Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of State nominee, went through hearings on Wednesday from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he answered several tough questions.
The much-anticipated hearings for the president-elect’s controversial choice starred not only Rex Tillerson himself, but a senator who was once known as the rising star of the Republican Party: Marco Rubio.
In December when it was rumored that Tillerson would become President-elect Trump’s secretary of state nominee, several Republican lawmakers, including Rubio, expressed concern over Tillerson’s relationship with Russia and their president Vladimir Putin. Rubio tweeted:
Rubio later issued a statement that expressed his concern in more detail.
This immediately led to several former high-ranking Republicans, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice, to talk to Rubio and lobby for Tillerson. Tillerson himself met with Rubio in private on Monday.
However, Rubio did not back down on Wednesday. Rubio pressed Tillerson on sanctions against Russia, human rights’ violations in Saudi Arabia, and when Rubio asked if Putin was a war criminal, Tillerson responded, “I would not use that term.”
While it is true that Tillerson’s international business experience is a good quality for a Secretary of State and brings a unique perspective regarding foreign relations, that strength did not make up for his lack of experience in diplomacy in his hearing. On several occasions, when Rubio pressed Tillerson for answers regarding human rights’ violations and war crimes from foreign leaders, particularly Russia’s Putin, Tillerson wavered, insisting that he needed more information before being able to give a definitive answer. His refusal to label Putin a war criminal, or at least admit that the Russian military had committed war crimes in Aleppo, leads one to suspect that Tillerson is not ready to admit that his friend Putin is destabilizing the world.
This is a controversial topic in Republican circles, because while it has been traditional Republican policy to take a strong stance against Russia, President-elect Trump has made clear that he would like a friendship with Russia and President Putin.
While being friends with any country is in theory better than being enemies with one, the friendship must be mutual, and there must be conditions met. If Russia is committing war crimes, why should the United States be friends with Russia?
The questions did not stop with Russia, however. During the second part of the hearing, Rubio asked Tillerson to condemn the drug war being waged by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and Tillerson side-stepped the question and insisted that we needed to remain an ally with the Philippines. Then Rubio asked Tillerson if he believed that Saudi Arabia was a human rights violator, given the lack of religious freedom and freedom for women in the nation. Tillerson responded by saying that Saudi Arabia had different values, although they are progressing towards becoming more free, and by labeling them as human rights violators we could jeopardize our human rights progress in the region.
The idea that we should not place labels that may be offensive to other countries and leaders is a theme in Tillerson’s reasoning throughout the hearing, and it is not a theme that resonates well with human rights activists.
Human rights activism is at the core of Rubio’s foreign policy beliefs, and was disappointed that Tillerson could not call human rights violations for what they are. “In order to have moral clarity, we need clarity. We can’t achieve moral clarity with rhetorical ambiguity,” Rubio said during his final remarks. He said that people from China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with poor human rights records look to the United States for leadership in the world, and when they see that the United States is not prepared to condemn these human rights violators, “It demoralizes these people all over the world. And it leads people to conclude this, which … hurt us during the Cold War: America cares about democracy and freedom, as long as it’s not being violated by someone that they need for something else.”
Rubio urged, “That cannot be who we are in the 21st century. We need a secretary of state that will fight for these principles.”
Remember, Rubio believes that American strength in foreign policy is what helps the world become stable – not by going into war, but by being the moral leader in world affairs and by making sure that no power voids can be created and filled by those who seek to destabilize the world. The weakening of American foreign policy in general through the Obama Administration has arguably led to the rise of Russia and Iran as more powerful adversaries and well as the rise of ISIS. And while Tillerson has not suggested that he would like to continue with Obama’s foreign policy, his unwillingness to label dangerous adversaries in the world is troubling and could degrade America’s moral stance in the world.
There is still no confirmation that Rubio will choose to vote yes or no on Tillerson in committee. He said in an interview, “I’m prepared to do what’s right.” And it may be right to vote no.