With the Rex Tillerson nomination for Secretary of State now official, it’s worth reflecting on how much the punditry surrounding the nomination has focused on the US-Russia relationship. This is understandable, given the extent to which Russia has been in the news lately, but there are implications beyond Russia that bear thinking about.
Because oil projects require huge amounts of capital and only pay off fully over decades, Tillerson has favored doing business in countries that offer political stability, even if this stability was achieved through authoritarian rule.
Moreover, writes Coll, “in general, Tillerson and ExxonMobil have argued against economic sanctions as an instrument of American foreign policy.”
This take on international politics sounds eerily reminiscent of an earlier era in which Republican oil men ran U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Take this remark, from one of these men, in 1998 regarding U.S policy toward Iran:
The nation that’s isolated in terms of our sanctions policy in that part of the globe is not Iran. It is the United States. And the fact that we have tried to pressure governments in the region to adopt a sanctions policy that they clearly are not interested in pursuing has raised doubts in the minds of many of our friends about the overall wisdom and judgment of U.S. policy in the area.
That analysis comes from the 1998-vintage Dick Cheney, when he was CEO of Halliburton. Now, say what one will about Halliburton, or the earlier vintage of Republican foreign policy hands, but can anyone argue that this unabashedly pro-business, pro-oil take on foreign policy was less destructive to U.S. interests than was the messianic foreign policy of the neoconservatives in the early 2000s?
As that Cheney example indicates, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future results. People change. But if Tillerson has been shaped by his time–some 46 years–at ExxonMobil as much as his detractors suggest, one wonders if a preference for stability and predictability in the Middle East might be better than the possible alternatives.
The downside of this approach historically has been to grow too close to authoritarian regimes in the region rather than to deal with them constructively but at arm’s length. The Middle East, as a region, matters far less to the United States than people think. But if we’re going to be intricately involved there for the foreseeable future, an approach that hearkens back to the George H.W. Bush days might be as good as we could reasonably hope for.