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Rex Tillerson is our nation’s secretary of state, and he does not sound like a man who really wants the job

U.S. State of Secretary Rex Tillerson, left, chats with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Sunday.
U.S. State of Secretary Rex Tillerson, left, chats with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Sunday. Associated Press file/2017

We have heard the excuses over and over on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s behalf. He’s new at this. He’s getting his feet wet. He’s not used to press scrutiny. Frankly, neither he nor his defenders are helping his cause at this point.

The latest was his declaration that “I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job.” He made the remark to Erin McPike, the sole journalist allowed to accompany him on his flight to Asia. “My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”

He added, according to the report, “I was supposed to retire in March, this month. I was going to go to the ranch to be with my grandkids.” Perhaps he intended this as a humble brag, but the tone came across as self-pitying and crabby. (In effect, he seems to be telling us: How dare you criticize me when I didn’t have to serve you people.)

This came after his assertion that “I am not a big press media access person. I personally don’t need it.” Well, someone should break it to him that this is not about him; it’s about the accountability we expect of high-ranking officials in a democracy. Right Turn readers would never accuse me of fondness for the Obama State Department, but I could not agree more with the remarks of one of its members quoted by McPike:

“We didn’t see public diplomacy and giving access to reporters as a disadvantage. We saw them as part of the responsibility you have in a democracy to keep the public informed about decisions being made in their name. We saw them as opportunities to explain and advance our agenda. And we saw them as an important example to set for parts of the world where such transparency is unfortunately rare.

“In other words, we didn’t see these things as weaknesses, but as a source of strength.”

That sentiment, so self-evidently true to anyone in public office, seems entirely alien to Tillerson.

Tillerson’s perpetual tone-deafness would be problematic for any cabinet official. For the country’s chief diplomat, it is tragic. Much of diplomacy is not just what one says and does but how one says and does it. In order for the secretary of state to confront what is arguably our greatest challenge – Russia’s threat to our and other liberal (small “l”) democracies – he must, first, grasp the nature of the threat and then, second, understand his role in combating it.

Tillerson might consider the remarks of the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Adam Schiff, D-Los Angeles., who spoke at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday.

In a column adapted from those remarks, Schiff cautioned: “The Russian attack on our democracy last year was unprecedented in that it was directed obviously at us and in that it succeeded. But in fact, the Russian government and the Soviets before them have long been working to destabilize their European neighbors-perfecting the techniques that were deployed so effectively here last year.”

Pointing to Russian efforts to cultivate far-right parties in Europe and meddle in our allies’ elections, he warned, “The objective is simple: to arrest and reverse European integration, to push NATO back from Russia’s borders, and, to the extent possible, re-create Soviet-era influence in Moscow’s Near Abroad.”

Schiff’s recommendation is the anti-Tillerson approach: “The international community of democracies, of which the United States is a part, has a duty to act in concert to protect the electoral process in France and Germany, and in other countries where Russia or other antidemocratic regimes are working to subvert elections and distort internal dialogue.”

In short, active and public defense of democratic values; walking the walk and not simply talking about the virtues of open, democratic institutions; prioritizing relationships with democratic allies; and vocal support for human rights are critical. Schiff was right to knock Tillerson because he “did not even bother to show up for this year’s release of the report on human rights, a sharp break with the practice of previous secretaries.”

Perhaps there is some recognition on Tillerson’s part that things have gone off-course. The Wall Street Journal reports: “U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, facing complaints over his unusual plan to skip a formal meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers in April, moved to reassure allies by suggesting alternative dates for the meeting, the State Department said. ... After complaints from diplomats, the State Department said Tuesday it had offered dates to NATO that would allow Mr. Tillerson to attend the meeting of foreign ministers, which is currently planned for April 5-6.”

Let’s hope that Tillerson does not disappoint.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective. Follow her: @JRubinBlogger