With Mike Pompeo at the State Department, Are the Uber-Hawks Winning?

With Mike Pompeo at the State Department, Are the Uber-Hawks Winning?


President Trump and his next Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, are—for
now—two peas in a policy pod. The outgoing Secretary of State, Rex
Tillerson, who learned that he had been fired only after Trump announced
his departure in a tweet, clashed frequently with the President and
lasted only fourteen months, although reports of his demise have been
circulating for the past five. “Pompeo is not Tillerson—but he could be
someday, if the President keeps undercutting his Secretary of State,”
the former Ambassador Richard Boucher, a career diplomat who was the
spokesman for three Secretaries of State, both Republican and
Democratic, said.

The President and Pompeo, who is currently the director of the
C.I.A. and must go through confirmation hearings before taking his new
post, have clearly become chummy. Speaking from the White House South
Portico, just minutes after Tillerson’s abrupt firing, Trump praised
Pompeo volubly. “I respect his intellect,” he said. “I respect the
process that we’ve all gone through together. We have a very good
relationship, for whatever reason, chemistry, whatever it is—why do
people get along? I’ve always, right from the beginning, from day one,
I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo.”

The relationship developed in the course of intelligence briefings that
Pompeo delivered to the White House, which often gave him more access to
the President than Tillerson had as Secretary of State. Pompeo—a former
Tea Party congressman from Kansas, who attended Harvard Law School and
West Point—has been such a fixture at the White House that some
intelligence professionals at the C.I.A. have privately complained that
they saw too little of him, compared with previous directors. Trump
and Pompeo are also in synch in their hawkish views of America’s role in
the world. Pompeo was a cavalry officer in the Army between 1986 and
1991. During the Cold War, he patrolled the Berlin Wall and served in
the 1991 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion.

“I don’t know if it’s a victory by the uber-hawks, but it reflects a
mindset about how Trump sees the world. He relies on generals,” Boucher
told me. “He’s looking for people who see every problem as a threat that
needs to be dealt with by military force, rather than an issue that can
be countered through diplomacy. There’s an over-all failure by this
Administration to understand what diplomacy can do for the country—and
the world.”

In public statements, Pompeo has taken positions identical to—and in
some instances tougher than—the President’s on four pivotal issues:
Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Jerusalem. On each, Tillerson tried to
talk Trump down from irrational, impulsive, or controversial moves.

Differences over the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran may have been at the
top of the list of disputes Trump had with Tillerson. “We disagreed on
things,” Trump said. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s
terrible. I guess he thought it was O.K. I wanted to either break it or
do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not
really thinking the same.” He added, “With Mike Pompeo, we have a very
similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”

While in Congress, Pompeo repeatedly condemned the nuclear deal
brokered by the Obama Administration and five other world powers as “an
unconscionable arrangement that increases the risk to Kansans and all
Americans. The Iranian regime is intent on the destruction of our
country. Why the President does not understand is unfathomable.”

On the first anniversary of the nuclear deal, in 2016, Pompeo went
further and called for the end of theocratic rule in Tehran. “Congress
must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian
regime,” Pompeo said. After Trump’s election, in 2016, Pompeo tweeted
that he looked forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal.” At the
C.I.A., Pompeo also called for release of classified material seized
from Osama bin Laden’s compound that included material about
communication between Iran and the Al Qaeda leader. So far, the Trump
Administration has denied in several briefings (in which I’ve
participated) that it wants regime change, insisting it seeks only a
change in Iran’s behavior.

On North Korea, Pompeo made headlines last summer, when he implied, in a
speech at the Aspen Security Forum, support for regime change in North
Korea. “The thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who
holds control” of the country’s nuclear weapons, he said. “From the
Administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is
separate those two.” After months of trading verbal threats of
annihilation, President Trump accepted an invitation last week to meet
with Kim Jong Un. On Sunday, Pompeo said on Fox News that the United
States would offer not a single concession in negotiations with
Pyongyang. “Make no mistake about it,” he said.

On Russia’s meddling in American elections, which has been confirmed by
several U.S. intelligence agencies, Pompeo has echoed the comments of
the President. “It’s true, yeah, of course,” he
said, of the Russian interference in the 2016 election and in the election
“before that, and the one before that. They’ve been at this a hell of a
long time. And I don’t think they have any intention of backing off.”

On Tuesday, the Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer,
tweeted that
he hopes Pompeo will “turn over a new leaf” as Secretary of State and
“start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin.”

Pompeo has clearly coveted the job as America’s top diplomat. At the
C.I.A., he was technically restricted from making policy
recommendations, but he often came close in public events and
interviews. Trump often sought his opinions in private.

But Pompeo’s style, like Trump’s, is based on confrontation rather than
dialogue. In Congress, he was fiercely partisan and was not seen as a
figure who could reach across the political aisle. He was a pit bull
about the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s purported
culpability in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three
other Americans at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
“Instead of acting, Secretary Clinton and the rest of the administration
were already spinning while mortar rounds were falling and Americans
were dying,” Pompeo, a member of the Congressional committee that
investigated the attack, said in a statement. The Stevens family publicly said that they did not blame

Pompeo comes to the job with greater experience than Tillerson, a former
oil executive, had, however. For most of his professional life, he has
been involved in various aspects of national security. He is also
credited with listening to career professionals at the C.I.A., something
Tillerson did not do at the State Department.

“There is no way in the world that this is not an improvement over the
present situation at the State Department,” Robert Kagan, a Republican
analyst, author, and former member of the State Department’s
policy-planning staff, told me. “Tillerson was an unmitigated disaster
because of the way he and his people dealt with the foreign service and
the Department in general. Pompeo will do a better job in working with
the Department rather than trying to destroy it.”

The problem, Kagan said, is less with personalities than with a lack of
policy. “There is no policy. There are impulsive reactions, which are
either contained or not contained by his military entourage. That’s
basically all there is.”

The Pompeo appointment faces criticism, however, because it appears to
consolidate the hold hawks have on the White House. “Trump is
methodically destroying the moderate camp in his Administration and
moving steadily crazy-hard right,” Joseph Cirincione, the president of
Ploughshare Fund, an N.G.O. dedicated to containing the spread of
nuclear weapons, told me. “Today’s firing and the crude, insulting way
that he did it weakens the traditional conservative camp, the State
Department, and American credibility. It’s almost as if someone is
paying Trump to do it.”

In an e-mailed statement, Thomas Countryman, a senior diplomat who
resigned last year, said, “Tillerson has been a poor advocate for the
State Department but he served as a Cabinet-level check on some of
President Trump’s worst impulses.” Countryman, who served as the
Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and
Nonproliferation, added, “If the new Secretary of State has a disdain
for diplomacy mirroring Trump’s, it will be bad for the Department and
the country.”

In Washington, a diplomat from a Western country told me that the
dramatic firing and hiring on Tuesday reflected the “total dysfunction”
in the Administration—as viewed by the outside world—and his belief that
things won’t get any better in the future. He compared the Trump
entourage to a royal court in the seventeenth century or a Middle
Eastern kingdom today. Jared Kushner, he noted, had said privately, four
months ago, that he wanted to “get rid” of Tillerson. “It has the
strange atmospherics of a royal court,” the diplomat said. “It’s half
comedy, half tragedy.”

How long Pompeo will last is already the subject of political
scuttlebutt in Washington. “Trump’s going to end up firing all these
guys,” Kagan said, referring to the frequent departures from the
Administration. Tillerson’s dismissal has also deepened speculation
about the departure of the national-security adviser, General H. R.
McMaster. The former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, an uber-hawk on
foreign policy, visited the White House last week; Republicans in
previous Administrations told me that he is an increasingly likely
candidate to replace McMaster, whose long-winded lectures Trump has
grumbled about.

The President initially surrounded himself with establishment figures—at
the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security
Council—who often tried to talk Trump back from his most dramatic
decisions, a senior official from the Bush Administration told me.
Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis urged Trump against the
decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move
the U.S. embassy there, for example. “The President went with his gut,
and he was right,” the former official said. “And then there wasn’t
rioting from Casablanca to Baghdad, so the President may have decided he
was right—and wasn’t getting good advice.”

“The President,” he added, “may have decided, ‘I’m good at this.’ And
that would suggest a more hawkish policy in the future.”


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March 13, 2018 at 11:16PM

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