Analysis

If He’s Not Putin’s Plant, Tillerson Is Good Pick for Trump’s Secretary of State

The smooth-talking Exxon executive could moderate gung-ho hawks who are dangerous for Israel and the Middle East.

Vladimir Putin and Rex Tillerson in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 21, 2013.
MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/AFP

If Donald Trump has a devious, Machiavellian mind, the proposed appointment of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state is a stroke of genius. Tillerson will serve as Trump’s whipping boy: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will tear the ExxonMobil CEO to pieces over his ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin at his confirmation hearings, and possibly even block his nomination. It will be an act of purification that will satisfy the lawmakers and the press while allowing Trump to continue cultivating the Kremlin as he wishes.

The hearings, likely to start in the first or second week in January, are sure to be a blockbuster. Democrats will be angling to use the Tillerson hearings to hammer home the perception of Trump’s improper ties to the Kremlin. Republicans such as Marco Rubio will seek to distance themselves from Trump’s love fest with Putin and to send a shot across the new President’s bow that some things – such as giving the State Department to Putin’s best buddy – won’t be tolerated, even by the GOP majority.

Tillerson is also likely to be interrogated on the scope of his ties to Arab leaders, as well as his lack of previous contacts with Israel. Rubio, along with Democrats such as Ben Cardin are likely to hear from Evangelical and right-wing Jewish groups about their concerns over Tillerson’s attitude toward Israel, especially when compared to other potential candidates who had been mentioned in recent weeks with supposedly stellar pro-Israel records, including Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

Of course, the question is what “pro-Israel” actually means. Right wingers protesting Tillerson’s appointment are likely be those who oppose the Iran nuclear deal and a two-state solution and support settlements and the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Others, who also see themselves as no less “pro-Israel”, might view Tillerson’s nomination as a welcome balance to some of the more hawkish if not extreme appointments in the administration, including National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Tillerson could provide a voice of moderation and sanity to what may very well be a dangerous tendency of the new administration, from Trump on down, to behave like bulls in a china shop and to believe that what the Middle East really needs now is some good old American bullying.

Retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn gestures as he arrives at Trump Tower in New York on November 17, 2016.
Carolyn Kaster, AP

Tillerson, at the same time, is hardly likely to garner much support from liberals either. He is, after all, almost a stereotype of everything leftists love to hate: A tall white male with a lilting Texas accent and mane of grey hair, who’s made ton of money in the oil industry, who is wishy and washy on climate change and who has spent many years wheeling and dealing with shady foreign leaders. He’s like a character from central casting, a JR Ewing going directly from the Southfork Ranch in the Dallas TV show to Foggy Bottom in Washington D.C.

After watching far too many hours of Tillerson’s speeches and interviews on YouTube, however, it’s pretty clear to me that the ExxonMobil CEO won’t be a pushover. It goes without saying that one should never underestimate the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies, who obviously didn’t get to his position by mistake. But Tillerson also comes across as a surprisingly engaging and clearly intelligent interlocutor, with just the right amount of humility, feigned or not, and self-deprecating humor, never mind his life-long commitment to the Boy Scouts. On the assumption that he succeeds in dispelling notions that his appointment was preapproved by Putin, Tillerson could very well turn both Senators and public opinion around in his favor.

One of Tillerson’s main obstacles will be to dispel suspicions that his primary aim will be to cancel the international sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of its entanglement in Ukraine and capture of Crimea. The sanctions forced Exxon to suspend a $10-billion-dollar oil exploration and drilling venture with Russian oil firm Rosneft in the Arctic Ocean, which had been one of Tillerson’s signature achievements. Removal of the sanctions would boost Exxon’s standing and stocks and probably benefit Tillerson’s bank account as well. 

But the exact contours of the relationship between Tillerson and Putin are not as one-sided as they may seem. According to Steve Coll’s book Private Empire, ExxonMobil and American Power, when they first met in 1999 Tillerson stared down Putin in connection to Exxon demands regarding the company’s Sakhalin -1 oil drilling in the Far East, causing Putin to blow his top and then capitulate. 

A woman passes by graffiti depicting the Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and US President Elect Donald Trump in a suburb of Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.
AP / Darko Vojinovic

People who have met Tillerson or heard of his dealings with Putin and Russia have a high opinion of his behavior and integrity. His company’s interests are always paramount, of course, but Tillerson nonetheless is considered to be an honest negotiator and a patriotic American. My sources laughed at the notion that Tillerson lacks the experience in either government or diplomacy necessary for a secretary of state: Exxon, they say, is like a country, with a GDP the size of Taiwan. Tillerson, they add, has handled talks with scores of world leaders – far more than most everyone else in the incoming Trump administration.

As an American, I would be extremely wary of Tillerson’s ties to the Kremlin. The fact that Trump appointed him despite the crisis of confidence because of allegations of Putin’s efforts to influence elections only compounds suspicions that something is very rotten in Trumpland.  I can also understand why American liberals would be suspicious of a smooth talking Texan oil tycoon whose main concern in life is to make a profit. In normal times, one would certainly wish for a Secretary of State who is more representative of American values such as liberty, equality and democracy.

But in the land of the blind, as they say, the one-eyed man is king, and Tillerson certainly seems like a better choice than the alternatives. He is a pragmatic, results-oriented executive who is likely to gain the trust of foreign leaders. He might not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or dispel the Iranian nuclear threat but at least he wouldn’t exacerbate them to everyone’s detriment either. I would prefer an American secretary of state who does not give Israel the impression that it can do whatever it wants but one who gently applies brakes every once in a while. I can understand why many Israelis might be concerned that Tillerson’s appointment could herald a future American-Russian understanding on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, but frankly, even that seems vastly superior to the current stalemate. 

Together with Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, Tillerson would provide a measure of confidence to a world that is very nervous about Trump’s future moves. Of course, he needs to prove first, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’s not Putin’s stooge. If he succeeds in doing so, frankly, the best thing would be for Tillerson and Trump to miraculously trade places, if that were only possible.