While Trump takes the shots, Tillerson runs the offense
Tillerson continues to work the Russia file, even amid new Russia sanctions. He's known Putin since 1999 and views him as a predictable, if sometimes bullying, leader. Even with the relationship in the dumps, Tillerson believes he's making some quiet progress on Ukraine and Syria.
On Ukraine, Tillerson hopes Russia will propose U.N. monitors to police what Putin claims are Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's assaults on Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine. The addition of U.N. monitors would help implement the Minsk agreement, even if Putin gets the credit and Poroshenko the blame.
On Syria, Tillerson has warned Putin that the real danger to Russian interests is increasing Iranian power there, especially as Bashar Assad's regime regains control of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria. To counter the Iranians, Tillerson supports a quick move by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to capture the Lower Euphrates Valley.
Trump's boisterous, sometimes belligerent manner and Tillerson's reticence are an unlikely combination, and many observers have doubted the relationship can last. But Tillerson seems to roll with the punches -- and tweets. When Trump makes a disruptive comment, Tillerson seems to treat it as part of the policy landscape -- and to ponder how to use it to advantage.
Tillerson may be the least-public chief diplomat in modern American history, but that's apparently by choice. By Washington standards, he's strangely uninterested in taking the credit.
David Ignatius' email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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