Later today, it is expected that Rex Tillerson, the ex-boss of Exxon, will be confirmed as America’s 69th Secretary of State.
In the chaotic first days of a vehemently anti-immigrant, Xenophobic, reactionary right-wing, anti-green Trump Administration, for some Tillerson’s appointment may seem as fairly benign.
Some may actually feel sorry for Rex, as he inherits a series of what Reuters has labelled “self-inflicted wounds” and what one foreign affairs official calls “own goals,” by Trump.
Much of this stems from the widely-ridiculed and reviled executive order imposing a temporary ban on people from seven Muslim countries, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
“Tillerson walks into a situation where he has got an unhappy and suspicious White House and he has an unhappy and suspicious workforce,” a former State Department official told Reuters. “It would have been difficult enough given the chaos.”
But Trump is playing by a rule-book whereby it is “chaos by design”. And the chaos will get worse with Tillerson at the helm of US foreign policy.
This is a man who is not fit for high office. As my colleague, David Turnbull noted after Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, “three words sum up Rex Tillerson’s performance: Unprepared; Unqualified; Unacceptable.”
Others have come to the same conclusion. Tillerson is “ill-equipped to deal with the chaotic consequences of President Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda and the risks it poses for our relations with other nations and our status as a world leader,” argues Kathy Mulvey, at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She points out that Tillerson’s “inexperience and lack of knowledge of refugee issues is deeply troubling.”
You can argue that Tillerson can gain experience when in the job, but what will not go away are the issues of Exxon’s human rights record, Exxon’s decades long denial of climate change and Tillerson’s on-going conflicts of interest.
I wrote about the human rights issues here and conflict of interests here, but it is worth repeating the problems over Exxon and climate change, which also throw up awkward questions as to how good a businessman Tillerson actually is and whether he should have the US’s top Diplomatic job.
As David Turnbull noted at Tillerson’s hearing: “One important area where Rex was particularly evasive was the issue of climate change, and specifically Exxon’s role in sowing doubt about climate science for decades despite knowing the truth since the 1970s – or even earlier.”
But now Buzzfeed is reporting that, after his public comments, after the hearing “Tillerson questioned the consensus among climate scientists about humanity’s role in warming the planet — including some scientists who work for ExxonMobil, the company Tillerson ran for a decade. He also doubled back spoken testimony that said the United States should remain in the Paris climate accord.”
And I am afraid it gets worse.
As well as decades of old climate denial, Tillerson also headed Exxon into a new era of climate denial, believing that the company could just carry on drilling for oil, no matter the science and increasingly evidence that we cannot burn all the fossil fuel reserves. As more and more influential people warned of stranded assets or unburnable carbon, Exxon kept on drilling.
As Lee Wasserman the director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, so elegantly wrote in the LA Times: “Most profoundly, Tillerson has never backed down from Exxon Mobil’s position that it can pump and burn all its known fossil fuel reserves”.
Others agree. In a great piece for Quartz, entitled “The Exxon Tillerson left behind: hidebound, secretive, and wedded to tradition at a time of mind-boggling change”, Steve LeVine notes that although “The signs of a coming new age are unmistakeable … Exxon is, and will long continue to be, foremost an oil company. Never mind possible disruptions from a change in social tastes. Exxon is doubling down on tradition, with a zeal that harkens back to a time when oil was the undisputed commodity of the moment and the future.”
Against a back-drop of concerns on climate change, stranded assets, increasingly competitive renewables and huge predicted growth in electric vehicles “Exxon has elected to bull forward as though the oil age will proceed unhindered”, argues LeVine.
Tillerson is wedded to yesterday’s thinking. He is yesterday’s man. And Exxon, the belligerent oil bull left behind by Tillerson may be in deep trouble, in part due to its continuing determintion that oil is the future, and not the past.
As seasoned oil-watcher Antonia Juhasz noted earlier today, Exxon has just “reported its lowest profits in almost thirty years, raising the question of whether Tillerson’s business leadership is as stellar as both the public and elected officials tend to believe.”
So after Tillerson is confirmed later today as Secretary of State, expect the chaos of the Trump-era to get worse. Rex wasn’t a great businessman, and he will not be a good statesman either.