Tiller­son’s for­eign pol­icy: Rus­sia first

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - COMMENTARY - Dana Milbank is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post whose work ap­pears Mon­days and Fri­days. Email him at danamil­bank@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON — In New York on Wed­nes­day, Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump dis­missed as “crap” the in­tel­li­gence re­ports sug­gest­ing Rus­sia has com­pro­mis­ing in­for­ma­tion about him.

Trump knows this be­cause, as he tweeted, Rus­sia called it “A COM­PLETE AND TO­TAL FAB­RI­CA­TION.” And if Vladimir Putin’s gov­ern­ment says some­thing, it must be true.

But whether or not Rus­sia has such black­mail po­ten­tial might be be­side the point. Trump and his in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion al­ready are do­ing ex­actly what Putin wants.

As Trump was giv­ing his first post­elec­tion news con­fer­ence in Trump Tower, his nom­i­nee to be sec­re­tary of state was tes­ti­fy­ing in Wash­ing­ton — and Rex Tiller­son, the for­mer Exxon Mo­bil chief, showed why he earned Putin’s Or­der of Friend­ship award.

It was early in the nine­hour hear­ing when Tiller­son said he might rec­om­mend re­vok­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ac­tions pun­ish­ing Rus­sia for its cy­ber­at­tack dur­ing the Amer­i­can elec­tion, which Tiller­son ac­knowl­edged was prob­a­bly ap­proved by Putin.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., fol­lowed that with a blunt ques­tion: “Is Vladimir Putin a war crim­i­nal?”

“I would not use that term,” the Rus­sian Or­der of Friend­ship lau­re­ate replied.

Ru­bio of­fered to “help” Tiller­son reach that con­clu­sion, de­scrib­ing his tar­get­ing of schools and mar­kets in Syria that have killed thou­sands of civil­ians, and his ear­lier at­tacks on Chech­nya, where he killed 300,000 civil­ians us­ing clus­ter mu­ni­tions and bombs that kill by as­phyx­i­a­tion. “You are still not pre­pared to say that Vladimir Putin and his mil­i­tary ... have con­ducted war crimes?”

“I would want to have much more in­for­ma­tion be­fore reach­ing a con­clu­sion,” the nom­i­nee replied.

Ru­bio went on to ask about the broadly held view that Putin ap­proved the killing of “count­less” op­po­nents, dis­si­dents and jour­nal­ists.

“I do not have suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion to make that claim,” Tiller­son replied.

“Do you think that was co­in­ci­den­tal?” Ru­bio pressed.

Tiller­son said “these things hap­pen” to “peo­ple who speak up for free­dom,” but he would need to know more.

Ru­bio was an­gry. “None of this is clas­si­fied, Mr. Tiller­son,” he said. “These peo­ple are dead.”

It was a big mo­ment for the man Trump called Lil’ Marco. But it’s omi­nous there aren’t more like him and John Mc­Cain speak­ing up now.

Putin has man­aged to achieve in a few months of cy­ber­war­fare what his Soviet pre­de­ces­sors failed to do in 45 years of the Cold War: cre­at­ing a pli­able Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, will­ing to over­look hu­man rights abuses in the in­ter­est of com­merce.

Trump on Wed­nes­day tweeted that the leaked in­tel­li­gence re­port was “one last shot at me” and asked: “Are we liv­ing in Nazi Ger­many?” But his li­ai­son with Rus­sia feels more Eastern Bloc than Third Re­ich. Trump has a slate of pro-Rus­sia ad­vis­ers talk­ing about a more con­cil­ia­tory ap­proach to Putin, and their state­ments have echoed Krem­lin state­ments. Trump ac­knowl­edged that “I think it was Rus­sia” that did the elec­tion hack­ing, but rather than re­gard it as an act of war, he praised the out­come: “It shouldn’t be done,” he said, but “look at what was learned from that hack­ing.”

Tiller­son of­fered a few wel­come de­par­tures from his would-be boss’s po­si­tions: He em­braced the Mag­nit­sky law pun­ish­ing hu­man rights abuses and said Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea would not be rec­og­nized. He was more sup­port­ive of NATO than Trump has been.

But Tiller­son didn’t men­tion the elec­tion hack­ing in his open­ing state­ment, and, in re­sponse to Ru­bio, he said he would “have con­cerns” with leg­is­la­tion im­pos­ing manda­tory sanc­tions on those who com­mit cy­ber­at­tacks on the United States.

Other re­sponses were equally un­nerv­ing. Tiller­son told Sen. Robert Me­nen­dez, D-N.J., that he had not yet dis­cussed Rus­sia with Trump, and he as­serted that “to my knowl­edge, Exxon never di­rectly lob­bied against sanc­tions.” Con­gres­sional lob­by­ing records show Exxon lob­bied on many Rus­sia sanc­tions bills.

Asked by Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., about how he would avoid be­ing un­der­mined as chief diplo­mat by the pres­i­dent’s “quickly drafted, not vet­ted” tweets on world af­fairs, Tiller­son replied, “I have his cell­phone num­ber.”

“We’ll hope for the best there — un­less you have any­thing else to add,” Young said. Tiller­son didn’t.

The nom­i­nee didn’t rule out the cre­ation of a reg­istry of Mus­lims. He de­clined to say that China is one of the world’s worst hu­man rights vi­o­la­tors. He wouldn’t crit­i­cize drug raids in the Philip­pines that have killed 6,200. And he said he couldn’t make a “true de­ter­mi­na­tion” whether Saudi Ara­bia vi­o­lates hu­man rights.

It was grim to see an in­com­ing Amer­i­can sec­re­tary of state avert his gaze from hu­man rights abuses in Rus­sia and around the globe. Ru­bio said it “de­mor­al­izes” bil­lions of peo­ple. “That can­not be who we are in the 21st cen­tury,” Ru­bio told Tiller­son.

But ap­par­ently it al­ready is.

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