As head of one of the world largest oil companies, Tillerson not surprisingly has close ties with Russia, one of the world’s most significant oil producers with untapped reserves to boot. In and of itself, that may not be an issue, but his possible selection as fourth in the line of succession for the presidency has understandably been clouded by confirmation from the CIA that Russian security services did indeed hack into various databases during the presidential campaign and engineered the release of information designed to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House.
It’s been a weird few days, befitting the general weirdness of our new Trumpian world. Trump promptly rejected the CIA’s findings, blasting the intelligence community as inept in forecasting Saddam Hussein’s weapons program and hence untrustworthy now. Four Senators, including Republicans Lindsey Graham and John McCain, then countered that reports of Russian meddling “should alarm every American,” presumably including Trump and Tillerson. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—whose wife is Trump’s pick for Transportation secretary —said Monday that he “strongly condemns” foreign hacking and supports Congressional investigations into Russia’s role.
Meanwhile, Tillerson’s public and lengthy close relationship with the architect of that hacking, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, turns on its head years of consensus that Putin represents a clear challenge to American leadership and interests in global affairs.
It’s not as if Tillerson and Exxon Mobil’s close ties with Russia and Putin have been shrouded in secrecy. As has been widely reported, Tillerson spearheaded multiple multi-billion dollar oil and gas deals with Russia over the past decade. The largest was a 2011 deal with Rosneft that involved potentially hundreds of billions of dollars to open up parts of the Artic and Siberia along with other untapped Russian supplies. That led Putin to grant Tillerson the prestigious Order of Friendship (an award few of us had heard of a week ago but is now the subject of intense scrutiny).
The relationship with Russia, however, extends back before Tillerson was appointed CEO of Exxon in 2006. “Russia made his career,” said Joseph Pratt, a University of Houston oil-industry historian. Tillerson was one of the key Exxon Russian executives in the 1990s, and was later the point person for multiple deals that demanded Putin’s acquiescence if not active involvement. And Tillerson as CEO was then a strong voice against U.S levied sanctions against Russia over Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and encroachments in eastern Ukraine.
The push-back against Tillerson over the past 48 hours has been intense, and mounting Senate concerns over Russia may, in fact, change the Trump calculus about ultimately selecting him for one of the more important cabinet posts. It would hardly be the first time that a nominee’s name is floated ahead of an announcement to gauge reactions and then withdrawn as a possibility.
Lost in this fray, however, are some legitimate policy issues. The intense coziness of Tillerson’s Russia ties combined with the hacking scandal make not just for uncomfortable political optics but such muddled conflicts of interest that it could severely compromise the capacity of the United States to steer the independent and maverick foreign policy that Trump claims to desire. That is clear.
What should also be clear is that breaking from the past 15 plus years of U.S. foreign policy orthodoxies on everything from Russia to China to the Middle East should not be viewed as some calamity but as an opportunity. It is hard to characterize recent U.S. foreign policy as anything other than a series of missteps following one unmitigated disaster: the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. The U.S. legacy in Iraq has arguably done more damage to U.S. security than any decision in U.S history, including Vietnam. The regional instability and blowback in the form of ISIS and increased political risk are unresolved. U.S. support for the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya somehow repeated the Iraq mistake of unending a brutal regime with no plan in place for the aftermath, thereby creating another vacuum filled by many who are intending great harm to the West and the rest of the Middle East. And while the United States is low on the totem pole of responsibility for the atrocities of the Syrian Civil War, nor have we found a clear policy to manage that.
As for Russia, yes Putin is a brilliant and troubling thug with nuclear weapons and regional ambitions. But that does not mean we need to ratchet up the conflict with Russia. The German government has much the same view of Putin, but also recognizes the need for a constructive working relationship.
For much of the 20th century and back into the mists of time, a certain degree of realism was key in foreign policy, which meant that you worked with the world as it is rather than the world as you might wish it to be. That, in turn, meant dealing dictators and all sorts of unpleasant people in positions of power. It meant understanding that we neither can nor should fight every good fight, or attempt to rectify the manifold injustices and atrocities of the world.
And so, today, we work with the Saudis even as we morally depart from them on women’s rights and the rights of free expression. We work with the Egyptian military government even while disagreeing with them on everything from how they manage economically to how they deal with dissent. And yes, we have close and entwined economic ties with China in spite of strong reservations about China’s ambitions in the Far East and the way the Communist Party manages society.
Trump’s actual foreign policy has yet to unfold. But a shift in how we interact with the world combined with less conflict with Russia is not in and of itself a negative concept. For sure, the implementation could go profoundly awry and harm us deeply. That is always a risk when you disturb a status quo that may be sub-optimal but is also at some level working. Reminding China that the eternal limbo of Taiwan may not be tenable could shake things up constructively with Beijing, or the cost of rocking that particular boat could be unacceptably high in the form of military build-ups and trade wars. That remains to be seen. Better working relations with Russia may only embolden Putin and do nothing for the United States, but it may also help the U.S. achieve its goals elsewhere in the world.
In short, the Tillerson nomination is a shaky idea. But the idea of shaking things up and resetting American foreign policy on the heels of a less-than-stellar fifteen years is something we should cautiously welcome rather than reflexively denounce just because it is Donald Trump doing the shaking.