Mike Pompeo—Donald Trump’s second secretary of state—has been in the job for almost a year. He didn’t exactly have a tough act to follow in Rex Tillerson, who was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Pompeo has not proven much more effective in managing U.S. foreign policy than his hapless predecessor—and in some ways he’s even worse.
Unlike Tillerson, who was all but invisible, Pompeo has raised the public profile of U.S. diplomacy, even if he has not, as he promised, restored the “swagger” of a State Department where morale is still low and many senior appointments and positions have yet to be filled. Also unlike Tillerson, Pompeo is at the helm on some important issues, from Iran to North Korea. But his unrealistic approach to these problems—hardline and ideological—hasn’t brought them any closer to resolution. In contrast with his predecessor, he hasn’t managed to alienate his boss and has emerged as a cautious and savvy Trump whisperer. The problem is that what he’s whispering neither advances American interests and values nor the nation’s foreign policy.
Having worked for six secretaries of state, we know firsthand that it’s a very tough job. We readily concede that a year allows only for tentative judgments. When you toss into the mix the persona and social media habits of a mercurial, unpredictable and thin-skinned president with delusions that he’s the world’s greatest negotiator, the job would be mission impossible for even the most talented diplomat and leader. Moreover, the major challenges America confronts today—an insurgent Iran, a resurgent Russia, a rising China, a nuclear North Korea, to name a few—don’t lend themselves to heroic foreign policy successes.
The good news for Pompeo is that he’s very much in the game—he has access to Trump and enjoys his confidence. The bad news: He’s doing very little with the issues he owns, and together with Trump he’s helped dig some deep holes for American policy toward America’s European allies, while making little progress on Iran and North Korea. As for Saudi Arabia, that’s another mess entirely.
Pompeo has done little to mend relations with Europe; in fact, he has almost certainly set them back. In a Trumpian-like diatribe Pompeo delivered last December in Brussels, the nation’s chief diplomat undiplomatically offended America’s European allies when he condescendingly asked whether the European Union is ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats in Brussels, chided EU bureaucrats for supposedly trampling on the interests of EU member states, and praised the sovereignty of the nation state over supra-national institutions like the EU. Moreover, unlike former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, he’s not interested in running a clean-up brigade with allies to smooth ruffled feathers or clean up Trump’s messes. This is no way to win back friends who have been bruised, belittled, and browbeaten by the president.
Iran hawks have applauded the administration’s tougher policies on Iran and more muscular sanctions. Iran is a serial abuser of human rights, a state sponsor of terrorism and a challenger to U.S. policies in the region. But Pompeo’s arrogant and bullying approach has alienated America’s European allies and is untethered to any broader objective other than the chimerical hope that the regime will somehow fracture and collapse. In May 2018, in a barely disguised call for regime change in Iran, he laid out 12 unconditional demands that Tehran would have to meet before the U.S. would consider rejoining the nuclear deal—an approach that deprives the U.S. of diplomatic flexibility, ensures that confrontation with Iran is the only option, and makes America look weak because it cannot accomplish its goal of toppling the regime. Pompeo’s statement that the US seeks to expel every last Iranian boot from Syria, without saying how it plans to accomplish this heroic feat, is completely detached from reality, and another indication that Pompeo does not understand the limits on American influence in this broken and dysfunctional part of the world.
Pompeo’s views on the denuclearization of North Korea have been fluid, never straying far from the president’s thinking. Throughout the period of “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded,” Pompeo remained in lockstep with the president’s unrealistic and unrealizable insistence that North Korea’s immediate, complete and verifiable denuclearization must be a precondition for U.S. sanctions relief. When the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Steve Biegun, hinted in a speech in late January that the administration could accept the North’s preferred step-by-step approach to negotiations, it was presumed that this position reflected Pompeo’s views. Following the Hanoi summit, where the president reverted to an all-or-nothing approach, Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton apparently went along knowing it would be unacceptable to Kim. Nor does it appear that Pompeo was willing to accept Kim’s more incremental approach, fearing Trump might be accused of being duped by North Korea.
Pompeo has also helped to undermine American values. In Cairo earlier this year he lauded the ruthless rule of Arab authoritarians like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, and applauded Saudi Arabia’s disastrous and inhumane air war in Yemen. Pompeo also seems to share Trump’s view that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is too big to fail regardless of Saudi behavior. His attempts to whitewash the murderous behavior and gross human rights violations of MBS—the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the torture he has ordered of Saudi political activists and dissidents—have been risible, putting an indelible stain on the administration’s battered reputation for upholding human rights.
Pompeo’s “our way or the highway” approach to diplomacy—of issuing diktats and never giving an inch—may make him look tough in Trump’s eyes, but is no way to conduct effective diplomacy. America needs a secretary of state who’s tough but pragmatic; understands that negotiations aren’t zero-sum games but need to be win/win propositions; and provides honest counsel to the president even when he disagrees. These aren’t Pompeo’s strengths; he has proven far more adept at managing Trump than U.S. foreign policy and has embraced an ideological and uncompromising hard line that aligns with his own temperament, convictions and perhaps his presidential ambitions in the Republican Party. Sadly none of this augurs well for the prudent, wise and realistic foreign policy America needs to protect its interests in a cruel, volatile and unforgiving world.