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Tillerson’s Underwhelming Performance

Rex Tillerson meets with Vladimir Putin as CEO of ExxonMobil. Photo: archive.government.ru/

One of the main assumptions that almost everyone has made about Tillerson’s nomination to be Secretary of State is that he would be inclined to improve relations with Russia. Some of his answers from his confirmation hearing today call that assumption into question:

Mr. Tillerson also told the committee that if he had been serving in office when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, he would have recommended that the United States provide arms and intelligence support to the government of Ukraine, and said the Obama administration’s reaction was viewed in Moscow “as a weak response.”

Mr. Tillerson’s prescription came in the opening two hours of his confirmation hearing, where he went out of his way to portray himself as a hard-liner in confronting Russia [bold mine-DL] — an effort to defuse questions about his business relationships with Mr. Putin.

It could be that Tillerson was just telling committee members what they wanted to hear, or he may have been posturing as a hard-liner in an attempt to overcompensate for his past business dealings, but it seems more likely that Tillerson was never all that interested in better relations with Moscow. If so many hawkish Republicans have vouched for him, it makes more sense that he sees the world in much the same way they do. At one point, he said to Rubio, “Our interests are not different, senator, I share all the same values that you share.” He added, “There seems to be some misunderstanding that somehow I see the world through a different lens. I do not.”

That is what makes his support for arming Ukraine seem especially significant. Sending arms to Ukraine is a bad idea now, and it was just as bad back in 2014. If Tillerson thinks the U.S. should have done that then, that doesn’t reflect well on his judgment, and it bodes ill for future U.S. policy on Ukraine and Russia. Even if he was mostly pandering to hard-liners on the committee, that tells us that he isn’t going to push back very hard against hawks that want more confrontational policies. If Tillerson doesn’t “share all the same values” that hard-liners have, he also seems unlikely to oppose them when they demand that the U.S. take irresponsible and provocative actions.

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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