During his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson was pushed hard by Sen. Marco Rubio to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
Tillerson refused. He was right to do so.
It’s easy to make the case that Putin is a war criminal. Then again, it’s also easy to make the same case about many of the U.S.’s allies today and certainly in the past. Even the U.S. today is accused of war crimes.
So why, exactly, was it so important for Rubio to hear Tillerson say this?
Rubio’s neoconservative leanings—a preference for a shoot first, ask questions later foreign policy—are well known. The war-loving faction to which he belongs loves to draw lines and apply any labels that might inch the U.S. closer to conflict.
But Tillerson’s answer, or non-answer—finally and hopefully—could point to a potential new direction in how we approach world affairs.
American foreign policy, particularly as carried out over the last 16 years by Republican and Democratic administrations, has followed a pattern—hold up foreign heads of state as anti-American bogeymen; construct narratives that these leaders represent a unique threat to the U.S.; make the case for military action.
This happened with the Iraq War in 2003. This happened with Libya in 2011. It has half-happened with Syria since at least 2013, with our arming of rebel groups there, and almost occurred full bore when the Obama administration pushed for airstrikes.
Saddam Hussein, like Putin, was a war criminal. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was a war criminal. So is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
But how many today think the Iraq War was a good idea? Did our Libyan intervention in 2011 help or hurt U.S. security? (President Obama calls it his greatest mistake). How many of the rebels we have aided in Syria are also responsible for some of the ongoing horrors there—war criminals that Rubio supported?
Did those actions help the U.S. or hurt us?
And if these military actions by the U.S were counterproductive—how did they come about?
“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Rubio asked Tillerson Wednesday.
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson replied.
Rubio then described the horrific situation in Aleppo as an attempt to goad Tillerson into labeling Putin a war criminal. The senator did this repeatedly.
Tillerson wouldn’t budge.
When Rubio tried to get Tillerson to comment or condemn Saudi Arabia for its human rights violations, Trump’s State pick gave an explanation that seemed to encompass most of his exchange with the senator, using logic that also applies to Russia and Putin (emphasis added): “When you designate someone or label someone, is that the most effective way to have progress be able to be made in Saudi Arabia or any other country?”
It’s a great and long overdue question: What does making these kinds of declarations achieve?
Can the U.S. be strong internationally without boxing itself in rhetorically, or worse, allowing our language to lead us into conflicts that, in retrospect, were wrongheaded from the get-go?
We know Rubio and Washington hawks like him have learned nothing from debacles like the Iraq war.
What Rex Tillerson might do as Secretary of State, we do not know. But the one thing it appears he won’t do, should give us all hope.