Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was an unusual choice for Secretary of State, and his confirmation hearing has proven he will be a controversial one. The oil executive faced tough questions this week – and some of the toughest came from Republicans. But over eight hours of intense questioning on Wednesday, Tillerson proved that he is every bit the statesman that Secretary John Kerry is. And in his ideology and worldview, he is far, far superior to Kerry in virtually every respect.
Tillerson’s toughest questions came from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who you may remember from his co-starring role in the Republican primaries. He played “Little Marco.” Now he’s back to his familiar confines in the Senate, and he’s very concerned about some of President-elect Donald Trump’s comments on Russia. Rubio wanted Tillerson to explain where he stood on Vladimir Putin.
“Do you think Vladimir Putin is a war criminal?” Rubio asked at one point.
Tillerson said, “I wouldn’t use that term.”
Rubio then went into a recitation of Russia’s crimes in Aleppo, their bombing of Chechnya, and Putin’s involvement in the deaths of several Russian journalists. Tillerson maintained that he would not accuse the Putin administration of war crimes.
“I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion,” he said.
That didn’t satisfy Rubio, but it is in line with current U.S. policy and the only responsible way a potential secretary of state could answer the question. If Trump wants to declare Putin a war criminal and push for international charges, that will be his decision to make. It would not be up to Tillerson or any other Trump nominee to make that decision on the fly, in the middle of a hearing.
Nonetheless, the Russia discussion was informative and allowed Tillerson to explain his theory as to why Putin felt so confident in his ability to thwart global norms.
“It was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent,” he said. “We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights.”
Foreign diplomacy is as much about strength as it is about compromise. The Obama administration has shown plenty of the latter and little of the former. If nothing else, Tillerson will balance that out.