Rex Tillerson at Hoover

by | Jan 22, 2018


On Wednesday morning last week, I, as a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, got to attend a speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It was followed by a Q&A session with former Secretary of State and my Hoover colleague Condoleezza Rice. Unfortunately, questions from the audience were not allowed. The talk was about the Trump administration’s policy on Syria. The State Department has already released a transcript of his speech.

After the first few minutes of niceties, Tillerson got to his main topic: Syria. He listed many of the ways that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is bad, the main one being killing many of his own people. I thought Tillerson would then go to say what U.S. policy on Syria would be. But he didn’t do so immediately.

Instead, he segued to ISIS. You can read his comments for yourself, but here are three relevant segments.

The civil war in Syria was horrific in and of itself. But Syria was thrown into an even greater state of turmoil with the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. This was an aspiring terror-state inside the borders of Iraq and Syria. The conflict between the regime and various opposition groups fighting to change Assad’s grip on power created the conditions for the rapid expansion of ISIS in 2013 and 2014. ISIS originally emerged from the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq, a group Assad had covertly backed. Evidence suggests Assad also abetted ISIS by releasing known terrorists from Syrian prisons and turning a blind eye to ISIS’s growth. ISIS exploited the instability and lack of centralized authority in Syria to set up what it falsely claimed was a “caliphate,” with the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital.


Recognizing the destructive power of a strengthening terrorist organization, America focused on a military defeat of ISIS. In spite of the threat ISIS posed in Syria, Assad focused instead on fighting the Syrian opposition, even with Iranian and Russian military support at his back.

And then:

When he took office, President Trump took decisive action to accelerate the gains that were being made in Syria and Iraq. He directed Secretary of Defense Mattis to present within 30 days a new plan for defeating ISIS. The President quickly approved that plan. He directed a pace of operations that would achieve decisive results quickly, delegating greater authority to American commanders in the field, and he gave our military leaders more freedom to determine and apply the tactics that would best lead to ISIS’s defeat. Today, nearly all territory in Iraq and Syria once controlled by ISIS, or approximately 98 percent of all of that once United Kingdom-sized territory, has been liberated, and ISIS has not been able to regain one foot of that ground. ISIS’s physical “caliphate” of Raqqa is destroyed. The liberated capital of the caliphate no longer serves as a magnet for those hoping to build a terrorist empire. Approximately 3.2 million Syrians and 4.5 million Iraqis have been freed from the tyranny of ISIS. Over 3 million internally displaced Iraqis are now back home, and Mosul, the caliphate’s second capital city in Iraq and one of Iraq’s largest cities, is completely clear of ISIS. In Iraq, for the first time since the beginning of the crisis in December of 2013, there are more Iraqis going home than there are that are still displaced.

Someone not familiar with the ISIS story might conclude that Tillerson was saying that the US government defeated ISIS. Of course, if you read his speech carefully, you’ll see that he didn’t say that. What he said was that the US government had a plan and had been active in defeating ISIS. He didn’t list other entities that had fought ISIS. What ones did he leave out? Two major ones: the Russian government and the Syrian government under Assad. Why? I think it’s obvious: it didn’t fit Tillerson’s narrative. The narrative is: Assad is bad; the US government needs to get rid of him. If Tillerson had admitted what I’m sure he knows well—that the Russian government has helped Assad go after ISIS—then he would have introduced complexity into what he wanted to tell as a simple story: Assad bad; let’s get rid of him.

Later, Tillerson said:

As part of its strategy to create a northern arch, stretching from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops; supporting Lebanese Hizballah; and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is positioning to continue attacking US interests, our allies, and personnel in the region. It is spending billions of dollars a year to prop up Assad and wage proxy wars at the expense of supporting its own people.

Notice what Tillerson didn’t say. He didn’t say it in the quote above and he didn’t say it anywhere else in the speech. One of the entities that most wants to get rid of ISIS is Iran’s government. Again, if he had admitted as much, and surely he knows it, it would have messed up the narrative.

Tillerson then listed five things the Trump administration wanted to happen in Syria:

The United States desires five key end states for Syria:

First, ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria suffer an enduring defeat, do not present a threat to the homeland, and do not resurface in a new form; that Syria never again serves as a platform or safe haven for terrorists to organize, recruit, finance, train and carry out attacks on American citizens at home or abroad or against our allies.

Second, the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime is resolved through a UN-led political process prescribed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and a stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership, is functioning as a state.

Third, Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, their dreams of a northern arch are denied, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.

Fourth, conditions are created so that the refugees and IDPs can begin to safely and voluntarily return to Syria.

And fifth, Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Notice that there are quite likely to be tradeoffs between #1, #2, and #3. One way to make it more likely to achieve #1 is to end US hostile actions against Assad, but then that would contradict #2. Also, a relatively easy way to achieve #1 would be to give up on #3. Given how effective Iran’s government was at defeating ISIS in Iraq, it seems reasonable to think that if the Iranians had a freer hand in Syria, they could be effective against ISIS there too.

Tillerson was essentially trying to tell a relatively sophisticated Hoover audience that there are no tradeoffs. But, as one of the Hoover Institution’s most famous scholars, Thomas Sowell, has often pointed out, there are always tradeoffs. In foreign policy, Rex Tillerson suffers from what Sowell has called, in domestic policy, “the vision of the anointed.”

Later, Tillerson went on to lay out what steps the US government would take in a post-Assad Syria:

First, stabilization initiatives in liberated areas are essential to making sure that life can return to normal and ISIS does not re-emerge. Stabilization initiatives consist of essential measures such as clearing unexploded land mines left behind by ISIS, allowing hospitals to reopen, restoring water and electricity services, and getting boys and girls back in school.

This seems pretty ambitious. What if, for instance, the US government attains large power in Syria and uses this power to “allow” hospitals to open, but hospitals still don’t open? Would he then have US taxpayers pay for them to open? Is he also calling for US taxpayers to finance restoring water and electricity? It sounds like it. And what if, like their counterparts around the world, many boys and girls don’t want to go to school? Would he have the US government impose compulsory schooling laws or support governments that do? Again, it sounds like it.

Maybe feeling a little bit uncomfortable about what his audience, both at Hoover and more widely, might think, Tillerson tried to assure us that he wasn’t, God forbid, advocating nation building. He stated:

We must be clear: “Stabilization” is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction. But it is essential. No party in the Syrian conflict is capable of victory or stabilizing the country via military means alone. Our military presence is backed by State Department and USAID teams who are already working with local authorities to help liberated peoples stabilize their own communities.

Phew! No nation building. Check. It’s nice to have that clear.

Near the end of his speech, Tillerson said:

We recognize Syria presents many complexities. Our proposed solutions will not be easy to achieve.

It’s true that there are complexities, such as the tradeoffs I mentioned above. Here’s the problem: in a 35-minute speech to roll out the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, Tillerson didn’t mention any.

In questioning Tillerson, afterwards, Condi Rice addressed Syria and ISIS briefly. She stated:

I was really struck when you talked about Syria and you talked about the way forward in Syria, leaving aside the military side, which obviously there have been some real gains, particularly in clearing ISIS from Iraq and now a leg up, at least, on ISIS in Syria.

Notice what was missing. Although Condi went on to talk about what interested her, which is, of course, her right, she didn’t point out what badly needed to be pointed out: the fact that Russia and Syria had done a lot to reduce the power of ISIS.

In her last question, Condi Rice asked about North Korea. You can read her question in the transcript. What I found striking was Tillerson’s comment on how the sanctions were biting. He stated:

Moon said the reason the South [clearly from context he meant North] Koreans came to us was because they are feeling the bite of these sanctions. And we’re seeing it in some of the intel, we’re seeing it through anecdotal evidence coming out of defectors that are escaping.

The Japanese made a comment yesterday in our session [in Vancouver] that they have had over 100 North Korean fishing boats that have drifted into Japanese waters – two-thirds of the people on those boats have died – they weren’t trying to escape – and the ones that didn’t die, they wanted to go back home. So they sent them back to North Korea. But what they learned is they’re being sent out in the wintertime to fish because there’s food shortages, and they’re being sent out to fish with inadequate fuel to get back.

So we’re getting a lot of evidence that these sanctions are really starting to hurt.

This makes the point I have often made (here, for example). Sanctions tend to hurt and, in this case, kill largely innocent people. One thing I’m quite confident of is that the sanctions won’t cause North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, to miss a meal. What else will they do? One of Tillerson’s predecessors as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, when asked whether half a million children killed by sanctions in Iraq “is worth it,” said that it was. (The number turned out to be, fortunately, substantially lower than 500,000, but it’s interesting that Albright believed that even the bigger number of deaths was worth it.) Does Tillerson believe that the horrible effects of these sanctions are worth it? I wish someone would ask him.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of the Hoover Institution or any of its employees.

Reprinted with permission from