New York, Dec 13 (IANS) Reaching beyond the circle of squabbling politicians and loyalists, President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday nominated Rex Tillerson, the head of the oil giant ExxonMobil, to be the next Secretary of State.
Announcing Tillerson’s selection Tuesday morning after weeks of speculation, Trump said: “His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for Secretary of State. He will promote regional stability and focus on the core national security interests of the United States.”
Like Nikki Haley, whom Trump nominated to the cabinet-level position of Ambassador to the United Nations, Tillerson does not have any diplomatic experience or involvement in foreign affairs at the government or academic levels.
After a string of politicians, academics and government officials who have held the job that is fourth in line to succeed the president, the appointment of an oil giant CEO to be the face of Washington’s foreign policy signals the new direction that Trump plans to set for the US.
It has a focus on trade and commerce, dealing with the Middle East crisis, terrorism while avoiding direct military involvement, a detente with Moscow and a hard line against Beijing.
In India and South Asia, Tillerson has no noticeable personal policy footprint.
Tillerson’s familiarity with India will be from ExxonMobil operations in India that includes a research, technology and development centre and a backoffice support centre for global operations, both in Bengaluru. It also markets lubricants and provides consultancy in India.
Accepting the nomination, Tillerson said: “We must focus on strengthening our alliances, pursuing shared national interests and enhancing the strength, security and sovereignty of the United States.”
The nomination for the nation’s top diplomatic position was delayed by fights within Trump’s inner circle and comes three weeks after the appointment of Indian American Haley to the other important foreign policy job and follows the nominations for Defence Secretary and National Security Advisor, the other key positions with a strategic focus.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an early and loyal supporter of Trump, angled for the job but pulled himself out of the race over the weekend because of strong opposition he faced due to his temperament and his business involvement with controversial foreign organisations like the Iranian dissident group Mujahedin e-Khalq, which had once been the State Department terrorist list.
Former Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney was also actively considered for the post. Although he would have been uncontroversial and have drawn bipartisan support, he was opposed by Trump’s close advisors because he had vitriolically denounced Trump during the campaign.
Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway publicly said his supporters felt “betrayed” he was even considering Romney, who said he would not vote for the party candidate.
Tillerson’s nomination carries several layers of controversy because of his position as the head of the world’s biggest oil company and his business dealings with Russia, a petroleum power now at the centre of a vehement debate over its role in global affairs and alleged involvement in US electoral politics.
On behalf of ExxonMobil Tillerson has dealt directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin and personally received a Moscow award.
US foreign intelligence agencies claim that Russia interfered in the US elections by collecting Democratic Party documents and passing them to WikiLeaks. Even Republicans have joined the demands for Congressional inquiry.
With Russia now considered by both Democrats and Republicans as a threat to US interests, Tillerson faces opposition in Congress, where the Senate will have to confirm him. Even Trump’s nominee for Defence Secretary, James Mattis has called Russia “the most dangerous” near term threat.
Three retired generals – Mattis, National Security Adviser nominee Michael Flynn and Homeland Security pick John Kelly – now predominate the foreign policy sector. Tillerson adds a very different perspective to the mix, along with Haley, as an outsider.
With his oil background, Tillerson has deep insights into the Middle East and many personal contacts. That could be a factor in Trump’s priority of dealing with the Islamic State, Syria (where Russia and Gulf countries are involved) and Iran, where Trump has opposed the US-backed nuclear agreement with Teheran.
Trump ran on a platform of cancelling or renegotiating international trade agreements and opposing globalisation where it hurts American workers. As a global business leader, Tillerson is seen to be on the opposite side of the debate but now he will have to follow through with Trump’s policies – unless he softens Trump’s stances.
Tillerson said he “share his vision for restoring the credibility of the United States’ foreign relations and advancing our country’s national security”.
A civil engineer by training, Tillerson has seen ExxonMobil operations in the Middle East and Russia during his steady rise to the top of the multinational estimated to be worth about $370 billion and has proven oil reserves of about $800 billion.
(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected])