The Skeptics

The Commonsense of Rex Tillerson

Usually when the New York Times editorial board and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham agree on something, there isn’t much debate to be on that particular issue. On any normal day that would be the case; there are only a few foreign policy issues that the Times and GOP hawks in Congress are aligned on, and in most instances these include international problems that are so obvious to America’s national security (North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program to take one example) that no reasonable American, liberal, conservative, or moderate, would disagree with the sentiment behind it.

The confirmation of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State appears to be one of those areas where liberal columnists, conservative politicians, Democratic lawmakers, and some former U.S. government officials arrive at a similar understanding.  And for Tillerson, the news from these quarters isn’t particularly good. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post stepped on his high-horse immediately after Tillerson’s completed the first day of his confirmation process by slamming him as a friend of autocrats the world over and a diplomat who wouldn’t be particularly attuned to the very concept of international human rights. "It was grim to see an incoming American secretary of state,” Milbank wrote  "avert his gaze from human rights abuses in Russia and across the globe."  Graham had similar qualms with Tillerson’s answers on Russia, assessing that he didn’t believe “he grew the vote today.”

It’s as if both didn’t follow the hearing - or if they did, they weren’t paying much attention to read between the lines or didn’t have enough energy to break through the zero-sum lens in which they view the world.  What some see as a former oilman who is inexplicably hesitant to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal, others rightly see in Tillerson a pragmatist who will bring some realism and commonsense to the State Department.  

Bashing all things Russia has been the fad in Washington ever since Putin returned to the presidency; indeed, ever since the intelligence community assessed with high confidence that Putin ordered an interference campaign to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election, punishing Moscow is one of the only things that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on. But lawmakers like Sens. Ben Cardin, Marco Rubio, Robert Menendez, Chris Coons, and others who are all gung-ho about passing additional economic sanctions against the Russians don’t have to worry about dealing with Russian diplomats every single week.  

If Tillerson is indeed confirmed to his new position, he will likely be on the phone with the Russian Foreign Ministry just as often as John Kerry has been over the last two years — whether he would like to or not.  Any sanctions packages that Congress sends to President-elect Trump’s desk will therefore have negative repercussions on Tillerson’s interactions with Russian officials.

Tillerson’s point about the utility of sanctions got him into trouble with Rubio and Menendez, both of whom have a legislative record of advocating for some of the most blanketed economic restrictions that the U.S. Congress has ever produced. But if you can get past the public spectacle that so often attaches itself to confirmation hearings in the 21st century and actually listen to TIllerson’s answers regarding sanctions, it’s quite logical.  

Asked whether he would support keeping the economic sanctions on Moscow that President Obama introduced weeks ago, Tillerson didn’t commit one way or the other — choosing to instead comment that he would prefer to look at all the classified information that was available, conduct a bottom-up review about Moscow’s cyber activities, and then come to a conclusion as to the course that he believes best serves the U.S. national security interest. It’s difficult to take issue with that statement unless you are so fiercely opposed to any cooperation with Russia whatsoever that you’re blinded to what diplomatic engagement could produce, even in times of acrimony.  

Sanctions indeed are a powerful tool, the most powerful measure that Congress can pass absent an authorization for the use of military force. Sanctions can slash a nation’s critical exports, reduce a country’s access to the U.S. banking system, and deter foreign investment in entire sectors of the economy to such a level that a targeted country can be bought to its knees and forced into changing its behavior (i.e. Iran).