Donald Trump announced this morning that he will nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. But Trump can’t expect to get Tillerson’s nomination through the Senate without a fight.
In the days leading up to Trump’s official announcement, the Senate’s leading neocons – Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain – all expressed opposition to Rex Tillerson. Tillerson also received critical coverage from leading neoconservative publications including the National Review and the Weekly Standard.
So what is behind neoconservatives’ opposition to Tillerson?
A Beltway Outsider
Rex Tillerson is a self-made man. As someone who started as a production engineer with Exxon in 1978 and rose through the ranks to become Exxon’s CEO, Tillerson is an independently wealthy businessman who cannot be controlled by the machinations of the neocons’ system of public policy think tanks and lobbies that traditionally place personnel in Republican administrations.
More importantly, Tillerson, whose favorite book is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, is a fiercely independent businessman who earned his foreign policy credentials in the real world of business – far away from the beltway bubble.
His foreign policy resume prior to becoming Exxon’s CEO is extensive. In 1995, he became President of Exxon Yemen Inc. and Esso Exploration and Production Khorat Inc., which is based in Thailand. In 1998, he became VP of Exxon Ventures (CIS) Inc. and Exxon Neftegas Limited, where he was responsible for Exxon’s holdings across Russia.
As Exxon’s CEO, Tillerson flexed his independence when he cut a deal with the Kurdish government despite the US government’s official “one Iraq” policy.
This type of independence is troublesome to neoconservatives, who want a Secretary of State that won’t question established U.S. foreign policy.
A Skeptic of Foreign Interventions
Doing business all around the world has given Rex Tillerson firsthand experience in how foreign interventions harm the profitability of U.S. businesses and the health of our economy.
As an oilman who’s made huge upfront capital investments in long-term projects that won’t return a profit for years, Tillerson understands the importance of international political stability – something that fuels his opposition to regime change. This concerns both neoconservatives on the right and liberal interventionists on the left, who think America’s role in the world should be to wage an altruistic crusade bringing democracy and freedom to every corner of the planet.
But Tillerson’s unorthodox anti-interventionist views don’t end there. He is also a supporter of free trade and a critic of sanctions as a foreign policy tool. He sees sanctions as an unenforceable policy that allows foreign companies to gain access to natural resources in countries that U.S. companies are banned from doing business in. Following the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Russia, Tillerson criticized sanctions in a May 2014 shareholder meeting, stating:
“We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively and that’s a very hard thing to do.”
As a smart businessman, Tillerson realized it would only harm his shareholders’ interests if Exxon didn’t invest in Russia’s vast oil wealth – so he partnered with Russian oil giant Rosneft in 2011. That partnership was ultimately ruined by the U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia.
Desiring peace and cooperation with Russia is what scares neoconservatives – who want to start Cold War 2 with Russia – the most. To the neocons, Russia is the perfect enemy – Putin is unquestionably a bad guy, so he’s easy to demonize, and Russia is too powerful for the U.S. to take down in a short period of time. Making Russia our enemy would guarantee a state of low-level perpetual warfare – something that would make Americans scared enough to look the other way as our politicians increase mass surveillance and military spending at the expense of our liberties.
A natural skeptic of foreign interventions, Tillerson realizes that the U.S. can’t go around slaying every bogeyman. He realizes that increased sanctions and conflict with Russia will not benefit the American people – he’s right, of course, and for that reason, he deserves the support of the American people.