Tillerson is an enigma. Most of the comment, from both sides of the aisle and all of the media, is that he is proving to be the least skilled and most ineffective Secretary of State in history. He has an inadequate staff and little support from those within his own department. He has developed no reliable connections in Congress. He has completely isolated himself, by his own choice, from the press. And he has more recently managed to wall himself into a corner with the White House.
In any ordinary times, his resignation would be inevitable. If General Kelly were not insisting that Trump make no more major staff changes until next year, he would probably be gone by now.
But these are not ordinary times. The world is on the brink of nuclear disaster unlike any presented since the height of the cold war, brought to a head by an ongoing volley of insults between Trump and the dictator of North Korea. Tillerson, alone in the Trump administration, advocates a diplomatic solution. He has expressly declared that a military solution would not be tolerable. His efforts are not, however, in line with the tenor of comment coming from the Whitehouse and elsewhere.
Trump, and the cabal of sycophants he has surrounded himself with, are far more inept and ill qualified to meet the international challenges than is Tillerson, as inept as he may be. Of all of the other voices within the administration weighing in on this matter, the most reliable sounds come from three hard edge military generals, who can only see military solutions to any problem, and a former hill-billy governor, who is trying hard but is already in way over her head.
The military solution does have a seductive appeal. So long as China stays out of it, the U.S. would probably prevail in any conventional military action on the Korean Peninsula, albeit at a horrible cost. Unless China comes to its aid, which it has said it will not do, North Korea does not have the economic capacity or the industrial substructure to sustain extended, full scale warfare. In the long run, this would mean success under the military approach, but a cost of potentially millions of lives in South Korea and perhaps Japan and Guam. Most objective commentators see this cost as too great to warrant the risk. Also, despite its promise, there is no guarantee that China would stay out, which would dramatically change all odds.
A diplomatic solution is not an off-the-wall pie-in-the-sky. North Korea was a full party to the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty from 1984 to 2003. Kim Jong-il, then dictator of North Korea, walked away from the treaty obligations following the hostile remarks of President George W. Bush, who lumped North Korea in with Iran and Iraq in what he termed the “axis of evil.” When Bush launched the U.S. attack against Sadam Hussain and invaded Iraq, Kim Jong-Il disappeared into hiding for over two months, convinced that the U.S. intended to pursue him and invade North Korea next.
Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il and currently the dictator in sole control of the North Korean regime, has repeatedly stated that his buildup of nuclear and missile arms is for defense only, intended to prevent outside influences from attempting to overthrow his government. He is convinced that the United States intends to oust him from office, collapse the North Korean government, and bring about a reunification of the Korean Peninsula. This fear is neither surprising nor unreasonable, for this is exactly what every President from Dwight Eisenhower forward has declared to be the United States’ policy objectives for North Korea.
In response to world efforts to convince North Korea to return to the non-proliferation movement, the North Korean leaders have repeatedly stated five requests to be considered at any such discussion: (1) that the West stop promoting regime change or regime collapse; (2) that the West stop advocating reunification of the peninsula; (3) that the U.S. withdraw all forces from South Korea; (4) that the economic sanctions against North Korea be extinguished; and (5) the U.S. and its allies complete and ratify a formal peace treaty to formally end the Korean Conflict of the 1950s.
Up to now, the United States has refused even to discuss any of these requests. Instead, the U.S. has established what it terms is a non-negotiable, non-debatable condition that before any discussion of any issue with North Korea can occur, North Korea must first and immediately surrender all of its nuclear weapons. The United States insists that North Korea capitulate to this demand in its entirety before any discussion on any other topic will even be considered.
Every expert who has studied the issues and is familiar with Far Eastern cultures has expressed the view that this demand makes any accord impossible; no Far Eastern leader would willingly accept the loss of face and mark of disrespect that the capitulation demanded by the United States would entail.
Currently, Tillerson is the only voice actually advocating diplomacy. As long as he can hang on and weather the firestorm swirling around him, there exists the Pollyanna hope that he may prove to be the shining knight, due to arrive in the nick of time with a true solution. While Trump and Kim Jong-un are continuing to exchange insults and accelerate threats of disastrous consequences, Tillerson, according to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, is quietly working in backchannels, silently and away from the spotlight, to craft a broad diplomatic strategy to resolve the crisis. His plan is aimed at persuading China to take charge and lead a multi-national conference on the issue.
Most experts believe that for any diplomatic solution to succeed, participation by China is essential. China has a strong economic interest in sustaining a peaceful, diplomatic solution, as it has a common border with North Korea of almost 900 miles, shares a cultural history with the Korean people going back thousands of years, and has no desire to be dragged into a land war on the Asian Continent. The deep and long standing relationships between the two countries put the Chinese well positioned to understand, draw out, develop and implement the cultural underpinnings necessary to the success of any diplomatic resolution with the North Koreans – something the United States has repeatedly proven itself incapable of accomplishing, even with competent leaders running the show.
The huge problem Tillerson faces is convincing foreign officials that he speaks with any authority in light of the barrage of contradictory statements and twitter messages emanating from the Whitehouse, and Trumps’ demonstrated penchant for cutting the legs from under his cabinet officers. While Trump initially appeared to support allowing China to lead in the search for a diplomatic solution with North Korea, he almost immediately clouded the issue by first criticizing Xi Zenping in the manner of his approach and then threatening to impose sanctions upon China, because Trump did not believe Xi was acting swiftly enough. Trump appears to be incapable of keeping his nose out of it, but insists on continuing to direct and criticize, even when the outcome is in the control of others.
Tillerson, in his discussions being held behind the scenes with both Chinese and Russian resources, has indicated an interest in at least opening discussions with North Korea along any lines, just to get talks started. He is looking for China or Russia to broker and manage the beginning of any discussions, with the United States staying out of the way. He seems to indicate an understanding that any solution with North Korea will have to afford an acceptable degree of respect for the regime and its leader, and will have to be structured to allow Kim Jong-un the opportunity to save face.
An appropriate response to these proposals seems obvious to many onlookers: why not? Get the players around a table somewhere and get the talks open. See where it goes. Listen to the other side. Find out what they want. There is no necessity for an extensive pre-condition to just opening talks. No deal will happen without everyone’s agreement, but that agreement does not have to be pre-ordained to make the conference productive.
So far, Trump’s provocative tweets, and the formal statements emanating from the generals and others to explain Trump’s tweets, have all looked towards the military solution. Nevertheless, despite the firestorm of bad press, Tillerson is still at it, and has recently declared that he has no intention of quitting. Trump has declared that he has complete faith in Tillerson, and no intention of firing him. If this latter part is true, and Tillerson can keep from getting his rear end fired, he just might be able to find the way out.
He will, of course, have to stop calling Trump a fucking moron.