The World At Home : Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture
2017-02-01 09:51:52 -
Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture

In contrast to some of his other cabinet appointments, US President Donald Trump’s choices to run our country’s intelligence, national security and defence establishments all possessed the kind of government and military experience that one would expect the leaders of these key organisations to have. However, even though Trump’s top foreign policy choice has no such experience, I actually think Rex Tillerson may turn out to be one of the most inspired cabinet selections.

Does that mean I do not share the concerns many Democrats and a number of Republicans have expressed about Tillerson as America’s next Secretary of State? Hardly. It goes without saying that when three of the Republican Senators I have the most respect for each express serious concerns about the man chosen to be our nation’s top diplomat, I will share some of those same misgivings. But I also believe that something must be done to stop the downward spiral of Russian-American relations, and that Tillerson is probably the best person to take on this task.

Lindsey Graham’s main concern about Tillerson was centred on his opposition, as the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, to the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. John McCain was concerned about Tillerson’s personal ties with Putin and other Russian officials, while Marco Rubio said he was worried Tillerson would “pursue a foreign policy of deal-making at the expense of traditional alliances and at the expense of human rights and democracy”.

But during his questioning by these and other Democratic and Republican Senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson took some surprisingly hawkish positions with respect to Russia and its Eastern European neighbours. While he would not commit to supporting Senator Graham’s proposal to expand the west’s economic sanctions on Russia, Tillerson did say he believed America and its Nato allies should provide Ukraine with more lethal and advanced weaponry that it could use to defend itself against Russian incursions.

While Senator McCain remains concerned about Tillerson’s past relations with Putin, he also said, based on his private conversations with the man: “I believe that Tillerson understands the importance of a steadfast and strong relationship.” In a similar vein, while Senator Rubio expressed his disappointment over Tillerson’s refusal to call Putin a war criminal or take Philippines President Duterte to task for his human rights violations, he said he would support him because of his “extensive experience and success in international commerce”.

Like Senator Rubio, I also believe that Tillerson’s international business experience is probably the best indicator of how he is likely to perform in America’s top foreign policy post. He has spent more than 20 years honing his diplomatic skills by negotiating oil and gas contracts with the leaders of Yemen, Nigeria, Qatar, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan, as well as joint ventures with Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft in the Caspian Sea and Arctic Ocean.

So how did President Trump come up with the idea of nominating an oil company executive to be America’s next diplomat-in-chief? Well, it wasn’t because Tillerson was a big-money supporter of Trump during the Republican primaries or the general election. Although he contributed to George Bush and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, Tillerson backed Jeb Bush in the primaries and gave nothing to Trump’s campaign. In fact, the suggestion of Tillerson as Secretary of State came from former defence secretary and CIA director Robert Gates.

This was the same Robert Gates who had served as director and deputy director of the CIA under Presidents George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan, and as Secretary of Defence under President Bush and President Obama. This was also the same Robert Gates who criticised Trump, saying: “The world we confront is too perilous and too complex to have as president a man who believes he, and he alone, has all the answers and has no need to listen to anyone. A thin-skinned, temperamental, shoot-from-the-hip and lip, uninformed commander in chief is too great a risk for America.”

To his credit, President Trump put aside their past differences and met with Gates while his transition team was fighting over and debating the pros and cons of having either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani as the next Secretary of State. Gates has known Tillerson for many years, and the two had served together on the national executive board for the Boy Scouts of America. Tillerson is also an establishment Republican who supported Nafta and the TPP trade agreements, had acknowledged climate change was happening and supported a carbon tax.

Like me, Robert Gates strongly believes we must strike a balance with Russia that allows us work together in areas of mutual interest while also pushing back hard when Putin oversteps, such as in Crimea. Like Gates, I also think Tillerson is the kind of diplomat who can strike that balance.

Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas pursuing a career in public service. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011 and pursued a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy.

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