Beware the Headline Trap: Tillerson to Meet With NATO Ministers—on Wednesday

“Exclusive: Tillerson plans to skip NATO meeting, visit Russia in April—sources,” read the headline of a Reuters story first published Monday.

“Well, that doesn’t seem right. It also seems politically stupid,” I thought, before I clicked on the article and read it. Turns out, the headline is misleading at best, and downright dishonest at worst.

Yes, it is true that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be missing the NATO meeting. But it is not, as the headline implies, because he is opting for a meeting with the Russians.

Turns out, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in the United States visiting President Trump, and Trump wants his secretary of state there for the meeting. I mean, it’s not like China is making territorial claims over a massive swath of international waters that would give it control over half the planet’s merchant shipping, or recently implied it was willing to use nuclear force in defense of the disputed islands in the South China Sea by flying a nuclear-capable bomber over them.

And it’s not like North Korea, the client state of China, is improving its nuclear long-range missile capabilities, and the United States could really use Chinese cooperation on enforcing sanctions to slow North Korea’s progress.

Oh, yes, actually, all of those things are happening, and the president of the United States understandably wants his secretary of state in the room when he has a chat with China’s president.

China is at the center of numerous serious national security problems that directly affect the United States. It would be good if the country’s most powerful officials could work something out with the Chinese head of state while he’s here.

But what about NATO? Aren’t our NATO allies important, too?

Yes. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was just in Brussels addressing the NATO defense ministers in February to reassure allies and also to explain the limits of our patience with most of the alliance members’ anemic demonstration of commitment to the organization. My favorite line was this one: “Americans cannot care more for your children’s security than you do. Disregard for military readiness demonstrates a lack of respect for ourselves, for the alliance, and for the freedoms we inherited, which are now clearly threatened.” Mattis also clearly expressed the importance of a strong NATO and America’s commitment to it.

But, one might say, that is Secretary Mattis. Secretary Tillerson doesn’t seem to get NATO’s importance. Except that he was Waterford Crystal clear in his confirmation hearing that he recognizes the critical importance of the alliance and understands the U.S. Article V commitment to collective defense is inviolable.

And another thing worth noting as stated in the Reuters story: “A State Department spokeswoman said Tillerson would meet on Wednesday with foreign ministers from 26 of the 27 other NATO countries—all but Croatia—at a gathering of the coalition working to defeat the Islamic State militant group.”

Got that? As in: tomorrow Tillerson will, in fact, meet with NATO foreign ministers, even if he won’t make the meeting the first week in April—because he does not control the laws of space and time.

Here’s a thought: If the NATO foreign ministers really want the U.S. secretary of state at their meeting, perhaps they should coordinate with his scheduler? If not, they’ll just have to chat with him Wednesday.

But surely there must be something scandalous here about Russia! The headline implied Russia has something to do with Tillerson not making a particular NATO meeting.

The Reuters reporters even included the following quote from U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs: “Donald Trump’s administration is making a grave error that will shake the confidence of America’s most important alliance and feed the concern that this administration simply too cozy with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin.”

Heavy stuff, no? “Grave error.” “Shake the confidence.”

Well, perhaps that was a bit over the top. Contrast Engel’s remark with the quote of Antoni Macierewicz, the defense minister of stalwart NATO ally Poland, who said in response to the January deployment of 4,000 American troops to Poland—the biggest deployment of U.S. troops to Europe in decades: “Today I know that Poland will not be threatened… God bless American President Trump.”

But this newfound assurance doesn’t fit the narrative that the Trump administration is too cozy with the Russians. So, let’s put it aside, and get back to Russia.

Later in April, after Tillerson meets with the G7 (in addition to the United States, the group includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom), he is meeting with the Russians. But what does this have to do with him missing the NATO meeting? As far as I can tell by reading the article, it has as much to do with it as the price of tea in China.

Which brings us back to the real reason he is missing the NATO meeting in the first place. Tillerson is meeting with Chinese President Xi.

Observant consumers of the media are now on to the exaggerated, dramatic, misleading, and sometimes downright false reporting of major media outlets. But less careful readers and those already inclined to believe the “everything has everything to do with Russia” narrative will be susceptible to falling for these kind of headline traps, especially when lazy reporters merely copy headlines and stories that bring high numbers of clicks, as many news outlets did with this one.

Let this be a cautionary tale: don’t fall for headline traps, and don’t let friends fall for them, either.

About Rebeccah Heinrichs

Rebeccah is a Fellow at the Hudson Institute. She served as an adviser on military matters and foreign policy to Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and helped launch the bi-partisan Missile Defense Caucus. She has testified before Congress and has presented to numerous organizations including the Aerospace Industries Association, the Reserve Officers Association, the National Defense Industrial Association, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. She holds a Master of Arts degree in national security and strategic policy from the U.S. Naval War College. She also graduated with highest distinction from its College of Naval Command and Staff, receiving the Director’s Award for academic excellence. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Ashland University in Ohio, and graduated from the Ashbrook Scholar Program.

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