Rex Tillerson is an American success story. A University of Texas graduate, he started out at Exxon as a production engineer and worked his way up to Chairman and CEO of the company. News reports overnight are that Donald Trump will nominate him as Secretary of State. He deserves consideration by the Senate and the public for that position.
The Secretary of State does not need to be a professional diplomat. Hillary Clinton was not a professional diplomat when she became Secretary of State. Tillerson, as the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies by measure of market cap, revenue, profit, etc. with facilities and business relationships across the globe, has all the necessary core competencies to manage the State Department bureaucracy and handle diplomacy himself.
Tillerson’s time at Exxon, however, also has some flaws. Because he is a company man and an Exxon man, he knows Exxon. That is not the same as knowing how to run another company nor does that translate directly into running the State Department. In his confirmation process, Senators need to closely examine if he has the capacity to take his competencies from Exxon to the State Department. Being qualified does not make one capable.
Likewise, we should be troubled with Tillerson’s close times to Vladimir Putin at a time there are credible reports that Russia tried to influence the American election. I understand that Tillerson befriended Putin during Tillerson’s time working in Russia for Exxon when Boris Yeltsin was President. That long term relationship might prove useful if Trump intends to reassess our strategic interests in Asia. Pulling Russia away from China would not be a bad thing. But Putin has a history of murdering dissidents, assassinating other world leaders, and invading European countries. He cannot be trusted. What are the parameters of Tillerson’s friendship with Putin? The Senate should seriously explore this issue.
But, I think we are fooling ourselves if we think the core complaints from the left against Tillerson are on Russia. After all, the left tells us that Hillary Clinton successfully reset the relationship. The major concerns are that Tillerson is a bitter enemy to the environmental movement and his role as Secretary of State could be highly disruptive to various international accords on climate change.
It would sound bat poop crazy for the left to scream the loudest about climate change as their objection to a Secretary of State, as opposed to EPA head, so they will focus on Russia instead.
Skeptics of Tillerson should take some small measure of reassurance that Condoleezza Rice recommended him and Robert Gates backed her up. Rice has expertise in dealing with Russia and understands the geopolitical threat Russia poses to us. If she is comfortable with Tillerson, he should be able to prove himself.
Nonetheless, the Senate must ask tough and probing questions. A President generally should be allowed the advisors he wants. But Secretary of State is the pre-eminent cabinet position and the Senate should and must take seriously its role in confirmation given Tillerson’s Russian connection and lack of a diverse resumé.