No matter what is accomplished by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's timely visit to Moscow this week, the somewhat press-shy former ExxonMobil CEO already scored a few points at home with a smart takedown of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Perhaps more important, he has already demonstrated respect for factual reality and for the potential benefits of diplomacy, neither of which President Donald Trump seems to share.
First, the takedown. When asked on the Sunday talk shows, Mr. Tillerson observed that the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria reflected Russian "incompetence" for its failure to hold up a 2013 agreement in which it guaranteed destruction of Bashar Assad's chemical arsenal. That hits Mr. Putin where he lives, as he either has to stick to his patently false claim that no chemical weapons attack took place or admit to Russia's failure. Had a Russian opponent made such an assertion, he'd probably be looking out for a hit squad right about now.
But here's the other notable observation by the secretary of state: He also spoke unabashedly over the weekend about Russia's meddling in the last election and how it "undermines any hope of improving relations" with the United States. He even went further, fretting that Russia is now pursuing "similar tactics" to affect elections in Europe. Apparently, the "fake news" tweets of President Trump that this is all a liberal media fantasy haven't quite made it to Foggy Bottom.
While we don't relish the thought of another Cold War (and mercifully, we're still a long distance from that), Mr. Tillerson's healthy skepticism of Mr. Putin is a welcome respite, given the ongoing FBI and Congressional investigations into Russian hacking and the possibility of collusion with Trump associates — a prospect that has become increasingly worrisome with the House Intelligence Committee's near-implosion over the matter and its ethically compromised chairman's recent choice to recuse himself from further deliberations.
Mr. Trump's cruise missile strike was a reasonable and measured action given the horrors of the chemical attack against civilians in Syria, but it's the military equivalent of a text message — swift and fleeting — and not a long-term foreign policy. Mr. Tillerson now has the really heavy lift, to try to craft a reasonable U.S. strategy regarding the disaster that is Syria with its civil war and ISIS involvement. Attempting to put some space between Mr. Putin and Mr. Assad is probably a good starting point. Just as President Barack Obama sought to bring Russian influence to bear, Mr. Trump must realize that Mr. Putin and not U.S. military might alone holds the key to progress in the region.
Given that Mr. Tillerson's own ties to Mr. Putin (and lack of diplomatic experience) raised doubts about his appointment, this kind of hard line response is a pretty remarkable development. Mr. Tillerson once headed Exxon's Russia operations, and the company's huge investment in Russia caused Mr. Putin to award him the Russian Order of Friendship Prize four years ago. Officials in Moscow may now be having second thoughts about that decision, given the secretary of state's commitment to G7 foreign ministers in Italy Monday that the U.S. intends to "hold to account" any government that commits atrocities against innocent people.
Granted, our new-found appreciation of Mr. Tillerson and for Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, may simply be a matter of the administration exceeding extremely low expectations, given not only Mr. Trump's fondness for Mr. Putin but also his disdain for diplomacy, a point reinforced by the president's proposed 29 percent reduction in state department funding. If the Tillerson-Haley team demonstrates any progress in regard to Syria, it might be to show what can be accomplished through negotiation and not just by lobbing missiles from warships. Surely, a president who regards himself as a dealmaker can see the advantages of solving dilemmas without the kind of senseless and counterproductive military escalation that the last Republican president unwisely pursued in Iraq.