This Unholy Mess


Rex and the Snake-Eyed Despot

Depending on whom you talk to, America has either just taken the first bite of the poison apple of dictatorship, or is embarking on a national improvement program so good that it could only be hatched by a group of very wealthy businessmen.
Whatever your position, there should be one cabinet nomination that has you reaching for a handful of ibuprofen: Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Of all possible choices, it is astonishing that the president-elect managed to find a person who might well be not just a poor choice, but a dangerous one. You might already have encountered some of his background tidbits, but in case you haven’t, what say we take a moment and scare the bejabbers out of ourselves?
First, he is CEO of Exxon-Mobil, the company where he has spent his entire working life. He has no experience in statecraft or government service of any kind. None. Zip. That’s great. Since he’s a blank slate, it will make him so much more uninhibited and freewheeling in dealing with delicate hot spots around the world. Just what we need: that seat-of-the-pants, amateur touch.
Second, as the head of one of the three largest oil companies in the world, he is quite friendly with Vladimir Putin, and even received the Russian Friendship Medal in 2013, based presumably on his willingness to smile and make nice with one of the world most brutal dictators. That’s a plus.
Our third point complicates things considerably. In 2011, Tillerson signed a huge deal—a joint venture with a Russian state-owned oil company—to open 10 drilling sites in the Russian arctic in exchange for Russian participation in Exxon profits elsewhere in the world. The difficulty arose in 2014, when Putin ordered the invasion of Crimea, and European/American sanctions imposed on Russia put the oil project on hold. Tillerson was, of course, incensed. How dare anyone allow some petty political squabble to interfere with his right to make cartloads of money? He remained outspoken in opposition to the sanctions.
So will Tillerson—Mr. International Oil Conglomerate—be able and willing to maintain the sanctions? Or will he be just a teensy bit tempted to green light all that juicy oil drilling? Maybe have a flute of champagne with Vladimir and let bygones be bygones? A manly bear hug, perhaps. As secretary of state, he will naturally be able to divorce himself completely from his 40-odd years at Exxon. Easy as driving at 60 miles an hour and throwing it into reverse gear.
Then there’s point number four. Tillerson owns about 1.8 million shares of Exxon stock which are not yet fully vested, so he cannot sell them as part of a blind trust that would distance him from Exxon. Even if he were motivated to divest himself, he has no way to effectively do so. He will have an Exxon tattoo on his forehead, wherever he goes.
The deeply unsettling backdrop for all this is the weird bromance between Putin and the president-elect, not to mention the Russian-sponsored hacking of Democratic and Republican National Committee systems, confirmed by all 17 U.S. security agencies.
So: do we really want to make overtures of cooperation to someone like Putin, the Darth Vader of planet earth? It would be foolish for lots of reasons, but one good one is certainly that our NATO allies will rightfully freak out. Already Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are being muscled by Russia in various ways, so how will they react as their major defense treaty partner makes nice with the neighborhood bully?
All arguments touting “engagement” and “re-setting the relationship” look completely mad at this point. A relationship re-set requires that both sides be willing to reach out, making meaningful conciliatory moves; so let’s review Russia’s recent cooperative efforts. In no particular order they are: bullying the Baltic states, invasion of Crimea, invasion of Eastern Ukraine, joining with Assad and Iran to devastate Syria, and hacking U.S. computer systems to destabilize our democracy.
It might have escaped the president-elect’s no doubt keen sense of history, but Russia has little in common with us. It has never had a true representative government. It has no democratic traditions whatsoever, and Putin’s only goal for years has been to regain much of the former territory and “glory” of the old Soviet Union. Poking a stick in the eye of the United States is a clear part of that plan. Why pretend anything else? He is, recall, a genuine dictator, a thug who has ordered the murder of dozens of opponents and outspoken journalists in recent years. So is this the moment to send a smiling amateur diplomat from Texas to deal with a monster? A monster who knows what kind of champagne he likes?

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