It was a textbook example of military power and diplomacy working hand in hand, not made any less so by the fact that President Donald Trump announced the attack while he was having dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
The initial reaction last week of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was predictable. The Russian government immediately started pushing its own disinformation counter narrative: that the sarin attack originated from anti-Assad rebels acting as agent provocateurs.
This narrative is unlikely to gain much traction.
Tillerson’s visit to Moscow this week appears to have had a calming effect on Russian tempers—no small feat.
While Tillerson described relations between the two countries as being at a “low point,” Lavrov announced that the two had agreed to let the United Nations investigate the sarin attack (which will do little good at this point) and potentially re-establish the military hotline between Washington and the Kremlin, which had been designed to prevent the two countries from shooting down each other’s planes in Syria.
Tillerson and Trump have by their actions and their rhetoric demonstrated that they are not inclined to be soft on Russia and its allies when critical issues of international law and U.S. national interest are concerned.
Compare this approach with that of the Obama administration.
Think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who offered Lavrov a silly red “reset” button. Or President Barack Obama, who drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, only to step back from it in 2013.
Or consider Secretary of State John Kerry, who stepped in to save Obama from embarrassment and negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons, putting the cat among the pigeons. As Tillerson pointed out at the G7 meeting in Italy before leaving for Moscow, either Russia was careless in its execution of this responsibility, or it was totally incompetent.
Tillerson is emerging as a forceful and direct spokesman for the Trump administration, if not a man of great verbiage like his predecessor.
Having been criticized for not making any public statements in his first two months, the secretary of state is clearly now a full-fledged actor on the world stage, carrying a strong message from the president.
Unlike Kerry, he is not a man of many words, but of weighty ones. It makes for a tremendous relief.