“Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was heard, or overheard, to ask at a recent meeting of the Group of Seven foreign ministers. The remark sent the usually astute Anne Applebaum into medium dudgeon.
Writing in the Washington Post, she commented, snidely: “Unlike everyone who has held the job for at least the past century, he has no experience in diplomacy, politics or the military; instead he has spent his life extracting oil and selling it for profit.”
Whoa, Nellie. Extracting oil indeed.
Saying Tillerson has spent his life extracting oil without listing his very considerable executive experience is not even like saying Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton spent their lives messing around with girls while omitting to say also that they were U.S. presidents because it’s true that those two did fool around with girls.
Does the description conjure up a vision of a man in overalls digging in the sand? I forget: Do we have it in for people in overalls now? Or people who dig for a living? Or are the overalls meant only to be contrasted with the pinstriped suits diplomats wear—the kind of diplomats who effected the removal of all chemical weapons from Syria and prevented North Korea from getting the bomb?
And what is the problem we are meant to infer from “selling it for a profit”? What should Tillerson have been doing all those years he was at Exxon? Selling oil for a loss?
Saying Tillerson has spent his life extracting oil without listing his very considerable executive experience is not even like saying Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton spent their lives messing around with girls while omitting to say also that they were U.S. presidents because it’s true that those two did fool around with girls. Lots of them, apparently. Whereas there’s no indication in Tillerson’s biography that he himself has ever actually extracted oil. Nor are there any readily available photos of him in overalls.
It is possible, of course, that he was occasionally espied in overalls at the University of Texas at Austin, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1975, but we have no evidence of that. We do know, however, that later that year, at the age of 23, Tillerson joined Exxon as a production engineer.
In subsequent years, Tillerson became (deep breath): general manager of the central production division of Exxon USA; president of Exxon Yemen Inc. and Esso Exploration and Production Khorat Inc. (in Thailand); a vice president of Exxon Ventures (CIS); president of Exxon Neftegas Limited with responsibility for Exxon’s holdings in Russia and the Caspian Sea; executive vice president of ExxonMobil Development Company; president and director of ExxonMobil; and, on January 1, 2006, chairman and chief executive officer of ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil has 83,700 employees and its revenue is $246 billion, making it the world’s seventh-largest company by revenue.
By contrast, the State Department has 69,000 employees and revenue of about $47.4 billion, making it the 192nd largest operation by revenue, just behind FedEx.
Oh, no. Wait a minute. The State Department doesn’t have revenue. The $47.4 billion is the amount it spends. Whew! Anne Applebaum might have accused them of doing something for profit.
Overalls or no overalls, Tillerson’s real skill, of course, is managing. His experience so exceeds the experience of the last two occupants of the office, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, that we (including Applebaum) should assume that he can manage the job at least as well as they did—admittedly, an embarrassingly low bar.
Secretary Tillerson’s remark, “Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” was sufficiently provocative to cause the State Department to describe it as a “rhetorical device.”
But Applebaum saw it as a gaffe, prompting her to say that selling (promoting) something intangible, like American values and influence, can’t be achieved using the tactics of selling oil. Are we sure about that?
And just what, actually, is the U.S. taxpayers’ interest in Ukraine? Applebaum’s answer is: the principle of border security. That, she says, is what turned Europe into “a safe and peaceful trading alliance,” which made it rich and, inter alia, made the United States rich as well.
Funny: that sounds like the kind of thing a businessman, even one with less experience than Secretary Tillerson, might understand even better than a seasoned diplomat who had spent a lifetime in think tanks and government. Or a columnist.
It’s a good guess that the gravamen of Applebaum’s complaint is that Tillerson was not as verbally anti-Russian as she would like. But Russia, with its many nuclear weapons, is not Secretary Tillerson’s only problem: he has to deal also with North Korea and Iran—and a shrunken U.S. military that is not currently prepared to fight a three-front war. The U.S. taxpayers’ resources and patience are not unlimited (see: election of Donald Trump), raising, if not answering, the question, Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?
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