1. Rex W. Tillerson (Secretary of State)
Tillerson: “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Defeating ISIS must be our foremost priority in the Middle East.”
In Tillerson’s view, that means putting the defeat of ISIL before removing President Bashar Assad from power. Tillerson implied that removing Assad may not necessarily be in the United States’ best interest, depending on what that means for the future of the country. “Before we decide that is in fact what needs to happen, we have to answer the question: What comes next? What is going to be the government structure in Syria and can we have any influence over it or not?,” asked Tillerson . The Obama administration, on the other hand, has repeatedly called for the ouster of Assad, claiming there is no political future for Syria as long as he remains in power.
The Obama administration’s policy has been critical of Israeli settlement building on West Bank land that Palestinians expect to be part of an eventual Palestinian state. In an interview aired on an Israeli television station Wednesday, Obama said that Israel’s settlement policy was making a two-state solution “impossible.” But Tillerson’s comments appeared to say the opposite. “Until there is a serious demonstration on their part,” Tillerson said, referring to Palestinians, “it’s going to be very difficult to create conditions at the table for parties to have any productive conversation about settlements.” Tillerson said it was important for the United States to recommit to its alliance with Israel, which he said “is, was and always has been our most important ally” in the Middle East. Again criticizing Palestinians, Tillerson said that “there have been many, many opportunities for progress to be made and those have never been seized upon.”
When a senator remarked that the US has “gotten totally out of the Middle East” and asked the secretary of state nominee what he would do to make sure the US “has a seat” at the regional table, Mr. Tillerson stressed the need for the US to remain a global power.
Tillerson continuously focused on re-engagement with traditional allies, re-affirmation of America’s leadership role in the world, and lamented that Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Iran are “dictating terms absent our participation.” Tillerson suggested that the United States re-engage with Turkish President Erdogan and also “recognize how key Israel is.” He also said the US has a responsibility to protect innocent people on the ground in Syria so they aren’t “indiscriminately bombed.” He added that through American soft power, such as the State Department and the Peace Corps, the US can positively spread its influence throughout the region.
According to Tillerson, the nation needs to be honest about the threat of radical Islam. “It is with good reason that our fellow citizens have a growing concern about radical Islam and murderous acts committed in its name against Americans and our friends,” Tillerson said. “Radical Islam poses a grave risk to the stability of nations and the wellbeing of their citizens. Powerful digital media platforms now allow ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terror groups to spread a poisonous ideology that runs completely counter to the values of the American people and all people around the world who value human life,” he stated. If confirmed,” Tillerson said he “will ensure the State Department does its part in supporting Muslims around the world who reject radical Islam in all its forms.” Trump has been vocal about his support for publicly identifying radical Islamic terrorism as one of the key threats to the United States, whereas the Obama administration has been limited in its public pronouncements.
Russia was by far the hottest topic of Tillerson’s hearing. The nominee endured a marathon of questions about how the Trump administration will interact with a rival that has taken unprecedented steps to curb American democracy. At the start of a day of testimony, Mr. Tillerson said “Russia today poses a danger but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL): “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”
Tillerson: “I would not use that term.”
This response highlighted a fear for many. Indeed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been dubious that Tillerson, a businessman who has made deals around the world and with Russia, should be the nation’s top diplomat, or that Trump can be trusted to deal with Putin in an ethical manner.
Sen. Rubio came prepared to grill Tillerson. Rubio described Russia’s role in bombing civilians in Aleppo, and murdering Putin foes. Tillerson said he would “want to have much more information before reaching the conclusion.”
Rubio said he was “disappointed” in Tillerson’s reply. “None of this is classified. These people are dead,” Rubio added.
In discussing Putin’s role in Syria, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) expressed skepticism over Russia’s involvement. “My sense is that Russia has not followed through,” he said.
Tillerson again was largely vague. “We will have to see what Russia’s posture is,” he said.
On the floor of the Senate, minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) mocked Tillerson’s performance. “You don’t need a classified briefing to know what Russia has done in the past,” Sen. Schumer said. “To duck the question and refuse to commit to continuing these sanctions is tantamount to sweeping international laws under the rug. It says, ‘Go ahead, interfere in our elections again. Nothing will happen to you.’”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is split, 11 to 10, meaning Republicans cannot afford any GOP defectors if Democrats unite against Tillerson.
Republicans who do not have seats on the committee, too, are unsure about the Tillerson nomination. Most notably, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — both Russia critics — have been noncommittal on Trump’s selection. The Democrats are looking to derail Trump’s nominees, and Republicans have just 52 seats in the Senate.
Mr. Tillerson refused to label Saudi Arabia a human rights violator, instead telling Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) that his attempts to apply such labels to certain regimes were short-sighted.
Tillerson to Rubio: “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?”
Sen. Rubio questioned the secretary of state-elect on Saudi Arabia’s actions, including restrictions on women’s rights and abuse of prisoners. Tillerson argued that Saudi Arabia was making progress on human rights, however slowly, and suggested that Rubio’s approach could prevent more progress from occurring. Several liberal media outlets and human rights activists have strongly criticized Tillerson’s statements, which many say were apologetic to Saudi Arabia.
Tillerson: “The pace has been slow slower than any of us would wish but there is a change underway in Saudi Arabia. What I do believe is that it is moving in the direction we want it to move. What I wouldn’t want it to do is take some kind of precipitous action that suddenly causes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to interrupt that.”
He added that “we should support those Muslim voices that reject this same radical Islam that we reject,” calling moderate Muslims “our greatest allies in this war.”
War in Yemen
Tillerson was asked about Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster weapons during his confirmation hearing. He declined to answer, and suggested that the way to discourage Saudi Arabia from bombing civilians in Yemen is to provide them with additional targeting intelligence.
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Tillerson: “Saudi Arabia has been utilizing cluster munitions in Yemen. Much of the world has said these are terrible weapons to use, because they have a range of fuses and they can often go off months or years after they’ve been laid down. These are the cluster bombs, you’re familiar with them. They’ve also been targeting civilians. How should the US respond to those actions?”
Tillerson replied: “Well I would hope that we could work with Saudi Arabia perhaps by providing them better targeting intelligence, better targeting capability to avoid mistakenly identifying targets where civilians are hit, impacted, so that’s an area where I would hope that cooperation with them could minimize this type of collateral damage.”
2. General John F. Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security)
Registry Based on Religion
Kris W. Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and a member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, was photographed in November with a document of first-year proposals that included, under the rubric “Bar the Entry of Potential Terrorists,” a proposal to reintroduce the registry program. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) asked General Kelly if he supported such a program.
Kelly: “I don’t agree with registering people based on ethnicity or religion.”
Mr. Kelly also agreed that several of Trump’s campaign proposals targeted at Muslims would likely be unconstitutional and said he disagreed with the idea of targeting individuals on the sole basis of their religion.
Torture & Surveillance
Mr. Kelly said he would “absolutely” abide by US laws prohibiting the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture, breaking with Trump’s campaign promise to bring back waterboarding and “worse” forms of torture in the fight against terrorism.
Under questioning from Sen. Gary Peters, Kelly agreed that conducting surveillance of US mosques and creating a database of Muslims in the US raised constitutional issues. “I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to focus on something like religion as the only factor (in counterterrorism),” Kelly said.
3. Mike Pompeo (Director of CIA)
Threats to the United States
“This is the most complicated threat-environment the United States has faced in recent memory,” Pompeo told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He went on to list the largest threats to US security: terrorism, ISIS and Al Qaeda, North Korea, China, and Russia.
Regarding ISIS, Pompeo said the group “remains a resilient movement that still controls major urban centers throughout the Middle East. We must ensure that they, and those they inspire, cannot expand their reach or slaughter more innocent people.”
In terms of Russia, he said: “Russia has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe, and doing nothing to aid in the destruction and defeat of ISIS.”
On the conflict in Syria, Pompeo said “it is one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century. It has led to the rise of extremism and sectarianism, as well as furthered instability in the region and in Europe.”
He also told the committee that Iran has become an “even more emboldened and disruptive player in the Middle East.”
For years, Mr. Pompeo been fiercely critical of any attempt to rein in some of the more controversial post-9/11 counterterrorism policies. From his post on the House Intelligence Committee, he has advocated for a return to the bulk collection of US call data curtailed by Congress last year and condemned new Obama administration rules limiting government interrogators to techniques in the Army Field Manual. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has said Pompeo was “absolutely wrong” when he argued that some of the techniques formerly used by the CIA — like waterboarding and sleep deprivation — were within the law.
In a January op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Pomepo called for Congress to re-establish the collection of all metadata and “combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database.” “Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed,” he wrote.
4. General James Mattis (Secretary of Defense)
Russia and Syria
Within the first minutes of his hearing, Mr. Mattis distanced himself from President-elect Trump, who has embraced a warmer relationship with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. According to General Mattis, Putin “is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance,” in a reference to NATO. He said the United States and its NATO allies must take necessary steps to strengthen the alliance. “We must embrace our international alliances and security partnerships. History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither,” Mattis said.
General Mattis also staked out a different position from Trump on the prospects for Russian and American cooperation in Syria. While Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that Russia is killing ISIL militants in Syria, and that the United States should coordinate with the Russians there, Mr. Mattis did not agree with his potential boss. “I’m all for engagement,” he said, “but we also have to recognize reality in terms of what Russia is up to.”
General Mattis also said the US has a strategy to regain Raqqa, but should be reviewed and perhaps energized by a more aggressive timeline.