National Security & Defense

Rex Tillerson: A Worthy Choice

Tillerson testifies at his confirmation hearings, January 11, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
He will be a good secretary of state, and he could be a monumental one.

John Kerry was an extremely successful secretary of state in one important sense: He served his president faithfully, and faithfully imposed his president’s policies on the State Department.

As for the rest, Kerry ends his career a perfect symbol of Obama’s foreign policy (talk a lot, and carry a small stick) and of the disastrous mess Obama is leaving behind: allies doubtful, enemies emboldened, Russia resurgent, China hostile, terrorist safe havens from one end of the Muslim world to the other, the worst global refugee crisis since World War II, the Middle East in flames, the terrorist empire of Iran all but assured of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony – and this could just be the prelude to much worse on the horizon.

If ever we needed a truly monumental secretary of state, that time is now. The last time America had a truly monumental secretary of state was when James A. Baker III served in that role in the Bush 41 administration, building the Gulf War coalition while presiding over the peaceful liquidation of the Soviet empire. The secretary of state Baker most admired was Henry Kissinger, an even more monumental secretary of state, who held that position in the 1970s, extricating the U.S. from Vietnam while laying the foundations for peace between Israel and Egypt and for America’s preeminent position in the Middle East, which lasted until Obama started throwing it away. In the last century, the only other secretary of state who deserves placement in that company is Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, who negotiated the pillars of America’s eventual victory in the Cold War: NATO, the Pacific alliances, Bretton Woods, the World Bank, and the IMF.

I call these men “monumental” not just because of the dramatic, positive changes they brought to America’s position in the global order, but also because their style of diplomacy carried with it all the weight of America’s moral and material power. They were candid advisers of unquestioned loyalty to their presidents; they had a strategic vision for advancing American interests in a tumultuous world; they had the practical sense to steer the State Department along the required course, in stages; they chose their words on America’s behalf carefully, in full appreciation of the fact that words have (or should have) serious consequences when they come from the secretary of state; and they were able negotiators, inured to leverage and hard bargaining.

These are the qualities a secretary of state needs to be successful. Excellence in each of them makes for a monumental secretary of state. In his confirmation hearing this week, Rex Tillerson, President-elect Trump’s nominee to the post, showed great promise in all of them.

Tillerson did not have an easy eight hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Several senators expressed concerns about his positions on Russia, Iran sanctions, and climate change, and his potential conflicts of interest. Owing to Trump’s favorable comments on Vladimir Putin, and Tillerson’s own direct dealings with the Russian government as head of Exxon, the most serious concern seemed to be Russia, followed closely by Exxon’s reported lobbying against Iran sanctions. Senators were also looking for daylight between Tillerson’s position and Trump’s, as often happens with nominees who weren’t previously close to their new boss.

Though a few senators seemed to remain unconvinced, even those on the fence would admit that Tillerson is upstanding, thoughtful, and serious enough to represent the United States. Senator John Cornyn (R., Tex.) introduced Tillerson as an “inspired choice” for secretary of state, and nothing has come to light that would lead one to think otherwise.

The nominee who emerged in the hearings was someone with a clear instinct for speaking softly, and seldom, and carrying a big stick. As he said in his opening statement: “To achieve the stability that is foundational to peace and security in the 21st century, American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted.”



Tillerson ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.). Rubio asked Tillerson whether he would support legislation imposing mandatory sanctions on people responsible for cyberattacks against the United States. Tillerson objected that a mandatory-sanctions package “leaves the executive branch no latitude or flexibility in dealing with the broad array of cyber threats. I think it is important those be dealt with on a country-by-country basis, taking all other elements into consideration in the relationship. So giving the executive the tool is one thing. Requiring the executive to use it without any other considerations, I would have concerns about.” Rubio then asked whether Tillerson would support canceling the recent Obama executive order imposing sanctions on Russians responsible for the DNC hack. Tillerson answered that the new administration would have to do a comprehensive review of cyber strategy.

There are several points in Tillerson’s favor here: First, while the Congress has broad powers to regulate foreign policy, the execution of foreign policy — including the timing and precise targeting of sanctions — is clearly the president’s prerogative. Second, the problem of attribution is quite complicated, especially in the case of Russia, which uses hordes of informal hacker militias. Also, what makes cyberattacks difficult to respond to is that they often boil down to fairly straightforward cases of the very same espionage that the U.S. conducts continuously against friend and foe alike, and which we have long openly claimed the right to conduct.

Regardless, Rubio characterized Tillerson’s answer as “troubling” and then dialed up the pressure. “Do you think Vladimir Putin is a war criminal?” he asked. “I wouldn’t use that term,” Tillerson replied. Rubio pounced. He described Russia’s recent indiscriminate bombing in Aleppo, as well as Russia’s earlier war against Chechnya, in which he said 300,000 civilians died, when Putin was prime minister. “Based on this information and what’s publicly in the record,” Rubio asked, “you’re not prepared to say Vladimir Putin and his military violated the rules of war and conducted war crimes?” Tillerson answered, “Those are very, very serious charges to make and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion.”

On Russia, Tillerson said what he needed to say. ‘We are not likely to ever be friends, because our value systems are so different.’

Rubio didn’t let up. “Mr. Tillerson, do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists, and political opponents?” Tillerson answered as before, that he didn’t have sufficient information to make such a claim and didn’t want to reach a conclusion only on the basis of unclassified information. “None of this is classified,” Rubio shot back, “these people are dead.” Tillerson finally seemed annoyed: “Your question was people who were directly responsible for that. I’m not disputing these people are dead.”

Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) continued in a similar vein to Rubio’s, saying it was “amazing” that Tillerson and Trump had yet to discuss the issue of Russia. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) intervened to relieve the pressure. If you were shown sufficient classified and other evidence that these atrocities took place, Corker essentially asked, would you consider them war crimes? “Yes, sir,” answered Tillerson.

Someone might have also pointed out that there is a difference between asking a nominee to describe how he sees a problem or a strategy, and asking a nominee to take a public position on a sensitive issue that he may not be able to walk back once in office, before he has had a chance to deliberate with colleagues and allies. The former is a proper subject for a committee hearing. The latter, on the other hand, is something that should only come out of full deliberation within the government, and is arguably inappropriate in a confirmation hearing. It’s like asking a Supreme Court nominee which way he will rule in a case that will be before him in a few weeks, based on a one-sided capsule summary. For a sitting secretary of state to label Saudi Arabia a human-rights violator or accuse Russia of war crimes may be entirely justified, and even a moral imperative, but it also risks a rupture in relations, with potentially damaging consequences for vital American interests, including that of human rights. It would be irresponsible for a nominee to take such a position without appropriate deliberation.

On Russia, Tillerson said what he needed to say. “We are not likely to ever be friends, because our value systems are so different.” He made clear that aggressive moves by Russia require proportionate responses, to send the message that Russian aggression won’t be tolerated.



Exxon’s business operations in Russia and Iran also led senators to question whether the new secretary might not be too soft on human-rights violators and state sponsors of terrorism. Of particular concern were indications that Exxon had lobbied against sanctions on Russia and Iran. On Russia sanctions, Tillerson explained that, to his knowledge, Exxon had only expressed concerns that sanctions were being structured in a way that would put American companies at a disadvantage to European ones. More troubling for senators was Tillerson’s claim that “to my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions” against Iran. According to lobbying disclosure forms, Exxon lobbied on the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2009 and the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), the most powerful of all the Iran sanctions. Exxon maintains that it “provided information of the impact of the sanctions, but did not lobby against the sanctions,” but Senator Menendez responded that Exxon would not have needed to report such activity as lobbying.

The issue might linger until it is unambiguously cleared up, and Exxon should be as forthcoming as possible. Meantime, it bears recalling that a company as large as Exxon has far-flung lobbying activities, and routinely lobbies on issues large and small, all around the world and at every level of government. Senior management often engages in strategic lobbying against major legislation, but sometimes lobbying on legislation – even significant legislation like Iran sanctions – is done on the initiative of lower-level department heads without the knowledge of senior management.



A lot of controversy surrounds Exxon on the subject of climate change. For many environmentalists, Exxon is like the Death Star in Star Wars. One of the most egregious and troubling examples of climate-alarmist persecution against climate realists is related to Exxon’s internal documents showing risks of warming from manmade carbon dioxide. Despite environmentalists’ charges, Exxon’s public position has been carefully qualified, going so far as to admit the risks of manmade climate change.

Tillerson was pressed on this by several senators. He explained: “I came to my personal position over about 20 years as an engineer and scientist, and understanding the evolution of the science. And I came to the conclusion a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist, and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken. The type of action seems to be where the largest areas of debate exist in the public discourse.” Pressed for further clarification by Senator Corker, Tillerson said, “The increase in the greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere [is] having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”

It is virtually impossible to improve on this answer. It concedes to the climate alarmists the major propositions that seem justified, namely that climate change is a concern, and that human activity is having some impact on it. It also puts uncertainty where the alarmists have utterly failed (though they refuse to admit it) to establish sufficient certainty for a conclusive policy analysis: whether the risk is clear enough to compel any particular action today, given scientists’ extremely limited ability to quantify the relationship between CO2 increases and temperature increases precisely enough to support an informed choice among policy alternatives.

Should the U.S. remain engaged in international climate talks? Tillerson didn’t hesitate: “The U.S. should have a seat at the table, because the problem of climate change requires a global response.” It should also have a seat at the table to ensure that international negotiations on climate change receive periodic injections of reality and reason, if only to temper against needlessly counterproductive policies. Here again, Tillerson said the right thing: “I am an engineer by training. I seek to understand the facts, follow where they lead, and apply logic to our international affairs.”



Tillerson’s explanation of Russia’s increasingly aggressive projections of power abroad was illuminating: “It was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent. We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights.” A subsequent exchange with Senator Ben Cardin (D., Md.) made clear Tillerson’s intuitive sense of deterrence and how to manage the balance of power, something that has been woefully missing in American strategy and diplomacy for far too long.

TILLERSON: I think the real question was the taking of Crimea which led to actions by Russia which i mentioned. The next action being coming across the border of eastern Ukraine with both military assets and men. That was the next illegal action. I think the absence of a firm and forceful response to the taking of Crimea was judged by the leadership in Russia as a weak response.

CARDIN: What would you have done after we were surprised by what they did in taking over Crimea, what should the U.S. leadership have done in response to —

TILLERSON: I would have recommended that the Ukraine take all of its military assets available, put them on the eastern border, provide assets with defensive weapons that are necessary just to defend themselves, announce that the U.S. is going to provide them intelligence and that either NATO or U.S. will provide air surveillance over the border to monitor movements.

CARDIN: Your recommendation is a more robust supply of military?

TILLERSON: Yes, sir. I think what Russian leadership would have understood is a powerful response that indicated, yes, you took Crimea, but this stops here. . . . That’s the type of response Russia expects. If Russia acts with force – the taking of Crimea was an act of force. . . . So it required a proportional show of force to indicate to Russia that there will be no more taking of territory.

The exchange demonstrates a willingness to counter Russian aggression with American power. Tillerson’s use of the phrase “proportional show of force” shows an intuitive sense that stability depends on maintaining and protecting the balance of power through the application of negotiating leverage. History has not tired of demonstrating that pacifism is no way to keep the peace, and that diplomacy does not consist principally in talking. The often-heard assertion that force should be only a last resort, to be used only when diplomacy fails, is utterly false. That way of thinking often guarantees that diplomacy will fail, as we saw with Obama’s surrender to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. For diplomacy to be successful, national power, including military power, has to work hand in hand with negotiations, from beginning to end.



International negotiation is hard. You have to be able to consider carefully the pros and cons of various courses of action on the basis of rational cost-benefit analysis, while creating value by understanding the true needs of people from totally different cultures, all in the context of multidimensional multilateral negotiations that are sometimes just tacit. That is a skill you can almost never learn in the course of public service, which is why a long career in public service is not the best preparation to be secretary of state, as you can clearly see when you compare the performance of John Kerry with that of James Baker and Dean Acheson. Kerry spent his life in the Senate, while both Baker and Acheson were accomplished business attorneys for many years before entering public service. Tillerson will be one of the most accomplished secretaries of state that the private sector has ever produced.

As an engineer and a businessman, rather than a lawyer, Tillerson lacks the exquisite precision of a James Baker. That’s an argument for filling the traditional position of “counselor to the secretary of state” with a lawyer in the Baker mold, someone who can help Tillerson craft public statements and positions with due regard to the multitude of considerations and audiences that are affected by the State Department’s pronouncements. What matters is that Tillerson is a man of few words, who knows that words matter and that words have consequences.

This was evident in what was perhaps Tillerson’s strongest moment in the hearings, namely his second exchange with Senator Rubio. Rubio pressed him to characterize Saudi Arabia as a human-rights violator, citing among other things the ban on women driving. Tillerson shot back:

In terms of, when you designate someone or label someone, the question is, is that the most effective way to have progress continue to be made in Saudi Arabia? Or any other country? So my interest is the same as yours. Our interests are not different, Senator. There seems to be some misunderstanding that somehow I see the world through a different lens. And I do not. I share all of the same values that you share and want the same things for people the world over in terms of freedoms. But I’m also clear-eyed and realistic about dealing in cultures. These are centuries-long cultures, of cultural differences. It doesn’t mean we can’t affect them and affect them to change. Over many years I’ve been traveling to the kingdom; while the pace is slow, slower than any of us wish, there is a change under way in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How and if they ever arrive to the same value system we have, I can’t predict that. However, it is moving in the direction we want it to move. What I wouldn’t want it to do is take precipitous action that suddenly causes the leadership in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to have to interrupt that. I would like for them to continue to make that progress.

The exchange between Rubio and Tillerson was encouraging for another reason: It was a revival of a longstanding debate about American foreign policy entirely within the conservative-internationalist camp, to which both Rubio and Tillerson belong. The debate, in fine, is this: Admitting the importance of a globally engaged foreign policy and a willingness to project American power for the cause of both vital American interests and human rights, what is the right balance between realism and idealism? Henry Kissinger’s whole career can be thought of as a meditation on that question, though he is usually thought of (usually incorrectly) as a callous realist. Likewise Dean Acheson and James Baker: Their penchant for tactical realism made them extremely effective secretaries, but often obscured the idealism of their long-range strategies.

#related#The fact that we’re having this debate within the GOP camp is good news in and of itself. For one thing, it represents the marginalization of the callous and dangerous isolationism of Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.). It also represents the migration of the conservative nationalist sentiment back to its natural home with the conservative internationalists.

It also represents an uplifting contrast with the moral cowardice of the Obama administration, that moral cowardice that is a peculiar province of intellectuals, which believes itself evenhanded in treating allies and enemies alike, and which retreats from the exercise of American power because it believes that power itself is bad. Rex Tillerson readily dismisses that approach: “Quite simply, we are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good.”

– Mario Loyola, a contributing editor at NR, is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and at the Classical Liberal Institute of New York University School of Law. He has served as an adviser at the Pentagon and in the U.S. Senate. 

Mario Loyola is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program of Florida International University, and a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.


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