Michael A. Cohen

Rex Tillerson is unqualified to be secretary of state

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Steve Helber/AP
Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Rex Tillerson had a lousy day yesterday.

But if he’s confirmed as secretary of state, American foreign policy is going to have a very lousy next four years.

By any measure, Tillerson, who is the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil, was an unusual pick to be the nation’s top diplomat. He has no direct foreign policy experience and has spent his entire life in the private sector. But he’s a “deal maker” and he looks the part, and that appears to be enough for Donald Trump.


Still, even by the reduced standards for public service that has come to define the Trump Era, Tillerson’s performance on Wednesday, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was an embarrassment.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Oddly, Tillerson regularly took positions on everything from free trade and climate change to Russia, Mexico, and a so-called Muslim registry that are diametrically different from those taken by Trump.

Indeed, Tillerson even said that he had not spoken to the president-elect about US policy toward Russia. This also raises the serious question of how much influence Tillerson might have as secretary of state if Trump hasn’t even bothered to talk to him about one of the most pressing foreign policy issues he will face.

The day, however, became fully surreal when Tillerson said that Exxon had never lobbied against oil sanctions. This is blatantly untrue, and in fact Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey brought lobbying disclosure forms to the hearing that showed otherwise.

But the much bigger problem for Tillerson is that throughout the day he repeatedly demonstrated that he is simply to be unqualified to be secretary of state.


In talking about the Iran nuclear deal, which he supports and which Trump made a campaign issue of opposing, he said, “Iran could purchase a nuclear weapon but not develop one.” That’s not true, and Tillerson later had to correct himself.

When asked what the State Department is doing to wage a war of ideas against ISIS, he said he had no idea, which lends credence to the notion that he had not been briefed in advance by State Department officials.

In what would become a regular refrain, Tillerson constantly said he “would need more information.” When Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida brought up the ongoing drug war in the Philippines in which the government, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, has killed thousands of people, Tillerson pledged ignorance.

“I know that you have access to information that I do not have,” he told the senator.

“It’s from the Los Angeles Times,” Rubio said.


“I’m not going to solely rely on what I read in the newspapers,” Tillerson dismissively responded.

This happened over and over. When asked about human rights abuses committed by Russia, including the bombing of Aleppo and the murder of journalists, he said he “needed more information.” He gave the same answer on a question about freedom for women in Saudi Arabia. If Tillerson doesn’t trust the news media to report these stories, perhaps he could have picked up a copy of the State Department’s annual human rights report before asking Congress to support his nomination.

When asked if he backed a national registry of Muslims, Tillerson once again said he “would need to have a lot more information around how such an approach would even be constructed” — as if more information would make such an approach constitutionally sound.

If Tillerson doesn’t have rudimentary knowledge of major foreign policy issues that he’ll be dealing with, what makes him qualified to be secretary of state?

It’s mind-boggling that a president already severely lacking in foreign policy experience would want a neophyte sitting down with world leaders who’ve spent their entire lives thinking about and working in the international arena. Tillerson will be out of his depth, and that can’t be good for America.

But Tillerson’s nomination is the product of a campaign in which millions of Americans came to believe that someone with no experience in politics or government could come in and “shake up the system.” It was an election in which experience and knowledge were seen as liabilities rather than assets. “He’s a businessman, and running the government is like running a business,” I was told repeatedly by Trump supporters. It’s not: Knowledge and experience matter. That was obvious yesterday.

And, with someone like Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, it would be a disaster for US foreign policy.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.