What's That You Say, Mr. Tillerson? U.S. Diplomacy Adrift Under Trump

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has done his best to stay close to the president, but that doesn't translate into influence over American diplomacy.

Tillerson with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani
Tillerson with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani
Anne Gearan and Carol Morello

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's close relationship with President Donald Trump was on display during Trump's formal sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month in Germany. He was the only other U.S. official present, apart from a translator, for the most anticipated diplomatic meeting of the new administration, held as Trump and Putin were attending the Group of 20 summit.

The picture was one of a trusted envoy at the center of the action. Back in Washington, however, the State Department that Tillerson leads is adrift.

Trump is his administration's loudest and most-watched voice on foreign policy and has consolidated decision-making among a small group of trusted aides and family members at the White House.

Tillerson meets with the president most days the two are in Washington and takes calls from him at all hours on his mobile phone. But diplomacy, or at least the kind the State Department traditionally conducts, has seemed a low priority for a president who is openly skeptical of international entanglements.

There were early signs that the State Department would be benched.

Trump put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who had no foreign policy background, in charge of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. And he disregarded the advice of Tillerson and the State Department when he decided to leave the Paris climate accord.

A hollowed-out feel

Diplomats breathed a sigh of relief when Trump did not quickly lift punitive sanctions on Russia that many of the State Department's senior leaders had worked for years to impose, and when he backed off his harshest criticism of China as a currency manipulator. Similarly, Trump has signaled that he will not immediately abandon the State Department-negotiated Iran nuclear deal.

But in each case, current and former department employees said, the State Department's voice was muted or regarded with a measure of suspicion. Several credited the addition of similar recommendations from the Pentagon for changing Trump's mind.

The nation's oldest Cabinet department has a hollowed-out feel these days. Six months into Trump's presidency, most of the top jobs remain unfilled, and lower-level hiring is largely on hold.

"There's a lot of stuff where it's not clear there's anybody at the helm," said Ronald Neumann, a former ambassador who is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. "There's a sense of incoherence in the way they fire people without replacements, shuttle people into the job and then have to shuttle somebody else into that job."

Tillerson wants to restructure the department to reduce its size and get rid of overlapping areas of responsibility. Congressional critics, including numerous Republicans, told Tillerson last month that streamlining may be a good idea but that empty desks and large budget cuts are not.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., opened a hearing on the State Department budget by praising Tillerson's straight-talking style, while warning him that he has a lot to learn. Graham took Tillerson on a rhetorical tour of trouble spots, including Syria, North Korea, Ukraine and the Persian Gulf, among others.

The U.S. secretary of state has to confront all of them, the veteran senator told Tillerson.

"You're the man," Graham said. "You're going to do all that and cut the budget by 29%?"

Tillerson has made clear that he thinks the department's structure and functions need reforming for the 21st century. He has told diplomats that he has seen the benefits of periodic management overhauls. But his timeline for change - extending to late 2018, or halfway through the presidential term - is languorous by the standards of Washington political cycles.

A senior adviser, R.C. Hammond, said Tillerson, a mechanical engineer by training, has approached the job methodically. First he huddled with Trump and the national security team, a job set back by the sudden resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Then he proceeded in charted phases. First he laid the groundwork for the most pressing problem, trying to coax China into turning its back on North Korea over its nuclear program.

"In the first six months, we set up an entire new direction with our policy toward North Korea," he said. "It's not because the administration changed. It's because of world events."

Now, Tillerson is trying to improve relations with Moscow despite growing questions over its attempts to disrupt the U.S. election, and he is wading into the crises in Syria and the Persian Gulf.

Hammond dismissed the narrative that Tillerson is isolated from the staff. He said he has met frequently with desk officers and advisers on hot spots that he is training his attention on. And he is known for insisting that his schedule block out dedicated hours for reading briefing papers.

"People mistake the value of face time versus reading time," Hammond said. "This is a guy who gets excited reading instructions from Ikea. He's a mechanical engineer who reads and analyzes. He spends a lot of time with the guys who work on China and the Middle East. The information he needs to do the job is dictated by what the president is looking for."

In the next six months, Hammond said, Tillerson will speak frequently on the immorality of human trafficking, the wisdom of nuclear nonproliferation, and cooperation with Mexico to combat the drug cartels.

"This was the plan all along," Hammond said of Tillerson's pace. "He's not adjusting because of criticism. He's staying on the railroad track he laid out for himself, and continues chugging along."

Tillerson has begun to project his own role more aggressively. That became publicly noticeable when he introduced the annual human trafficking report last month. Six weeks earlier, he had skipped the rollout of the annual human rights report entirely, a sharp departure from previous secretaries of state who used it to underscore the centrality of human rights to U.S. foreign policy.

But when the human trafficking report came around, Tillerson was front and center in the opulent Benjamin Franklin room, with several prominent members of Congress in attendance. Talking off the cuff as the cameras rolled, he struck themes similar to those of his immediate predecessor, John F. Kerry, saying that "the consequences of our failure to act in this area has so many other negative impacts around the world: It breeds corruption; it undermines rule of law; it erodes the core values that underpin a civil society."

He was willing to infuriate Beijing with the report, which downgraded China to a ranking reserved for the world's worst offenders. He spoke scornfully and at length of China using North Korean guest workers whose pay goes directly to Pyongyang despite its nuclear weapons program.

At the G-20 summit in Hamburg, the man who in March described himself as "not a big media press access person" stood comfortably in front of a room of reporters, answering their questions and even making light of first lady Melania Trump's unsuccessful attempt to break up the meeting with Putin when it ran long.

After months of watching silently while the White House grabbed the big items in the foreign policy portfolio, Tillerson - and the State Department - are edging to the forefront of several foreign initiatives.

He has appointed a special representative to push U.S. views and help shape negotiations over the war in Ukraine, where an agreement mediated by the French and Germans has languished for years.

Different than Exxon

In the Syrian war, the State Department was involved in weeks of negotiations to get an agreement for a cease-fire in the southwest, and Tillerson hopes the cooperation he has sought with Russia will lead to a further cessation of hostilities elsewhere in the country.

And Tillerson spent several days in July flying around the Persian Gulf trying to help end a trade and diplomatic embargo placed on Qatar by its neighbors. At the end of that trip, Tillerson told reporters that he hoped he had nudged the squabbling parties closer, and he suggested that he is more comfortable with that part of the job than he is navigating political Washington.

"It is a lot different than being CEO of Exxon, because I was the ultimate decision-maker. That always makes life easier," Tillerson said.

Neumann said it is perhaps too easy to criticize Tillerson and the new administration for sidelining the State Department. Tension between the department and the White House National Security Council is nothing new, he noted, nor is a tug-of-war over influence in policy decisions.

The larger question looming over the department, Neumann said, is how diplomacy figures in an administration that still feels ad hoc and that is continually buffeted by Trump's own behavior.

"It's one thing having policies under debate. It's another to have policies that have to be reversed because the president is undercutting his own Cabinet secretaries," Neumann said.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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