By Gardiner Harris
March 21, 2017
If President Trump has a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State, as he promised during the presidential campaign, then his international allies in that fight are hoping to get a glimpse of it on Wednesday.
And if Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson hopes to reverse a growing impression of his own inefficacy in government, he will have no better opportunity than this week.
Diplomats from around the world are set to gather at the State Department on Wednesday for the Trump administration’s first meeting of the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Although such meetings have occurred regularly for years, this is the first since December 2014 in which representatives from all 68 countries of the coalition are expected to attend.
“Nobody wants to miss this meeting,” said Julianne Smith, a former Defence Department official and deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “They’re all thinking this would be the opportunity for the administration to let them in on any shift in U.S. policy or strategy.”
The conclave is the first major diplomatic event hosted by Mr. Tillerson. And like a debutante at a coming-out party, Mr. Tillerson will face intense scrutiny about his status from a crowd that is expert in gauging power.
At this point in his tenure at the State Department’s helm, Mr. Tillerson has yet to persuade anyone that he has much influence over Mr. Trump or the direction of American policy. His inability or unwillingness to choose his own deputy, protect his department from proposed deep budget cuts, attend meetings with foreign leaders at the White House or effectively manage the narrative of his foreign trips all suggest that he may be a marginal player in an administration dominated by the top White House advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner.
Wednesday will be Mr. Tillerson’s first good opportunity to change that impression, which is essential if he wants to be included in the world’s most exclusive councils of power.
But managing a meeting of 67 counterparts, many of whom he has yet to meet personally, would test even the most seasoned diplomat, and it involves the kind of complex multiparty haggling that few chief executives know how to handle. Mr. Tillerson was chief executive of Exxon Mobil, where quiet one-on-one deal making was the rule.
His only genuine multilateral meeting as secretary so far was a February gathering in Germany, attended by foreign ministers from countries in the Group of 20, but he largely kept his mouth shut. This time, he must give a welcoming speech, and there will be disappointment if he fails to make any substantive pronouncements.
The problem is, Mr. Tillerson may not have much to say. During the campaign, Mr. Trump’s chief foreign policy pledges were to be tougher on China and the Islamic State than President Barack Obama had been. But so far, there are few indications that Mr. Trump intends to do so as president.
Mr. Tillerson’s trip last week to China was surprisingly conciliatory, and the Trump administration’s effort against the Islamic State has so far been almost identical to Mr. Obama’s, with a heavy reliance on supporting indigenous armies to fight their own wars instead of deploying large numbers of American forces to far-flung hot spots.
Indeed, Mr. Tillerson has already explained that one reason his department should see its budget slashed is that he expects the United States to be engaged in fewer foreign conflicts, not more.
After an Oval Office meeting on Monday with Mr. Trump, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq told an audience at the United States Institute of Peace that he had been “given assurances that the support will not only continue but will accelerate” in Baghdad’s battle against the Islamic State.
The word “accelerate” is likely to be bandied about quite a bit in the next few days at Foggy Bottom, and it is one that Mark Toner, the State Department’s veteran spokesman, used repeatedly on Monday to describe the Trump administration’s plans.
Promising that “there’s going to be some new ideas put on the table,” Mr. Toner said Wednesday’s meeting was intended “to accelerate and focus more on how we can accelerate our efforts.”
Some counterterrorism experts said they hoped that a promised acceleration was genuine.
“I was not a particular fan of what the last administration did, which I would describe as relying on passivity, proxies and Special Forces,” said Michael E. Leiter, who stepped down in 2011 as head of the National Counterterrorism Centre. “What I hope we see in this administration is selective, deeper engagements that give greater confidence to our allies so our partnerships are more meaningful.”
The Trump administration faces some difficult decisions in the coming months. These include how to safeguard the civilian population in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, now under attack, from further devastation; whether to include Kurdish forces in Syria in the coming attack on Raqqa, despite bitter opposition from Turkey’s government; and how to bolster Libya’s fragile government to resist a growing threat from the Islamic State.