Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in an interview that aired Sunday that the U.S. must make a distinction “between values and policy,” a response to criticism from Sen. John McCain that the nation’s top diplomat had abandoned victims of oppression around the globe.
McCain, in an op-ed published last week in the New York Times, wrote that Tillerson had “sent a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don’t look to the United States for hope” with remarks at the State Department in which he advocated against tying national security goals to “someone adopting our values.”
With those words, McCain wrote, Tillerson had informed the world: “If you happen to be in the way of our forging relationships with your oppressors that could serve our security and economic interests, good luck to you. You’re on your own.”
“If anyone has earned the right to express their views, Senator McCain has. And I have great respect for the senator,” Tillerson said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in response to a question about McCain’s op-ed. “America’s values of freedom, of treatment of people, human dignity, freedom of expression throughout the world, those are our values. Those are enduring values. They are part of everything we do.”
“But I make a distinction between values and policy. A policy has to be tailored to the individual situation. To the country. To its circumstances. To the broader issues that we are addressing,” he continued. “And so policies have to be adaptable. They have to change. They have to adjust to conditions. But our values can never change.”
Tillerson’s boss, President Donald Trump, is set to depart this week on his first foreign trip, a journey that will include a stop in Saudi Arabia, a nation Trump was critical of on the campaign trail for its treatment of women and homosexuals. That criticism of Saudi Arabia has been mostly absent thus far from Trump’s presidency, and Tillerson said Sunday that the president’s focus during his stop there will be on fighting terrorism.
Trump has also raised eyebrows in both parties with his habit of offering warm words for strongmen leaders around the world, including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.