I just finished watching Rex Tillerson’s testimony with the critical (at times cynical) eye of the senior professional diplomat. While I try to keep an open mind, I have to admit that there was a part of me that was rooting against him. I now admit to myself that the little voice inside me was probably wrong.
It is not that I agree with everything Tillerson said. I don’t. As every career State Department employee knows, however, we never agree with everything our political leaders say but we nonetheless do our absolute best to implement the policies of the Administration while making sure that our political bosses know the reality of what is happening on the ground around the world.
When it comes to policy, a good diplomat needs to be as flexible as a Cirque de Solei performer. Another trait we share with a good circus performer is that we have to always be practical, recognizing the difference between what we’d like to do and what we are certain we can accomplish. A failed policy initiative – like a failed acrobatic stunt – is not an acceptable outcome. (Full disclosure: I always hated the “reset”; it was a slogan not a policy and was therefore always destined to fail.) Rex Tillerson’s testimony demonstrated to me that he is adept at the art of the contortionist, giving me hope that he will also be adept at the art of the diplomat. He is also clearly practical, always doing his utmost to advance the agenda he has assumed.
The one thing I really wished Secretary-to-be Tillerson had said to lay to rest concerns about his past positions on climate change, Russia sanctions, etc., is: “When I was responsible for ExxonMobil, I did my absolute best to advance the interests of the company and its shareholders. That was my job and I did it to the best of my ability, subjugating myself and my interests to succeed at my assigned task. If confirmed, I will take that same approach to being Secretary of State, furthering the interests of the American people. Whatever my personal interests may be, I will do my absolute to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States and to advance policies that increase the security and interests of American Citizens.” While he did not speak those words, I think (or hope) that I correctly read them “between the lines.”
I’m not saying that Rex Tillerson will be our best Secretary of State ever, but he certainly won’t be the worst either. Only history can judge that. What hit me was that he is qualified and that his background and testimony gives me grounds for optimism. As an incurable pragmatist (another trait of diplomats), that’s all I can ask for.