TONY KEVIN. The Rex Tillerson confirmation hearings, and wider issues

Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State and Trump’s best Cabinet choice so far, will probably survive his gruelling full day of confirmation hearings by the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee last Wednesday 11 January (Washington time).  

In the opinion (as reported in the independent Moscow Times) of a knowledgeable and sympathetic Russia-resident observer Konstantin von Eggert, who was ExxonMobil Russia Inc Vice-President for Public and Government Affairs in 2009-2010 and knows Tillerson well, the man was ‘unflappable … focussed, well-prepared, humble and firm at the same time. His formidable negotiating skills, as well as psychological shrewdness, were on public display on Wednesday.’

In Eggert’s view, Tillerson will give Trump competence and loyalty. This is what Moscow wants: an American equivalent to Russian FM Sergei Lavrov, who will do his job efficiently and will be loyal to his boss, be it Trump or Putin. Clearly, Tillerson is seen by Moscow as a real professional.

Russia was the crunch issue of the confirmation hearings. They took place the morning after the bizarre and sordid ‘golden showers’ published allegations by a former UK intelligence agent, that Moscow now holds material with which it could blackmail Trump any time it wanted to, over Trump’s alleged gross sexual misbehaviour in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The story was detailed to worry and enrage Democrats as well as Republicans. But it fails two basic credibility tests. Would Trump – even Trump – ever behave so stupidly in a luxury Moscow hotel VIP suite that he would know was highly likely to be bugged? And would the Kremlin ever be so stupid as to try to blackmail him with such material, assuming it had any? The story is clearly, to my mind, part of a broader Western ‘war party’ anti-Russian disinformation strategy, capitalising on the authenticated ‘pussy-grabbing’ story, and designed to ridicule Trump and stir anti-Russian feelings at the same time. It is mean and crude, but some dirt will stick: it always does.

Trump, I think shrewdly and deliberately, took the heat in a press conference in Trump Tower on the same day as the Tillerson hearings. This transfixed the media’s attention, and took the media focus and heat off Tillerson’s hearings.

Still, the questioning on Russia was rugged, especially from Marco Rubio (Republican failed presidential candidate, fiercely anti-Cuban Government, and presumably fiercely anti-Putin as well).

Under persistent questioning, Tillerson said ‘there is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have [with Russia] today.’ He took a cautious stance on whether sanctions against Russia should be upheld, saying that such measures could negatively affect American business interests. Tillerson expressed hope that he could help improve relations with Russia, potentially seeking to ally with it in areas of common interest even if America ‘will not likely to be ever friends with the Kremlin … Dialogue is critical so these [issues] don’t spin out of control … We need to move Russia from adversary always, to partner at times.’

Pushed by Rubio on whether Putin is a ‘war criminal’ for actions allegedly taken by the Russian military in Aleppo, Syria, Tillerson did not commit to that position:

‘I would not use that term …Those are very, very serious charges to make, and I would want to have much more information.’

Rubio criticized Tillerson’s response as ‘discouraging.’ After a second heated exchange between the two later in the hearing, Tillerson sought to reassure Rubio:

‘Our interests are not different, Senator .. There seems to be some misunderstanding. I share the same values as you.’

This was typical of Tillerson’s carefully low-key and non-confrontational style. He frequently took refuge in the ‘I have not yet been fully briefed on this’ defence, e.g. on alleged Russian war crimes in the war in Syria. Although some Senators expressed irritation with his at times evasive answers, they must have been impressed by his coolness and moderation under pressure. This man could be a class Secretary of State.

Tillerson talked tough where it was safe to do so without boxing in Trump’s future freedom of action. Thus, safely retrospectively, he talked tough on Ukraine and Crimea, but choosing his words with care.

He also talked tough prospectively, on the question of the US militarily challenging China’s occupation of the South China Sea islands. This has given rise to some concerns among independent strategic analysts of risk of a military clash between the US and China. But the Wall Street Journal reported that Beijing would be conscious of the political context for Mr. Tillerson’s remarks. A Chinese expert Jia Qingguo, professor of international studies at Peking University, said as reported by the WSJ: ‘He has to show he’ll have a tough attitude—only this way will he be smoothly confirmed.’

I would add that a US Secretary of State has no more authority to send naval ships into Chinese-claimed waters than Julie Bishop would have authority to send the RAN there. So I am not worried. In the event, these things will be talked down.

My guess is that, having talked tough and vented their spleen on Wednesday, Republican critics will not defy Trump by crossing the floor to vote with Democratic Senators against this well-qualified and temperate candidate for S of S. It will not be settled for a while yet, and the nominations usually go up as a package. Undoubtedly there will be horse-trading both above and below the table. But barring the unforeseen, Tillerson will not be recalled before Inauguration Day on 20 January. And by then, the need for a Secretary of State in place will be paramount.

Though Trump will continue to face passionate Russophobic hostility from leading figured in both parties, and in both houses of Congress – because Russophobia is now so entrenched in the DNA of American politics and mainstream media thinking – my guess is that his nomination of Tillerson is safe.

This will not stop Trump’s legion of haters from continuing to use what they see as their most potent weapon now against Trump – ridicule. The golden showers allegations, defined by the now passionately anti-Russian Guardian newspaper as ‘neither provable nor disprovable’, will be the gift that goes on giving.

At some point, American congressional politicians may wake up and realise that it is not in the US national interest for them to go on ridiculing their elected President. Oddly, Vladimir Putin knows this already. He wants the American political agony to end, and for the US to go back to being a serious country and negotiating partner for Russia as it was in the late Cold War period.

Tony Kevin‘s latest book Return to Moscow, a literary-historical travel memoir, published by University of Western Australia Press, will be launched with John McCarthy AO at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Glover Cottages, 124 Kent Street, Millers Point, Sydney 2000 at 5.30 pm on Tuesday 14 February. Enquiries to nswexec@internationalaffairs.org.au

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