Three Takeaways from Rex Tillerson's Confirmation Hearing

Helen  Raleigh
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Posted: Jan 14, 2017 12:01 AM
Three Takeaways from Rex Tillerson's Confirmation Hearing

This week kicked off a busy schedule of confirmation hearings for several key cabinet members nominated by President-elect Donald Trump. I had the opportunity to watch a great deal of the confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobile, the nominee for the Secretary of State. Prior to this confirmation, I had serious doubts in Tillerson's qualification to be the top diplomat of our nation since he lacks the typical career diplomatic experiences, plus his close ties with Russia, one of America's past, present, and likely future chief adversaries, concerned me. But I have to admit after the hearing, my comfort level with Tillerson as the next Secretary of State has risen considerably.

First, he demonstrated unequivocal faith in American exceptionalism and the moral values that America stands for.  In his opening statement, he firmly stated that "We will never apologize for who we are or what we hold dear." Unlike President Obama who declared that he believed in American exceptionalism just like the Brits and the Greeks in their countries’ exceptionalism, Tillerson made it clear that "We are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good......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."

Second, Tillerson showed he has a clear-eyed view of America's adversaries, including China and Russia. Prior to this hearing, the mainstream media (mostly liberal) played up Tillerson's business involvement with Russia through Exxon Mobile and instilled doubt among the American people on whether Tillerson could be objective in his future dealing with Russia as the Secretary of State. Tillerson's testimony showed those doubts were overblown.

When the Russia subject came up, Tillerson showed that he is willing take a tough stand against Russia in some circumstances. In his opening statement, Tillerson said, "We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia. Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests. It has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war. Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia." During the Q&A session, Tillerson further pledged to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine so it can defend itself against Russian forces.It seems to me that Tillerson is willing to take a more hawkish approach towards Russia than his boss, President-elect Trump, so far has alluded to. 

Some members of the Senate, such as Marco Rubio, were unsatisfied that Tillerson hasn't been hawkish enough towards Russia. For example, Tillerson wouldn't declare that Russia committed war crimes in Syria as Sen. Rubio demanded during the confirmation hearing. While I agree with Sen. Rubio that Russia did commit war crimes in Syria, I don't see what practical or meaningful objective we can achieve by having Tillerson making such a declaration during a confirmation hearing. Tillerson will be our next Secretary of State, the nation’s highest-ranking diplomat, and diplomacy is usually about a balanced approach, especially when dealing with our nation's foes. As he mentioned in his opening statement that "Where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible...we ought to explore these options. Where important differences remain, we should be steadfast in defending the interests of America and her allies. Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions."

It's evident that Tillerson needs a certain level of flexibility to carry out his balanced approach. But, making the declaration as Sen. Rubio demanded achieves nothing other than boxing in our approach toward Russia.

Last but not least, Tillerson impressed me with his pragmatism, which is often lacking among career politicians. For example, when it comes to China, Tillerson acknowledged that "China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests. We have to deal with what we see, not with what we hope."  Still, he emphasized the similar balanced approach to China, "But we need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well. The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined. China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership."

I walked away from Rex Tillerson's confirmation with the comfort of knowing that his world view is balanced and his priorities are logic and clear. I also notice that he rarely used the word "I" throughout his opening statement, which is a stark contrast to John Kerry's opening statement at his own confirmation hearing.

Tillerson concluded his opening statement by saying, "I am an engineer by training. I seek to understand the facts, follow where they lead, and apply logic to our international affairs. We must see the world for what it is, have clear priorities, and understand that our power is considerable, but it is not infinite. We must, where possible, build pathways to new partnerships, and strengthen old bonds which have frayed."

If Mr. Tillerson's actions as the Secretary of State match his words, America's diplomacy is in good hands.