Tillerson to Face Multiple Challenges in Middle East

Thomas Seibert

WASHINGTON, DC — Rex Tillerson, the 64-year-old Exxon Mobile chief executive officer selected by Donald Trump to be the next US secretary of State, is a surprise choice facing multiple challenges that could affect the Middle East.
Tillerson could bring realism and predictability to a nascent administration that does not have a coherent strategy for the region and is sometimes prone to anti-Muslim generalisations, analysts said.
However, the designated top US diplomat is under fire for his deep ties to Russia and President Vladimir Putin at a time when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) accuses hackers with ties to Moscow of trying to meddle in US elections.
During his 40-year career at Exxon, Tillerson has dealt with Middle East players from Yemen and Saudi Arabia to Iraqi Kurdistan. In an interview with CNBC cable television in March, he said his company would be interested in exploring business opportunities in Iran, a country that Trump has said is a regional threat that has to be contained. “We would certainly take a look because it’s a huge resource-owning country,” Tillerson said about Iran. “Geopolitical risk is just a way of life for us, has been my whole career.”
If his appointment is confirmed by the US Senate, Tillerson could shape US foreign policy in many areas because Trump is not expected to get involved in details, said David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “If he (Trump) thinks he can trust someone, he is going to delegate,” Mednicoff said.
Tillerson is not a total outsider. He is a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think-tank, and “has been connected to the foreign policy establishment” in the US capital, Mednicoff said. Prominent conservative politicians have thrown their weight behind Tillerson. Former US vice-president Dick Cheney called him a man with “vast experience, ability and judgment to deal with the very dangerous world we find confronting us”.
Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador in Yemen and analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Tillerson was also not the only pragmatist in Trump’s foreign policy and national security team. “Hopefully, along with General Mattis, he can inject a more realistic and balanced perspective,” Feierstein said, referring to James Mattis, the former Marine general who is Trump’s nominee for Defense secretary.
In Feierstein’s view, predictability was one of the most important issues for the designated secretary of State. Issues such as “Iranian expansionism and the rise of extremism” in the Middle East called for a steady and predictable US policy, he said.
Tillerson will also be under close scrutiny as he deals with the Syrian conflict. Trump has said it would be good if the United States could cooperate with Moscow against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria but given Tillerson’s reputation as a friend of Russia, critics at home and allies in the region will watch closely for signs of favouritism towards Moscow.
“We cannot allow the State Department to be led by a friend and ally of Vladimir Putin and continue the disastrous diplomacy of negotiation and appeasement that has handed Putin his greatest victories,” Fox News contributor Douglas Schoen and strategist Evan Roth Smith wrote on the Fox News website. “America needs a Secretary of State who will stand up to Putin. Rex Tillerson is not the man for the job.”
Another challenge for Tillerson in the Middle East will be to reassure US allies after a perceived American withdrawal from the region under President Barack Obama and a series of anti-Muslim statements by Trump and his pick for national security adviser, former US Army general Michael Flynn, during the presidential campaign.
Trump at one point called on US entry ban for all Muslims and suggested that “Islam hates us”. Flynn has compared Islam to cancer and said it was a political ideology, not a religion. “Broad arguments against Muslims are non-starters in the Middle East,” Mednicoff said.
Other likely members of the cabinet could complicate matters for Tillerson. Five years ago, Rick Perry, the designated Energy secretary and a conservative Christian, said Turkey, a NATO ally and key American partner, was ruled by “Islamic terrorists”. He also said all non-Christians would go to hell.
Tillerson’s Russia connections have drawn criticism from some Republicans without whose confirmation the oil manager cannot become secretary of State. US Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, tweeted that “being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState”. Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, said Tillerson’s ties to Putin were a “matter of concern”.
With the slim Republican majority in the Senate, Tillerson’s nomination could be blocked if all the Democrats and three Republicans voted against him. Feierstein said he expected a “fairly rigorous confirmation process”, in which the Exxon chief would be confronted with questions about Russia and his company’s dealings with authoritarian or even repressive regimes elsewhere.
However, barring a new political scandal, Feierstein said he expected Trump’s choice for the State Department to be confirmed.
The support of political heavyweights such as Cheney and former secretary of State James Baker as well as of several high-ranking Republicans in the Senate is boosting Tillerson’s chances.
Besides, there are more controversial figures on Trump’s cabinet list, Mednicoff said: “If I had to pick my fight for the confirmation process, I wouldn’t pick this guy.”

Thomas Seibert
is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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