I was mistaken last month when I predicted that the first real battle between the President-elect and the Republican congressional establishment would be the selection of the next Speaker of the House, since Trump showed little interest in settling scores with Rep. Ryan. Instead, it looks like the big battle will be waged in the Senate over the confirmation of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. On one level the appointment of an Exxon executive looks like another betrayal of populism from a man who often railed against corporate America during his campaign. On the other, I can understand Trump's desire for a fresh set of eyes on the geopolitical stage. An oilman as top diplomat doesn't seem like a good idea at first glance, but then I remember how Noam Chomsky always recommends the reliability of the world-news reporting of The Wall Street Journal. It isn't propaganda like the Journal's editorial page, Chomsky says, because the big capitalists need their news as unvarnished and unspun as possible. Whatever conflicts of interest exist or may emerge, Tillerson's appointment is indisputably preferable to such proposed alternatives as Rudolph Giuliani or Mitt Romney because it seems to signal Trump's commitment to ideology-free diplomacy. That, of course, is what has made a number of Republican senators angry at the appointment. I wrote yesterday that Trump doesn't have much of a majority to work with in the Senate, and Senator Rubio's implicit criticism of Tillerson hints that he may not have a majority at all. Rubio's first comment on the appointment sets the tone for what's to come. "The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity [and] is free of potential conflicts of interest," the Floridian says. These demands are not unrelated; the implication is that Exxon's business relations with Russia may obscure Tillerson's moral clarity. The deeper assumption is that someone with moral clarity cannot be so chummy with Vladimir Putin as Tillerson seems to be or Trump seemingly wants to be.
Sens. McCain and Graham, of course, leave nothing to inference. "Vladimir Putin is a thug, a bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying,” the Arizonan says, basically daring Tillerson or Trump to say otherwise. These aren't the only Russophobic Republican senators, and unless Tillerson makes "so unequivocal a condemnation of Putin that he they can confidently support him," as this source expects them to demand, they leave Trump in a position where he may have to make deals with Democratic or independent senators to get his man through. Of course, Democrats hardly lag behind Republicans in their Russophobia; that's why Putin supposedly favored Trump for the presidency in the first place. An op-ed columnist for the liberal New York Daily News could be elaborating on Rubio's theme when she writes that "A successful secretary of state has to be willing to fight for humanity," and that "there are non-negotiable values that the world counts on to be upheld and championed by the United States." These include “freedom of speech, conscience and religion, the rule of law and economic freedom" -- not in the columnist's words but in those of a State Department mission statement. As far as Russia is concerned, this means that a Secretary of State, not to mention the President, must be willing, going back to the columnist's words, to "repel Kremlin attempts to bring sovereign nations back under their influence by force." More generally our diplomats "should ache with every massacre against innocents, regardless of their race, nationality, religion or socioeconomic background."You can guess that the writer includes many Syrian rebels, those in Aleppo if not those in Palmyra, among the innocents.
Before I go on, I should confess that I've been a little unfair to the people I've quoted, because all of them do affirm that a Secretary of State first priority is the country's national interest. The problem, however, is that they seem not to see any possible contradiction between national interest and appeals to ideology or emotion. Too many Republicans think ideology is the national interest, while too many Democrats base national interest on emotion. That may render both groups incapable of the Nixonian realpolitik and its necessary compromises and sacrifices that the 21st century may require of American diplomacy, while the people who have no credibility as diplomats today may prove willing and able to "go to China [or Russia -- or Iran, though that'd be a harder sell]" as Nixon did. And to be more fair to the Democrats, I'm quite aware that many of them have the sort of strong anti-interventionist (or "anti-imperialist") principles that temper American Russophobia and could be helpful to Trump. I just don't know if any of them are in the U.S. Senate where he might need them. However, he might find Democrats willing to deal with the devil in return for domestic-policy concessions, and in them the makings of a new governing coalition down the line. That idea leaves me wanting the hardcore GOP Russophobes not to cave in on Tillerson, just to see what happens when Trump has to reach across the aisle.