The first firm indications of the line up of President elect Trump’s foreign policy team emerged last night, and if they are correct – which they almost certainly are – then they show once again Donald Trump’s unexpectedly sure touch, and his commitment to a rapprochement with Russia.
It seems that Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s CEO, is Trump’s choice for Secretary of State.
To the dismay of many people, including especially the US’s European allies and the UN Secretariat, the terrifying hardliner John Bolton is to be Deputy Secretary of State.
Nikki Haley has already been chosen for US ambassador to the UN in place of the truly dreadful Samantha Power.
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, the preferred choice for Secretary of State of those people anxious for a rapprochement between the US and Russia, is to be US ambassador to Moscow.
These are shrewd choices if they are Trump’s actual choices.
The fundamental problem Donald Trump would have faced had he nominated as Secretary of State people like Dana Rohrabacher and Tulsi Gabbard is that they would have had no chance of being confirmed by the Senate. By contrast this line-up does have such a chance.
To be clear, Rex Tillerson knows Russia a great deal better than either Rohrabacher or Gabbard do, and he has experience of meetings with Russia’s President Putin and with important people in Russia like Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin. Shortly before the imposition of the sanctions Exxon had forged an alliance to develop Russia’s Arctic oil fields with Rosneft, though because of the sanctions this deal had to be put on ice, causing Exxon heavy losses.
Appointing Tillerson to the post of Secretary of State gives Trump a colleague who shares his views about Russia, has strong contacts there, and who is presumably as unhappy about the sanctions as Trump is. In addition as a businessman Tillerson is well positioned to forge the sort of commercial relations between the US and Russia which Trump is said to want, and which up to now have been the key part of the relationship which has been missing.
More to the point, as a top businessman heading the US’s biggest oil company, it will be far more difficult for people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham to mobilise opposition to Tillerson amongst Republicans in the Senate, with talk of Exxon’s CEO not being an American patriot and being a stooge of the Kremlin probably just too ridiculous to gain traction with most people.
As for claims Tillerson has no background in government service or in international diplomacy, as CEO of the world’s biggest oil company he probably has more international experience than most diplomats do.
By contrast, having seen Rohrabacher in a television interview and hearing his pungent comments on Russia – he called allegations of human rights abuses in Russia “baloney” – I am sorry to say that I am sure that if Trump had nominated him Secretary of State he would have stood absolutely no chance of being confirmed by the Senate.
In the far more low profile (but still critically important) post of ambassador to Russia he does have such a chance, though I suspect it will still be a hard struggle.
As for John Bolton’s appointment, though it will dismay many people, Trump is being careful to keep him away from positions that relate to Russia. His appointment not only ‘balances the ticket’ but gives Trump a heavy hitter with whom he can terrify the Europeans. Presumably Bolton will take over Victoria Nuland’s job.
All in all, if these really are Trump’s choices then they show again his sure touch, exposing talk of a chaotic transition as nonsense.
They also show something else. Trump clearly does believe in reaching out to Russia. He is carefully crafting a foreign policy team that like him shares this objective, and which can be relied upon to pursue it.
This is in sharp contrast to Barack Obama, whose famous “reset” with Russia failed in large part because he surrounded himself with anti-Russian neocons – Hillary Clinton, Victoria Nuland, Susan Rice – who all opposed it.