Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, has come under attack for his ties to Russia, which include receiving an Order of Friendship for helping to secure new Arctic oil fields for state oil company Rosneft.
What’s gotten significantly less attention, however, is Tillerson’s involvement at Exxon with other nations besides Russia. While it’s understandable that these stories are less popular–it’s only Russia’s government that has been accused of interfering with American politics to help Tillerson’s perspective new boss–they’re important since they tell us about Tillerson’s stance on foreign autonomy and the likelihood of future American interventions.
For instance, in Iraq, Tillerson and Exxon defied the State Department by making an agreement directly with the Kurdish Regional Government instead of with the central Iraqi government. “I had to do what was best for my shareholders,” Tillerson told the US government after the fact. It should be noted that Kurdish forces in Iraq are also heavily allied with Iran, and the Kurdish government is currently working on a pipeline that will transport a quarter million barrels of oil to Iran every day.
In Chad, Exxon actually raised a private army to fight-off rebels. This was in response to US embassy reports that “The oil fields in southern Chad are of strategic interest to any group seeking to overthrow the region.” As it happened, there were armed rebels, though most weren’t even located in Chad but in nearby Sudan, as Chad’s dictator, President Idriss Déby, had already eliminated most local rebels. Still, Exxon was concerned enough to raise a force of 2,500 security guards to patrol the area mixed in with Chadian soldiers who were armed with automatic weapons. Chad’s government was more than happy to assist Exxon, as the company’s contracts brought President Déby $774 million, approximately 100 times more than U.S. aid to the country during the period.
In other words, during his time at Exxon, Tillerson showed a neglectfulness in Iraq of long-term goals and broad cooperation in favor of short-term gains. In Chad, he demonstrated his willingness to work with dictators and to use military prowess to defend his own business interests. Two of these things sound simpatico with the Trump we saw during the campaign who said favorable things about strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and who said that he’d use NATO to collect more money from participating nations.
However, that last point, on foreign intervention, is much different, as Trump essentially ran as an isolationist candidate and was especially critical of the Iraq War. Given Tillerson’s career at Exxon, it’s hard to believe he’ll run an isolationist State Department, and safe money should be on more conflicts that privilege shareholder profits over military and civilian lives.
[Note: This article heavily relied on the work of Steve Coll, whose book “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power” is available through Amazon.]