Highlights from Tillerson Hearings on Nat’l Security and Int’l Law Issues

Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, who was until recently the CEO of ExxonMobil, faced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday and fielded difficult questions from the panel on his views on Russia, NATO, and the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State, among other topics. Here are 12 moments we thought to highlight for Just Security readers. (Notably, several of these address questions proposed in an earlier piece at Just Security.)

1. Russian violations of “international order” in Ukraine
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) asked Tillerson whether Russia violated “international order when it forcefully annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine?”

Tillerson said, “Yes, it did.” The notion of an “international order” is not the same as “international law.” However, Tillerson’s other statements appeared to accept that Moscow’s actions violated international law. Tillerson said earlier in the hearing that Russia “has invaded the Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) asked: “Does Russia have, in your view, a legal claim to Crimea?,” to which Tillerson replied, “No sir, that was a taking of territory that was not theirs.”

He also criticized the Obama administration’s response saying,From the US, “there should have been a show of force, a military response, in defensive posture. Not in offensive posture but in defensive posture, to send the message that it stops here. It stops here.”

2. War crimes in Syria
Menendez , asked whether “Russia and Syria’s targeted bombing campaign on Aleppo, on hospitals for example, violate this international order?”

Tillerson said yes, adding it was not “acceptable behavior.” Whether those same actions constituted war crimes, Tillerson said, “I don’t have sufficient information to make that type of a serious conclusion.” Prompted by Chairman of the Committee Sen. Bob. Corker (R-TN), Tillerson quickly agreed that he would consider Russian actions to constitute war crimes if the information that has been reported in the public realm was sufficiently backed up by classified information.  

Tillerson has earlier said in his testimony that Russia “supported Syrian forces that brutally violates the laws of war.” It is curious that he would so readily acknowledge such a fact, but choose to squabble over whether Russia or Syria have committed “war crimes.”

3. Russian hacking
Tillerson said he has not received any classified briefings because he does not yet have his clearance, but he did read the interagency report that was released on Jan. 6. “That report, clearly, is troubling,” he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) asked him, “Based on your knowledge of Russian leaders and Russian politics, do you believe these activities could have happened without the knowledge and the consent of Vladimir Putin?”

Tillerson’s response: “I’m not in a position to be able to make that determination. Again, that’s indicated in the report, but I know there’s additional classified information that might inform [my] view.”

But after being pressed by Rubio, Tillerson said it was a “fair assumption” that the hacking operation could not have happened without Putin knowing about it and authorizing it.

[Editor’s note: for more on this topic, see Kristen Eichensehr’s Just Security post concerning nomination hearings, “Trump’s Dangerous Attribution Message on Russian Hacking—and How to Counter It.”]

4. Authorization for Use of Military Force Against ISIS
Tillerson was asked what he thought about congressional passage of an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) for the war against ISIS, since the conflict is currently being fought with the Obama administration’s claiming it has authorization under the AUMF passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the AUMF that authorized the use of force in Iraq in 2002.

Tillerson replied at length: “It is much more powerful when the U.S. shows up with everyone aligned and I think having the support of the Congress standing behind those decisions to commit U.S. men and women, U.S. military resources, does give us a much stronger position than to engage with allies in building those alliances that are important. In the case of defeating ISIS, one of the first actions that is going to be necessary, is to re-engage with our allies in the area and ensure that we know what they are willing to commit as well. So yes, I would strongly support engaging certainly at the minimum with this committee, and ultimately, if legislative action would support our efforts to defeat ISIS, I would be certainly talking to the president about that.”

[Editor’s note: for more on this topic, see Ryan Goodman and Shalev Roisman’s Just Security posts, “Assessing the Claim that ISIL is a Successor to Al Qaeda—Part 1 and Part 2”]

5. Climate Change
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked Tillerson whether the “conclusions about ExxonMobil’s history of promoting and funding climate science denial, despite its internal awareness of the reality of climate change” during Tillerson’s tenure there, were true or false?

Tillerson said he could no longer speak on the company’s behalf because he doesn’t work for Exxon anymore after a 42-year career there.

Kaine asked, “Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?”

Tillerson responded, “A little of both.”

As for his personal views on climate change and whether humans are causing it, Sen. Corker asked: “Do you believe that human activity, based on your belief in science, is contributing to climate change?,” to which Tillerson replied: “the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”

He also said, “The risk of climate change does exist, and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken.”

But later he said, “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps, others do.”

He questioned the precision of scientific models in predicting what could happen as a result of climate change, but added, that “doesn’t mean that we should do nothing.”

As for whether he would support efforts to retaliate against career State Department employees who have worked on climate change in the past (a question from Democratic Sen. Tom Udall), Tillerson said. “No, sir. That’d be a pretty unhelpful way to get started.”

6. NATO & Article 5 Commitments
“Do you believe the U.S. should and would honor its treaty obligation, join our allies in defending our fellow NATO member against external invasion?” asked Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.).

Tillerson replied that the “Article 5 commitment is inviolable and the U.S. is going to stand behind that commitment.”

He said he would not recommend threatening to break the U.S. commitment to Article Vas a means of pressuring allies to spend more on defense–a break from statements made by Mr. Trump on the campaign trail.

7. North Korea’s Nuclear Program
Tillerson said he did not interpret Trump’s recent tweet about North Korea and its aim to develop an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the US as a red line. “It won’t happen!,” the President-elect wrote.  “I don’t know that I would interpret that to be a red line,” Tillerson said, “I could interpret that to mean a lot of things.”

8. Conflicts of Interest
Tillerson did not state conclusively that he wouldn’t be personally involved in decisions involving ExxonMobil (after the statutory conflict restriction period elapses) or other oil and gas companies. Instead, he said, “In any instance where there is any question, or even the appearance, I would expect to seek the guidance of counsel from the Office of Ethics in the State Department, and will follow their guidance as to whether it’s an issue that I should recuse myself from.”

9. Saudi Arabia and Yemen
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) asked Tillerson: “In your opinion, is Saudi Arabia a human rights violator?”

Tillerson’s response: “Saudi Arabia certainly does not share the same values of America. However, American interests have been advocating in Saudi Arabia for some time. And I think the question is what is the pace of progress that should be expected for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to advance rights to women and others in the country.”

Tillerson went on to say, “In terms of when you designate someone or label someone, the question is: Is that the most effective way to have progress continue to be made in Saudi Arabia or any other country?”

As for Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, Tillerson said, “I would hope that we could work with Saudi Arabia, perhaps by providing them better targeting intelligence, better targeting capability to avoid mistakenly identifying targets where civilians are hit. So that’s an area where I would hope that cooperation with them could minimize this type of collateral damage.”

As for the sale of cluster munitions, Tillerson said, “ I would have to examine what our past policy has been. I don’t want to get out ahead of — we have made commitments in this area. I don’t want to get out ahead of anyone on that.”

[Editor’s note: for more on this topic, see Just Security’s coverage.]

10.Putin’s Authoritarian Rule
Tillerson said he had “no reason to take exception” to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-N.H.) statement that: “The State Department has described Russia as having an authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Freedom House currently puts Russian in a category of countries like Iran with very restricted political rights ruled by one part or military dictatorships, religious hierarchies or autocrats.”

Tillerson said he believed the statement he made in 2008 that “there’s no respect for the rule of law in Russia today” is still true.

11. The Philippines
Rubio also asked Tillerson about President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, in which  “over 6,200 people have been killed in the Philippines by police and vigilantes in alleged drug raids.”

Tillerson: “America and the people of the Philippines have a longstanding friendship. I think it’s important that we keep that in perspective in engaging with the government of the Philippines, that that longstanding friendship — and they have been an ally and we need to ensure that they stay an ally.”

When pressed by Rubio, Tillerson said he’d need more information and that Rubio had access to information that he didn’t have. Rubio responded that his information came from The Los Angeles Times.

Tillerson replied, “I’m not going to rely on solely what I read in the newspapers. I will go to the facts on the ground. I’m sure there’s good credible information available through our various government agencies.”

[Editor’s note: for more on this topic, read Alex Whiting’s Just Security post, “It is Time for the ICC to open a Preliminary Examination in the Philippines.”]

12. South China Sea and China
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said.  

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).

Jay Shooster

Former Associate Editor and Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow at Just Security Follow him on Twitter (@JayShooster).