Unnerving gyrations continue at the top of United States foreign policy officialdom. The abrupt firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via twitter has now been followed by similar dismissal of national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Nomination of CIA director Mike Pompeo to fill that distinctive slot opens up another top job.
Deputy CIA director Gina Haspel has been nominated to succeed Pompeo at the agency. Reports she was involved in torture of accused terrorists guarantees lively confirmation hearings. Hard-liner John Bolton has been tapped as national security adviser.
The media have more fodder for the round-the-clock anxious anticipation, soap opera speculation, righteous outrage and partisan praise that today substitute for serious news. Let the talking heads begin.
Meanwhile, serious analysis and understanding of these developments begins with consideration of the nature of the jobs, their origins and status. The post of secretary of state is the most senior cabinet position, the third highest executive post in our federal government after the president and vice president.
Tillerson’s tenure has been brief but that is not unprecedented. Alexander Haig had a similar short stay as secretary of state at the start of the Reagan administration. General Haig, who earned a reputation as a calm steady hand at the helm during the disaster of Watergate, nevertheless was himself a source of conflict and turmoil once he achieved a top cabinet position.
Haig repeatedly threatened to resign when he did not get his way. President Ronald Reagan quickly tired of this melodrama, and finally surprised the secretary by accepting his resignation.
As this implies, the ability to get along with the president is crucial to the survival and effectiveness of any secretary of state. General George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson in the Truman administration, Henry Kissinger in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and James Baker in the George H.W. Bush administration all demonstrated this capacity. Baker had the advantage of long-term close friendship with President Bush, along with shared impressive executive abilities. Generally, informed analysts rank each as a strong secretary.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles under Eisenhower, Dean Rusk under Kennedy and Johnson, and George Shultz under Reagan had lengthy tenures. Rusk is the longest serving since World War II.
President Harry S. Truman created the Central Intelligence Group in 1946, succeeded by the Central Intelligence Agency the following year. The first four directors were all senior military officers: Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Vice Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, and General Walter Bedell Smith. Keep that in mind when hearing misleading media reports that military officers have unprecedented power in the current administration.
The CIA grew directly from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the intelligence arm during World War II. Previous lack of a formal U.S. intelligence service gave Britain an opening for influence, fully exploited then and now.
Independence of mind is essential in this shadow world. In the fall of 1962, civilian CIA Director John McCone refused to join Kennedy White House consensus the Soviets would not place long-range missiles in Cuba. He insisted on resuming U-2 flights, which led to discovery of Moscow’s duplicity — just in time.
The role of national security adviser depends entirely on the president in office. Eisenhower had the most formal approach to foreign policy, Kennedy the most informal.
In the current administration, Defense Secretary James Mattis apparently performs this trusted staff role for the president — for the moment.