Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, took the form of an anti-Russian witch-hunt, with senators from both parties demanding that the nominee, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, declare Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and murderer.
Tillerson, while distancing himself from the more hysterical statements of some senators, took an aggressive line against Russia, declaring it a “danger” to the United States and criticizing President Barack Obama for not doing enough to retaliate against Russia following the secession of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The appointment of Tillerson, the multi-millionaire former CEO of the world’s largest energy corporation, embodies the oligarchic character of Trump’s cabinet, which is packed with multi-millionaire and billionaire business executives committed to expanding the wealth of the US financial elite at the expense of the working classes of the United States and the world.
This, however, was not of concern to the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Their opposition was focused entirely on the reluctance of Tillerson and Trump to endorse the campaign against Russia that has been underway since the eve of the Democratic National Convention last July.
At that time, the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign sought to divert attention from damaging revelations contained in leaked Democratic emails by accusing Russia of hacking their computers and arranging for WikiLeaks to publish the internal communications. On this basis, the Democrats sought to outflank the billionaire right-winger Trump from the right by portraying him as a stooge of Putin.
The anti-Russia campaign was revived after the elections, when it became clear that Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air support, were close to driving US-backed Islamist militia out of their last urban stronghold in eastern Aleppo. The retaking of Aleppo by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad further inflamed the anti-Russian agitation.
Tillerson is a particular target of this campaign because of his close business relations with Moscow during his tenure as CEO of Exxon Mobil. Much has been made of the fact that he was awarded the Order of Friendship by President Putin in 2013.
In his opening remarks, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, pointed to “recent news accounts” that “Russia may have information about Mr. Trump… they could use to compromise our presidency.” He was referring to a dubious document released Tuesday by Buzzfeed News and reported by CNN alleging that while he was visiting Russia, Trump was filmed engaging in “perverse sexual acts” that were “arranged” and “monitored” by the Russian Secret Service.
Cardin then announced that he, together with other Democrats and Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, had submitted legislation Tuesday to impose new economic sanctions against Russia “for its interference in our election and its ongoing aggression in Ukraine and Syria.”
Speaking for a faction of the Republican Party that opposes Trump’s less aggressive posture toward Russia, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida asked Tillerson, “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” When Tillerson said he “would not use that term,” Rubio cited Russia’s military intervention against Washington’s regime-change operation in Syria and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and declared that he was “disappointed” in Tillerson’s response.
He further demanded, “Do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists and political opponents?” When Tillerson declared that he did not have “sufficient information” to make that claim, Rubio directly accused Putin of organizing the assassination of political opponents in Russia and around the world.
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire continued along these lines, chiding Tillerson for being “unwilling to agree with Senator Rubio’s characterization of Vladamir Putin as a war criminal.” She declared, “The State Department has described Russia as having an authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin,” and asked whether Tillerson had any reason to disagree with that assessment, to which the latter replied, “No.”
Shaheen then displayed a placard, based on a discredited New York Times article titled “More of the Kremlins' opponents are ending up dead,” with photos of political opponents whom Putin allegedly murdered.
When pressed by senators to admit to the existence of a Russian plot to subvert the 2016 US election, Tillerson acknowledged that a report issued earlier this month by US spy agencies “indicates that all of the actions you described were undertaken,” a fact that he called “troubling.”
He proceeded to characterize as insufficiently aggressive the Obama administration’s response to the 2014 crisis, in which Crimea seceded from Ukraine and was annexed by Russia following a fascist-led, US-backed coup in Ukraine.
The “absence of a firm and forceful response to Crimea was judged by Russia to be weak,” Tillerson said, and “paved the way for [Russia’s] later invasion of Ukraine.” He said he would have supported the US sending weapons to Ukraine in 2014, instead of imposing sanctions on Russia “after the fact.”
Just as significant were Tillerson’s comments on China, which marked an escalation of the Trump administration’s already confrontational stance against that country. Declaring that China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea was “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea,” Tillerson said, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal.”
He said he would demand that China end its construction of the islands, and that the Trump administration would seek to deny China access to the islands it has already constructed. He called the construction of those islands and the setting up of air defenses in the East China Sea “illegal actions,” adding, “They’re taking territory or control, or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s.”
Tillerson’s anti-Chinese statements get to the heart of the conflicts that have emerged in recent months at the highest levels of the American state. While a section of the political establishment aligned with Trump favors a more openly confrontational stance against China, potentially including an anti-China alliance with Russia, a larger faction, encompassing the Democratic Party, a section of the Republicans, and the intelligence agencies, see an escalation against Russia, including moving against Russia’s ally, Syria, as the first order of business.
The hearing, with its hysterical accusations and war-mongering by all parties involved, was a microcosm of the entire US political establishment, which is uniformly committed to continuing the onslaught against the social rights of the working class at home and pursuing military conflict abroad.
The accusations hurled against Putin by senators Rubio, Shaheen and Cardin recall the type of rhetoric used to demonize a series of foreign leaders targeted by Washington for invasion and/or assassination. The list includes Manuel Noriega of Panama, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
There is a logic to the saber-rattling agitation against Russia. Though the agitators generally don’t spell it out, knowing it has no popular support, it leads inexorably to war with nuclear-armed Russia, a conflict that could trigger a nuclear holocaust.