ExxonMobil CEO Rex W. Tillerson has emerged as President-elect Donald Trump’s candidate for Secretary of State, the New York Times and other media publications reported on Saturday.
According to the NY Times report, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon have lauded Tillerson as “in a ‘different league’” from the other candidates.
But the potential appointment has some in the foreign policy and pro-Israel communities concerned, as Tillerson has no background in diplomacy and some controversial friends, including some former national security professionals and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
One of Tillerson’s closest friends is former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, whom he befriended through the latter’s work with the Scowcroft Group and other organizations.
A protégé of Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft served as National Security Advisor under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, and as Chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. According to Bill Kristol, chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle in the Bush 41 administration, Scowcroft and James Baker had a “lack of closeness and warmth for Israel.” Some Republicans, he added, were certainly very concerned about relations with Arab states that were not friendly with Israel and skeptical about the case for Israel.”
In a 2002 Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, Scowcroft argued that an invasion of Iraq would inflame tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ”The obsession of the region… is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he wrote. “If we were seen to be turning our back on that bitter conflict — which the region, rightly or wrongly, perceives to be clearly within our power to resolve — in order to go after Iraq, there would be an explosion of outrage against us.”
After turning into a public critic of the Bush 43 administration, Scowcroft assisted President Barack Obama in choosing his national security team in 2008. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Scowcroft said his biggest piece of advice for the new administration was to mount a renewed push to help broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He also endorsed Obama’s call for diplomatic engagement with Iran. “Compared to the other alternatives we face with Iran, we ought to give it a really good, sincere try,” Scowcroft told the WSJ.
In the 2016 presidential race, Scowcroft was among several former Republican officials, from both Bush administrations , who publicly supported Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Others expressed more concern about Tillerson’s close ties to Putin.
“I don’t know what Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was, but I’ll tell you it is a matter of concern to me,” Senator John McCain said in an interview with Fox News. “You want to give the president of the United States the benefit of the doubt because the people have spoken. But Vladimir Putin is a thug, a bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying.”
“Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState,” Senator Marco Rubio tweeted Sunday morning.
While the Putin connection may complicate his Senate confirmation, given Trump’s desire to engage Russia, “it will likely be seen as an advantage down the road,” Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst and Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told Jewish Insider.
Miller explained the rationale behind Trump’s pick. “The nomination of a career corporate executive as Secretary of State is a first in the Post WWII period,” he said. “The appointment reflects the President-elect’s deal-making, transactional approach to diplomacy and how to advance US interests. Tillerson reflects the kind of tough, successful, take charge, bottom line business experience that Trump admires and trusts.”
In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Trump said Tillerson is “much more than a business executive. I mean, he’s a world class player. He’s in charge of an oil company that’s pretty much double the size of his next nearest competitor. It’s been a company that has been unbelievably managed. And to me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia.”
Senator Bob Corker, widely considered a finalist for the post at State, tweeted on Saturday: “If it is Rex Tillerson, he is a very impressive individual.”
Mort Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), told Jewish Insider that while Tillerson’s views on Israel are largely unknown, his work record is worrisome. “As an oil man, he was obviously very close to many Arab countries, and had close relations with them. I am worried that this may indicate bias against Israel,” said Klein. “His closeness with Russia concerns me as well because Russia has been enormously hostile to Israel.”
“Tillerson is nominated to be Secretary of State, not president,” said the Wilson Center’s Miller. “Trump calls the shots on broad outlines of policy, and that means there will be no pressure on Netanyahu for now on Iran or the peace process.”
What might also soothe Israeli concerns is the reported appointment of former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton as Tillerson’s deputy secretary of state, with Bolton handling day-to-day management of the department, according to NBC News.
Klein said that if Bolton gets the job of number 2 at the State Department, “this will help reduce and assuage my fears about the possible problems with Tillerson.”
But Bolton refused to talk about his expected appointment when approached by Jewish Insider at an unrelated press conference outside the UN. “I’ve tried as hard as I know how for the past several weeks not to get into that speculation,” he said.
The former UN Ambassador, nonetheless, gave some indication of his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reiterating his opposition to the two-state solution. “I think that we can conclude objectively that the pursuit of a two-state solution has failed,” said Bolton. “Whether you believe that initially it was a viable proposition or not, after 20 plus years or more, in some cases, we just don’t have the circumstances in the region that will permit it… I’m certainly open to other alternatives as well, but I think you have to look at the objective reality that the two-state solution doesn’t work and therefore some other alternative has to arise and creative minds ought to work on it, instead of pursuing the two-state possibility, which is a dead end in my view.”