Rex W. Tillerson: America's Advocate or Putin Apologist?

Rex W. Tillerson, C.E.O of Exxon Mobil, will face tough questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State. The Committee will carefully examine Tillerson's track record. There are several concerns, such as Exxon Mobils's business in Iraq and its ties to Russia.

Critics question whether Exxon Mobil's business with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) conformed to US law and policy. The KRG and Exxon Mobil signed a Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) to develop six exploration blocks in Iraqi Kurdistan on October 18, 2011. Though Baghdad objected, Article 115 of Iraq's constitution explicitly allows KRG ownership of fields developed after 2003.

Critics also claim the deal accelerated Iraq's fragmentation. To the contrary. Some of the blocks fell within disputed areas in Nineveh Province, requiring dialogue between the KRG and Baghdad. The KRG and Iraqi troops are today fighting side-by-side to liberate Mosul from ISIS.

Exxon Mobil's business with Russia is more complicated.

Some US Senators, including prominent Republicans, believe that Rex Tillerson is too chummy with Vladimir Putin. Tillerson accepted Russia's "medal of friendship" award.

Tillerson opposed US sanctions, imposed after Russia illegally occupied Crimea in 2014. US national interests were not Tillerson's concern. He was focused on the bottom line and shareholder earnings. Sanctions shut down Exxon Mobil's gas exploration on Sakhalin Island and offshore in the Okhotsk Sea, costing billions.

Tillerson affirmed, "My guiding principle is making money." He runs a $385 billion diversified company with operations in more than 50 countries and 83,700 employees. Can his business acumen be applied in diplomacy? Exxon Mobil has a large internal intelligence operation. Was its agency simply gathering information, or manipulating events in service of business-friendly regimes?

Will Tillerson pro-actively protect the rules-based international order? Will he discern false friends? His friendly relations with Vladimir Putin will be under a microscope.

Can Tillerson confront Russia's aggression in Ukraine? Will he negotiate sustainable peace in Syria through power-sharing? What about the mass jailing of journalists in Turkey? Will the US turn a blind eye to extra-judicial killings in the Philippines? What will be the balance between climate change and commercial interests? Where does pragmatism end and moral clarity begin?

The confirmation hearing will be an opportunity for Tillerson, on behalf of the Trump administration, to articulate policies not megaphone positions. As Secretary of State, Tillerson will be challenged to give coherence to Trump's mercurial foreign policy.

Above all, Tillerson must show that he is beholden to no foreign power or corporate interest. America must come first in any negotiation.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert to the US State Department during the administrations of Clinton, Bush, and Obama.