Rex Tillerson will be visiting Moscow this week. Not at all unusual for the Secretary of State, but in these unstable times, and with his lack of any experience, is he capable of achieving any positive results? Tillerson, on the job for barely two months, had one of the most contentious confirmation hearings, and the vote in the senate received the most opposition of any secretary of state in the past 50 years. Why? Two reasons: 1) Tillerson is likely the least qualified for the position of any in at least 50 years, and 2) Tillerson is known for his ties to the Russian government.
During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, he dodged more questions than he answered, again giving the appearance of either ignorance or a hidden agenda which he was unwilling to share. He refused to answer questions regarding whether Putin should be considered a war criminal, avoided condemning human rights abuses in China, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, and sidestepped a direct answer about whether humans cause climate change.
Given that Tillerson is the former CEO of Exxon-Mobile, there are also concerns about how long Tillerson would recuse himself from decisions that could affect ExxonMobil once he became the top US diplomat. On leaving ExxonMobil, Tillerson was given, as part of his severance package, some 2 million Exxon shares — worth more than $181 million at current prices — over the next decade. Though the value of the shares is to be put into a managed trust, I posit that he retains a vested interest in the well-being of the company he worked for for some 40 years.
Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut said, “We have reason to fear that Mr. Tillerson would run the State Department like he ran Exxon, where he repeatedly worked against US national interests. We have a President who has openly mocked human rights, who has supported vicious dictators, and a secretary of state who has made a career of doing business with some of the worst human rights violators in the world.”
During Tillerson’s tenure as a high-level executive with ExxonMobil, eventually becoming CEO, Exxon established a joint venture with Shell called Infineum. That venture’s purpose was to conduct business with Iran, Sudan and Syria, all considered by the US to be state sponsors of terror and under US sanctions. Mr. Tillerson claimed, while under oath during his confirmation hearings, to know nothing about this. I am skeptical.
As Tillerson heads to Moscow this week, allegedly to take a tough stance in attempting to convince the Russian government to retract its support for al-Assad of Syria, it pays to remember that in 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson one of the highest honors Russia gives to foreign citizens, the Order of Friendship. Throughout his career at ExxonMobil, he was in charge of managing the company’s Russia account.
Tillerson, who has no foreign policy experience, will be tasked with negotiating with the Russians on such issues as Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, violation of an important arms control treaty, the fight against Daesh, ousting al-Assad, and destroying Syria’s remaining chemical weapons. Is he up to the challenge? One thing that is troubling, is that he will travel sans press corps, as he did last month on his Asian trip, and it caused some problems.
Typically the Secretary of State travels with a dozen or so journalists from U.S. mainstream media outlets, but Tillerson, perhaps sharing Trump’s aversion to journalists, traveled to Japan and South Korea with only one, a conservative journalist who had never covered the Secretary of State before. What came about was that the South Koreans claimed Tillerson shunned a planned dinner, saying he was “too tired” after his meetings. Now, the reality is that there was no planned dinner and Tillerson did not say that he was too tired, but in absence of any witnesses, the story by the South Koreans spread like wildfire. It was an embarrassment to Tillerson, and though it was later disputed by the White House, there are some who still believe the story. One might think that Tillerson would have learned from this, but apparently not, since he plans to take no press with him to Moscow either.
So again, I ask if Tillerson is capable of deriving any positive outcomes from this trip. Russian leaders are said to have praised Trump’s choice of Tillerson, and that in itself sets off red flags and warning bells for me. For that matter, what would be considered a positive outcome of these meetings? While I certainly do not advocate antagonizing Putin unnecessarily, I also do not particularly embrace a joint mission with him on nearly any issue. The Trump-Putin ties already lead to much speculation, and I suspect there will be data to support at least some of that speculation. The less tangled the web, the better. I think that any cooperative efforts between the U.S. and Russia need to be conducted with extreme caution and as arm’s-length transactions.
It is interesting to note that Tillerson will meet only with his direct counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and will not meet at all with his old friend, Putin. Some see that as a sign of tensions.
Rex Tillerson is certainly not the man I would have chosen for Secretary of State, but since nobody asked me, he is what we are, at least temporarily, stuck with, much as we are stuck with Trump and other of his cabinet/advisory picks. Let us hope that Tillerson can at a minimum, manage to pull off this trip without starting an international incident.