Marco Rubio was very critical of Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson when Tillerson was going through his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Tillerson, like Donald Trump, has no political experience but is a seasoned and highly successful businessman. After getting a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Tillerson began working as a production engineer for Exxon. Over the years, Tillerson rose up in the company, becoming the CEO. As the leader of a multinational company, Tillerson has interacted with various world leaders, including those from Nigeria, Sudan, Qatar, and most notably Russia. Tillerson actually received an order of friendship medal from Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013.
This background is important for understanding the testy questioning of Marco Rubio. Russia has made aggressive moves in the recent past, including the annexation of Crimea, which was once Ukranian territory, in 2014, and also is suspected of directing an effort to release emails from the DNC which were damaging for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. Tillerson’s seeming friendliness with Russia has therefore raised concerns, and Rubio voiced these concerns.
“Let me ask you this question: Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”
Rubio seemed tense and on edge during his questioning. Tillerson, on the other hand, appeared calm and his responses were measured. In response to Rubio’s blunt question, Tillerson said, “I would not use that term.”
Rubio went on to describe a series of actions supposedly taken by Putin that he clearly thinks merits the designation of war criminal. Rubio mentioned military activity conducted under Putin’s leadership in Aleppo, Syria. According to Rubio, Putin has targeted markets and schools, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians. Rubio also mentioned how Putin directed the bombing of the Chechen capital of Grozny, a city in the far west of Asia, resulting in the decimation of the entire city. To Rubio, data involved in these incidents constituted clear evidence that Putin is indeed a war criminal, and he wanted Tillerson to concede this point.
However, Tillerson remained noncommittal. “Those are very, very serious charges to make,” he said, “ and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion. I understand there is a body of record in the public domain, I’m sure there’s a body of record in the classified domain, and I think in order to deal with a serious question like this I would want to be fully informed before advising the president.”
Rubio interrupted Tillerson’s cautious response, claiming that evidence in the public domain—in other words, information anyone can access through an internet search—which he claims includes photographs, prove that Putin is a war criminal.
The exchange continued in the same fashion, with Rubio expressing dismay over Tillerson’s refusal to go along with his severe condemnations of the Russian President. Rubio later went on to express his skepticism about the nominee for Secretary of State to the media, admitting that it might be difficult to vote for Tillerson.
The exchange is fascinating from a number of angles. To make a judgment here about who is right, we need to go back to recent events in which Rubio was involved that show his driving ideology. It is fair to classify Rubio as a neoconservative, a branch of the Republican party notorious for its hawkish foreign policy. Neoconservatives are committed to expanding American power through military involvement. Neocons see America as a global policeman, intervening in other country’s affairs in the name of ideals and human rights. The classic example of the neoconservative agenda is the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which George W. Bush and his team ordered in the name of democracy. Rubio’s rhetoric on Putin is typical of the neoconservative movement.
Just as other neocons exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein with the false claim that he possessed weapons of mass destruction, Rubio has played on people’s fears about Vladimir Putin, comparing him to a gangster and denouncing him as a war criminal. Rubio, when he was running for president in the Republican primary, tied himself in knots during an interview as he attempted to both defend and condemn the invasion of Iraq. He was also the champion, along with Hillary Clinton, of a disastrous intervention in Libya, in which U.S. forces overthrew the oppressive government of Muamaar Gadafi. After the removal of Gadafi, there was a power vacuum in Libya, and terrorists were able to flourish.
It is not the case that, because he has a certain philosophical bias, one should not totally dismiss Rubio’s assessment of Putin, and keep in mind that Tillerson never said that Putin was not a war criminal. Tillerson merely said he needed more information. Since he is not yet the secretary of state, he is not privy to sensitive classified information related to Putin. But, Rubio wanted more, claiming that there is enough publicly available evidence for any reasonable person to conclude that Putin is a war criminal.
Calling someone a war criminal is something one should do only after one has become totalluy convinced by the evidence. Tillerson was right that accusing someone of being a war criminal is a serious charge. Procedures related to war crimes did not come to have a definite structure until the Nuremberg Trials in which the Nazis received punishment. War criminals can receive a severe penalty, including the death penalty. The question is, then, is Rubio right that there is abundant evidence that Putin merits the designation of war criminal? Destruction of an entire city, and targeting of civilians, would constitute war crimes.
One can shed some light on this question by a careful analysis of the complex situation in Syria, a place where Rubio says Putin has committed war crimes. In Syria, most informed people are aware of three major players—the Syrian government, run by Bashaar al-Assad, the Russians, and rebels whom Putin and al-Assad are targeting. Who are these rebels? There are reports that the CIA has been sending weapons to the rebels in Syria. When we hear the word ‘rebel,’ we tend to form a positive conception: democracy-loving freedom fighters, waging a war against brutal dictators like al-Assad and Putin.
But, it is not clear that these rebels are actually good. The situation in Syria is very dangerous for Western media, and so much of what they have are indirect reports, coming primarily from the rebels themselves. What this means is that much of the information we’re getting is biased, from the perspective of the rebels. Contrary to the idea that the rebels are freedom-fighters, there are reports that people in Syria actually hate the rebels, and that in fact these rebel groups have links to al-Qaeda and ISIS. Reports have surfaced of criminal behavior of certain members of rebel groups, as well as the cruel execution of prisoners. The U.N. has even condemned the rebels themselves for war crimes. After Putin and al-Assad had defeated the rebels in Aleppo, there were reports of people celebrating. In fact, live videos of these celebrations circulated on twitter. Furthermore, Tulsia Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii, recently appeared on the Tucker Carlson show and discussed her recently proposed bill to stop arming terrorists, not freedom-fighters, in Syria.
So, Rubio pushed Tillerson for greater moral clarity on Putin’s policies with respect to Aleppo, but, judging by reports, there is a lack of complete clarity. The recent exposure of the mainstream media as motivated by a political agenda makes publicly available information even more dubious. If Russian forces did destroy hospitals, for instance, was the destruction deliberate? Keep in mind that the U.S. has also killed many civilians in its controversial drone program.
Furthermore, there have been clear signals from the Trump transition team of a desire to work with Russia in the destruction of ISIS. This does not mean that the Trump transition team thinks that Russia is our friend. Instead, it means that the U.S. and Russia have a shared interest in defeating a group that poses a threat to both of them. It would set a poor tone, and possibly close off any kind of productive relationship, if the incoming Secretary of State, seemingly selected by Trump in particular for his ability to have leverage in a conversation with Putin, labelled Putin as a war criminal.
In sum, Rubio and other warhawks are committed to an interventionist foreign policy in which they try to use American power to create regime change. Using rhetorical hype to generate fear about foreign powers serves the interests of Rubio and his cohorts, because it increases motivation to send more money and troops abroad. This explains why Rubio wants a secretary of state who has the same inflexible stance towards Russia as himself. If Russia is evil, then we can continue to support the CIA in its efforts to undermine the Syrian government by supporting the so-called rebels.
Many people are liberals are irrationally afraid that Trump is becoming president. However, they should think more carefully about who really is to be feared in Washington.