign policy than Rex Tillerson. An official close to Tillerson, when asked about his marginalization by Kushner and the White House, said, “The problem is, [Jared Kushner] does not consult with the State Department – and it’s unclear the level of consultation that goes on with the NSC [National Security Council]. And that’s a problem for both the NSC and the State Department and it’s not something we can easily solve.” It is evident that Tillerson is in the process of being pushed out. Unable to voice his opinion to the President and exert his influence on American foreign policy, it is no surprise that rumors of him mulling a resignation have recently surfaced. Jared Kushner is an unelected American official with a temporary security clearance – and for now, he is also the most powerful man in the American foreign policy community.

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