Tillerson launches personal diplomacy in Persian Gulf dispute – Washington Post
Tillerson will travel late Monday to Kuwait, where its government has unsuccessfully tried to mediate between Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries that have blockaded and broken relations with the tiny, energy-rich nation of Qatar, home to the largest U.S. military base in the region.
He plans to spend the week talking to leaders of the warring gulf capitals, receiving them in Kuwait or shuttling among regional capitals, according to senior U.S. officials, who cautioned that a firm schedule is not yet set.
Tillerson’s first foray into high-stakes crisis negotiation comes as his stewardship of the State Department has been questioned in Congress, the White House and within the Department itself.
Senior White House officials have complained that he has walled himself off behind a handful of senior aides and takes neither their phone calls nor their recommendations. Lawmakers have asked what he intends to do about President Trump’s proposal to slash State’s budget by nearly a third, and made clear they will not permit it.
Scores of high-level jobs and ambassadorships remain unfilled as the secretary has opted to review the structure of the entire organization and pare back the overall workforce before making new appointments.
According to an outside survey commissioned by Tillerson and completed last month, many of his own staffers agree that the department does not foster innovation and is too big. Many of the 35,000 who participated described a system hampered by layers of bureaucracy, including dozens of special-envoy offices created to serve temporal needs and allowed to continue in existence long after those needs have disappeared.
But the survey results, first reported last week by the Wall Street Journal, also described State employees as demoralized and unsure of the direction in which Tillerson wants to take them. Many echoed congressional complaints about crucial senior positions left unfilled while the secretary takes his time deciding which offices are important and who should occupy them.
Success in the gulf would help reestablish at least some of the goodwill with which Tillerson, considered a man experienced in both institutional management and the ways of the world, began his tenure. The former chief executive of energy giant Exxon Mobil, who brought extensive global contacts with him to the State Department, was seen on Capitol Hill, within the department and abroad as a mature counterbalance to an impetuous, inexperienced president.
But even senior officials who see Tillerson as the perfect man for the job of stopping the escalating gulf crisis warn that it will not be easy. While the dispute, at least on its surface, is about accusations of support for terrorism, all of the countries involved are key members of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. Already, their actions have drawn in other regional friends and foes, from Iran and Turkey on Qatar’s side, to Jordan and a host of smaller Muslim countries supporting Saudi Arabia.
In the face of deep-seated antagonisms and dug-in positions, U.S. leverage is limited. All of the players want to stay in America’s good graces, and all see the Trump administration’s focus on the region and willingness to confront shared enemies as an improvement over what they viewed as President Barack Obama’s hesitancy and disengagement. But there is little sense of how far the Trump administration, with equities to preserve throughout the region, is willing to go in pressing for resolution.
More than any specific charge or countercharge the parties have leveled at each other, the major U.S. concern is that the dispute itself is undermining goals in the Middle East. Although officials insist it has not yet directly affected operations at the massive U.S. air base in Qatar, the major U.S. naval base in Bahrain or the other cooperative ventures that play a central role in the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, it risks diverting attention from those missions.