Rex Tillerson boards his plane at the end of a five-country swing through Africa that turned out to be his swansong as US secretary of state. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

The surprising part of US President Donald Trump’s move to sack Rex Tillerson as secretary of state is that it took place a full six months after the latter called him a “f***ing moron” at a Pentagon meeting. Tillerson should have thrown in the towel and walked away then. That’s probably what Trump would have preferred.

On Tuesday, Trump merely said he and Tillerson “disagreed on things.” Iran was mentioned. Tillerson viewed the Iran deal holistically as the template of a bigger challenge, one requiring the US to push back at Iran’s regional surge, its backing of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, its growing missile capability, and so on.

But if Trump has so far desisted from jettisoning the Iran deal, it is not because Tillerson thought differently. Washington cannot act unilaterally where western interests are involved and, therefore, this is, per se, a “work in progress.”

Conceivably, Trump’s main problem with Tillerson lay somewhere else – namely, the axis between Tillerson and US Defence Secretary James Mattis both at a personal level and systemically in terms of the relationship between the two key departments that formulate the US’ global strategies. It is revealing that in his “farewell” remarks on Tuesday, Tillerson made it a point to say:

“I want to speak now to my State Department colleagues and to our interagency colleagues and partners at DOD and the Joint Chief of Staffs most particularly… To the men and women in uniform, I am told for the first time in most people’s memory the Department of State and the Department of Defense have a close working relationship… The men and women in uniform at the Department of Defense, under the leadership of Secretary Mattis and General Dunford, protect us as Americans and our way of life daily, at home and abroad. As an all-volunteer military, they do it for love of country, they do it for you and they do it for me, and for no other reason. As Americans, we are all eternally grateful to each of them and we honor their sacrifices.”

Rex Tillerson boards his plane at the end of a five-country swing through Africa that turned out to be his swansong as US secretary of state. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

Yet Tillerson didn’t say a nice word on the CIA or his successor-designate Mike Pompey. The heart of the matter is that he travelled a long way in terms of Russia policy whilst also undertaking his own adventures in self-preservation in the Washington Beltway by building coalition support – which ultimately ended up with his becoming Mattis’ soul-mate. Tillerson contributed significantly to providing diplomatic underpinnings to the Pentagon campaign to raise the specter of an “existential threat” from Russia.

Tillerson’s dismissal comes against the backdrop of an extraordinary build-up of tensions in the US-Russia relationship lately over Syria – and, most recently, over the British allegation that Moscow poisoned a former Russian spy working for MI6 and living as a fugitive in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, Tillerson’s final act (after being sacked) was to voice concerns over the “troubling behavior and actions” of Russia. Tillerson declared that the attack on the MI6 agent “clearly came from Russia” – despite the guarded assessment by British Prime Minister Theresa May herself that Kremlin involvement was “highly likely.”

Trump clarified afterwards that he would speak to May, saying: “It sounds to me like they (the Brits) believe it was Russia,” and that he would “certainly take that finding as fact.” However, Trump added: “If we get the facts straight we will condemn Russia, or whoever it might be.” The White House has since expressed solidarity with Britain, but beneath the polemics, it has also drawn a line to ensure tensions do not escalate:

“The United States stands in solidarity… (and) shares the United Kingdom’s assessment that Russia is responsible for the reckless nerve agent attack… and we support the United Kingdom’s decision to expel Russian diplomats as a just response. This latest action… fits into a pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide, and attempts to subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes. The United States is working together with our allies and partners to ensure that this kind of abhorrent attack does not happen again.”

The then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) watches as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacts to a reporter’s question at the State Department in Washington, DC, on May 10, 2017. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

Meanwhile, an intriguing twist to the spy tale is that, on a parallel track, Moscow also disclosed – most unusually, on a Sunday – that it had hard intelligence to the effect that the Pentagon was about to launch a missile and air attack on Damascus. The Russian Defense Ministry explicitly warned that Russia would retaliate against any such attack. In effect, Moscow was alerted the White House that Russian-American tensions were cascading.

Indeed, the ratcheting up of tensions between NATO and Russia (at the behest of Britain), coinciding with a US missile and air strike on Damascus (and a Russian retaliation), would have somewhat eclipsed the Russian presidential election happening on March 18. Fortunately, the storm clouds are suddenly dispersing.

Trump has broken the axis between state department and Pentagon by introducing Pompey into the equation as his new secretary of state

The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, spoke to his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, on Tuesday to discuss Syria. For its part, Britain too has begun backtracking. May now accuses Russia of “an unlawful use of force”  against Britain and has announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, also declaring that British officials will be absent from the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia and that all planned high-level bilateral contacts are suspended.

But then, she has also stated that it is not in the British interest to break off all dialogue between the UK and Russia. And she has acknowledged that Moscow might have lost control of its reserves of the nerve agent that was used for the attack on the British spy, reserves which were apparently developed in the former Soviet Union.

We will never know whether Trump actually intended the denouement we have seen, but he has broken the axis between the state department and the Pentagon by introducing Mike Pompey into the equation as his new secretary of state. Pompey is a political associate of the Tea Party movement who can be trusted to ensure that Trump retains the final word on the US foreign policies, especially on Russia.

Historically, the military-industrial complex in America has had a corporate interest in fueling tensions with Russia. By contrast, the CIA has operated within the matrix of a code of conduct that stipulates avoiding precipitate acts of motiveless malignity.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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