It’s Too Soon to Judge Rex Tillerson
Tillerson is not the first nominee for secretary of state whose company's close ties with a foreign country cast a cloud of suspicion.
The battle lines over Rex Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state are firming up — within the Republican party. Condoleeza Rice, who held the position under President George W. Bush, supports Tillerson. So does Robert Gates, her partner (together with Steve Hadley) in an eponymous consulting firm and one-time Cabinet colleague as defense secretary. So too does Brent Scowcroft, widely acknowledged as the most effective national security advisor ever to hold that position, as does former Secretary of State James Baker. All four are “realist Republicans.”
Senators Marco Rubio, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, with whom many neoconservatives identify, all have expressed deep reservations about Tillerson because of his ties to Russia in general and Russian President Valdimir Putin in particular. So have leading Democrats, notably Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a bastion of “movement” conservatives, also openly opposes Tillerson’s nomination. Though he was a strong backer of President-elect Donald Trump, Perkins considers the ExxonMobil CEO to be far too liberal: Tillerson, a former Boy Scout and major contributor to Boy Scouts of America, was a key figure in the Scouts’ decision to accept gays as scout leaders. Equally awful, in Perkins’ view, has been ExxonMobil’s financial support for Planned Parenthood, which Perkins considers to be a criminal organization. Not least, Perkins is also highly suspicious of Tillerson’s ties to Russia.
There is no denying that Tillerson has led ExxonMobil along the sort of moderate-to-liberal path that Perkins, like other evangelical supporters of Trump, clearly abhors. Nor is there any doubt that Tillerson has been exceedingly close to Putin. During the 1990s, Tillerson negotiated directly with then-Prime Minister Putin to establish the $17 billion Sakhalin-1 project, which called for Exxon Neftegas, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, to develop oil and gas on the island of Sakhalin and the Sea of Okhotsk. Nearly two decades later, in 2011, Tillerson teamed with Rosneft, the giant Russian energy company whose majority shareholder is the Russian government, to form a $500 billion joint venture that called for liquefied natural gas production and oil exploration in the Arctic and Black seas as well as in Siberia. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tillerson bitterly opposed the imposition of sanctions on Moscow, which threatened the viability of his company’s Russian ventures.
Is Tillerson likely to be a Russian stooge? On its face, it is arguable that this will be the case. This is a man who in 2013 Putin honored with the Order of Friendship. And, immediately upon Trump’s announcement of his intention to nominate Tillerson as secretary of state, Putin expressed his delight that this friend of Russia would preside over the department. That the president-elect has avoided criticizing Putin’s policies and has denied any Russian foul play during the 2016 presidential campaign — while his designated national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has his own close ties with Russia — certainly could lead one to conclude that, by naming Tillerson, he is packing the upper reaches of his national security team with Putin sympathizers.
Still, it may well be that when he cozied up to Putin, Tillerson was simply acting in the best interests of ExxonMobil and its shareholders. It is true that at times those interests clashed with State Department objectives, but who is to say those objectives were always the correct ones? In particular, the bureaucrats at State were livid when ExxonMobil signed an agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government to pump Kurdish oil. That agreement undermined State’s “one Iraq” policy. But it is arguable that the policy was completely wrongheaded, since it subordinated the pro-American Kurds to the whims of the Shia-dominated, Iran-influenced government in Baghdad. In other words, the policy that Tillerson pursued not only was to the benefit of ExxonMobil’s shareholders, but arguably was also in the real interests of the United States, the State Department notwithstanding.
It is also worth noting that several of the aforementioned “realists” who support Tillerson have their own connections to Russia. Can anyone seriously argue that these American patriots would sell out their country’s interests to Moscow, or support someone whom they suspected was likely to do so?
Tillerson is not the first nominee for secretary of state whose company’s close ties with a foreign country cast a cloud of suspicion. When President Ronald Reagan nominated George Shultz to succeed Alexander Haig as secretary of state, the American pro-Israel community was horrified. Haig had been openly pro-Israel; in contrast, Shultz had been a senior executive at Bechtel, a company noted for its close ties with Saudi Arabia. Yet Shultz proved to be a strong supporter of the Jewish state, and has been lionized by Israel’s supporters ever since. In retrospect, it has long been clear that when he left Bechtel to join the Reagan administration, he shed any ties to its policies. Might not Tillerson do the same?
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