War Stories

Is Rex Tillerson—Friend of Putin, Uninformed on the Issues—the Best We’ve Got?

Alas, quite possibly.

Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of State, waits for the beginning of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee January 11, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Rex Tillerson waits for the beginning of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, gave an uneven performance at his nine-hour confirmation hearing on Wednesday. He came off as more sensible than several candidates that Donald Trump had considered for the job, and he openly disagreed with some of Trump’s more-noxious notions. But he seemed poorly briefed on several key foreign policy issues and surprisingly shallow in his view of power. And he failed to allay several senators’ doubts that, after 45 years at Exxon Mobil Corp., including 10 as its chairman and CEO, he’ll be able to separate the nation’s interests from those of the world’s largest, most aggressive oil company, which has ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In the exchanges that might raise Trump’s eyebrows, Tillerson said that he would come to the aid of any NATO member nation under attack, regardless of how much the nation had been spending on defense (Trump has said he might not commit U.S. troops if the nation hadn’t spent as much as it should have); that he wouldn’t pull out of the Paris talks on climate change or tear up the Iran nuclear deal; that Muslims should not be kept out of the United States because of their religion; that, in fact, moderate Muslims are among “our greatest allies” in the war on terror; that Mexico is “a long-standing neighbor and friend of this country;” that, contrary to Trump’s statement in a New York Times interview, it would be bad for U.S. security if Japan, South Korea, or Saudi Arabia built nuclear weapons; and that, contrary to what Trump has said many times, he is opposed to the use of torture.

However, the senators could not pin down Tillerson on the issue of sanctions, especially those imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, invasion of eastern Ukraine, and cyber attacks on the recent U.S. election. He said, as he has in the past, that sanctions, by nature, “harm American business,” so they have to be designed carefully. When Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, noted that Tillerson had been opposed to all sanctions while at ExxonMobil, and that he had frequently lobbied against U.S. sanctions policy, Tillerson insisted that neither he nor the company had ever engaged in such lobbying.

After the lunch break, Menendez returned to the session with ExxonMobil’s own lobbying forms indicating it had lobbied against 10 bills to impose sanctions on Russia, Iran, and other countries. Tillerson didn’t back down, asking whether the documents showed the company lobbying for or against the sanctions. Menendez smiled and said, “I know you weren’t lobbying for sanctions.” Tillerson said the company might have been simply seeking information about the bills. Menendez said, “You don’t need a lobbying form to seek clarification and information on a bill. So there was lobbying here.” Tillerson repeated that he didn’t remember the specific incidents and suggested that Menendez contact ExxonMobil, from which he resigned when he was nominated.

When Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrat Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the recent election, asked about ExxonMobil’s funding of studies to debunk scientific evidence on climate change, Tillerson refused to discuss the matter, replying, “You’ll have to ask Exxon.” Kaine followed up: “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or are you refusing to answer my question?” Tillerson replied, to stunned laughter in the chamber, “A little of both.” The former CEO then said he would have to look into his confidentiality contract with the company.

His entire position on climate change was problematic, to say the least. At another point in the hearing, Tillerson acknowledged that “the risks of climate change do exist” and that “greenhouse-gas concentrations are having an effect,” but he added, “Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”

He said that the United States should not leave the Paris talks on climate change, but he also rejected the view that the U.S. should lead those talks, saying only that it’s “important that we stay at the table to express our view.” He also said he would conduct “a fulsome review of our policies around engaging on climate issues,” looking specifically at whether “elements of those accords … put America at a disadvantage” in its businesses.

His views on Russia were more measured than some expected given his business ties with Russian oil companies and warm relations with Vladimir Putin, who awarded him the Order of Friendship Medal. He said that Russia was an “adversary” with which America had some common interests and some unalterable differences, adding, “The important conversation that we have to have with them” is whether Russia wants, “now and forever, to be an adversary … or does Russia desire a different relationship … that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today.”

He also said he would recommend keeping President Obama’s sanctions against Russia in place until Moscow and Washington define their relationship more clearly. He acknowledged that Putin’s annexation of Crimea was “illegal” and said he would have responded by sending “defensive lethal weapons” to the Ukrainian military—an action that Obama rejected on the grounds that it would only prompt Russia to escalate the conflict beyond a level that U.S. interests would justify matching. However, Tillerson also stopped short of calling for new sanctions on Russia, and he refused to characterize Russia’s bombing of civilians in Syria as war crimes.

Some of Tillerson’s views about American foreign policy reflected a shallow view of today’s international politics. He blamed the chaos in much of the world on the Obama administration’s failure to assert American leadership. At one point in the hearing, he said, “America still holds all the aces—we just need to draw them out of that deck.” At another point, he said the first step in solving the crisis in the Middle East “is to re-engage with our traditional allies and friends, to confirm that we are back—and back with a plan to affect where events in Syria go from here.”

In fact, though, America doesn’t “hold all the aces.” The problem is that, since the end of the Cold War, the game has changed: Power blocs have collapsed, artificial borders have crumbled, the influence of any single nation (or group of nations) has declined. America has failed to shape the course of events in Syria not because Obama has withdrawn—in fact, he has stepped up efforts diplomatically and militarily—but because many of our allies, who all fear and loathe ISIS, fear and loathe one another even more. As a result, American engagement and American plans have only limited traction.

Tillerson has seems to have been misinformed on some key national security issues. He agreed with one senator’s claim that Obama’s policy is simply to contain ISIS, not destroy it. In fact, Obama’s policy is explicitly to destroy ISIS. Tillerson called for a full review of the Iran nuclear deal, claiming that it does not prohibit Iran from buying a nuclear weapon. In fact, it does bar Iran from acquiring as well as developing nukes. He said, “We haven’t enforced sanctions against North Korea.” In fact, we have enforced all the sanctions in place. A big problem is that China has refused to approve even stiffer sanctions, because it doesn’t want to see Kim Jong-un’s regime collapse. In criticizing Obama’s abstention on the recent U.N. Security Council resolution about Israeli settlements, Tillerson said he would “recommit” to Israel’s security—ignoring Obama’s recent unprecedented commitment of $38 billion in security assistance to Israel over the next 10 years.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held the hearing and will vote on the nomination, is almost evenly divided: 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats. In the past few weeks, there has been wide speculation that Tillerson’s bid for office might be rejected. Not only are many of its Democrats leery of his background as an oil executive, but many from both parties are very suspicious of his ties to Russia.

However, the vibe in the chamber augured his approval, though perhaps by a tight margin. Trump has told Senate Republicans that he won’t tolerate any rejection of his Cabinet picks. Eminences who are highly respected on both sides of the aisle—including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and retired Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn—have lobbied on Tillerson’s behalf. Meanwhile, the nominee himself stayed alert and fairly clear for the all-day hearing without the aid of notes or nearby advisers. And then there’s the question of alternatives: If Tillerson is tossed aside, who gets thrown back in—Rudy Giuliani? Mitt Romney? Some seemed to be conceding (or embracing) the view that it might be better to take the multinational oil man who seems sane and reasonable, for all his wavering concepts of the national interest, than the jokers who might emerge from the next shuffle.