This week, Donald Trump picked ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. The choice has proven controversial among many watchers, Republican, Democrat, and nonpartisan. When several Republican senators have spoken against you, you know something's up; Politico's Blake Hounshell reports an unnamed State Department staffer's reaction: "I've been resisting the urge to drink since 7 a.m. when I read the news."
But I see Tillerson as an excellent, very inspired pick. Let me explain.
The objections come down to mainly two things: Tillerson's qualifications, and his seemingly friendly ties to Vladimir Putin, who (now infamously) awarded Tillerson Russia's Order of Friendship. Let's take those gripes one by one.
Dealing with governments is an integral part of running a major oil company. Governments play key roles in any energy deals, and dealing with those governments is part of the job. An in-depth feature by Politico's Hounshell describes Tillerson's rise through the ranks at ExxonMobil as driven at least in part by his skill — and toughness — in dealing with governments, including trouble spot governments.
In other words, there's no question that Tillerson is intimately familiar with the geopolitics, politics, and characters involved in many of the trouble spots that are key for American policy, including places like Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East, West Africa, and Venezuela. Before being assigned to Russia, Tillerson spent three weeks in the Library of Congress reading books about Russian history and politics. He's no dummy.
Just because he didn't take part in international negotiations and geostrategic thinking as a State Department diplomat or member of a Senate committee doesn't mean he doesn't know how to do those things; in fact, he has done them throughout his career, and pretty successfully as far as we can tell. That makes him exceptionally qualified. More qualified, at least on paper, than Mitt Romney, another contender for Trump's secretary of state, whose jobs at Bain Capital and as a state governor involved comparatively very little international diplomatic work. Romney may have made an excellent secretary of state given his intelligence, his formidable negotiating skills, and his deep interest in global issues, but the point remains that, resume-to-resume, Tillerson is more qualified.
Now, let's talk about Russia. Russia is an enormous oil producer. Doing business in Russia, given its autocratic and kleoptocratic system, requires having good relationships with key players, especially Vladimir Putin. Tillerson's job as CEO of ExxonMobil was to improve the net present value to shareholders of his company, and that involved having a good relationship with Putin. Secretary of state is a different job, promoting different interests. Just because Putin and Tillerson had a cordial working relationship doesn't mean Tillerson will automatically kowtow to Putin and Russia as secretary of state.
Notably, Tillerson comes endorsed by GOP foreign policy grandees from both its realist and hawkish wings, including Robert Gates and Dick Cheney, neither of them especially noted Russophiles, and Condoleezza Rice, whose PhD and early career work is on Russia. "If you want to understand Rex Tillerson, and it may be a corny thing to say, but you've got to understand that he's an Eagle Scout," Gates said. It would be corny coming from almost anyone but Gates, who is universally respected on both sides of the aisle.
Tillerson is also a good pick for another, crucial reason: He and Trump seem to have hit it off. This is important when serving a president who values personal relationships so much and who is so unprepared for many parts of his job. As Hounshell notes, Tillerson seems like the kind of man that Trump imagines himself to be — a tough, smart, international dealmaker. Tillerson would have made a good secretary of state under any circumstance, but he seems like a fitting pick for this administration in particular.
Editor's note: This article originally incorrectly stated that Rand Paul opposed Tillerson's nomination. This reference has since been removed. We regret the error.