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Thoughts on Tillerson’s Opening Statement

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Gong Tu/Shutterstock)

Rex Tillerson’s prepared remarks for the start of his confirmation hearing today contain a fair amount of boilerplate rhetoric, but they also include several worrisome statements. These lines stood out:

Quite simply, we are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good. If we do not lead, we risk plunging the world deeper into confusion and danger.

This is a very conventional statement endorsing the idea that the U.S. “leadership” is “indispensable.” It may just be intended as a sop to some of the more hard-line members of the committee, but it is somewhat alarming to hear it coming from someone who is supposed to be a pragmatist. I bring this up because Tillerson repeatedly blames the “absence” of U.S. “leadership” for current problems around the world. That is not only bad analysis, but it suggests that Tillerson thinks the answer is a more activist and meddlesome foreign policy.

Tillerson continues:

In recent decades, we have cast American leadership into doubt. In some instances, we have withdrawn from the world.

Tillerson doesn’t specify which “instances” he has in mind here, but it is safe to say that he is wrong in thinking this. At what point in recent decades has the U.S. “withdrawn from the world”? The last fifteen years alone have seen frenetic, constant meddling all over the globe. The U.S. is more deeply entangled in the affairs of at least half a dozen countries than it was twenty years ago, and it is not significantly less involved in any part of the world than it was in the early ’90s. Unfortunately, there has been no withdrawal, and it isn’t a good sign that Tillerson thinks there has been any.

The section on Russia is reasonably balanced. Tillerson acknowledges and criticizes Russia’s interventions abroad, but expresses support for dialogue and pursuing common interests when possible. However, I found this part very strange:

But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent. We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with “red lines” that turned into green lights.

Once again, Tillerson doesn’t identify which “commitments” the U.S. didn’t keep, and that’s probably because no backtracking took place. The complaint about the “red line” episode is a standard hawkish talking point, but its inclusion in these remarks is a bad sign that Tillerson buys into bad assumptions based on discredited notions of “credibility.”

Another passage jumped out at me because of the use of some of the most annoying phrases that we usually hear from the likes of John McCain:

Our approach to human rights begins by acknowledging that American leadership requires moral clarity. We do not face an “either or” choice
on defending global human rights. Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance.

Perhaps Tillerson said this to deflect criticism that he and Trump are going to go easy on authoritarian regimes, or perhaps it is just a way to satisfy some of the committee’s most ideological members, but it’s unfortunate in any case. In practice, “moral clarity” is code in Washington for using human rights to justify aggressive policies toward some states while ignoring and whitewashing the misconduct of our government and our allies and clients. The idea that “our values are our interests” is an old favorite of McCain’s, because it implies that U.S. interests are supposedly at stake wherever our “values” may be threatened, and that effectively means that U.S. interests around the world are almost unlimited. The phrase is normally used as a license to justify meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.

The section on Cuba is also discouraging, since it suggests that normalization with Cuba may be reversed. Overall, Tillerson’s opening remarks were focused almost entirely on potential threats to be countered and a fixation on the importance of U.S. “leadership” as the way to counter them. That may help gain him some support from hawkish Republicans on the committee, but as an indication of the sort of foreign policy we can expect from this administration it was not very encouraging.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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