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Pompeo's 'swagger' can't hide embarrassing tenure as top diplomat

Despite his weekend claims, he was the most partisan, anti-diplomatic secretary of state in recent memory.

Analysis | Washington Politics


Usually, it’s Donald Trump who spends all hours tweeting about any number of grievances that get under his thin skin. But on the first days of the new year, it was outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who couldn’t stop posting on the social media platform. As Pompeo tells it, his tenure at the State Department was one of the most miraculous and effective of any U.S. secretary of state in the modern era.

“We’re so much safer today than four years ago,” Pompeo tweeted bright and early on January 1. "I've tied our foreign policy back to our noble founding,” he wrote three hours later. As if to underscore that his stewardship of the State Department was an unprecedented success, Pompeo reached for his favorite term: "Swagger (def.): To represent America with pride, humility, and professionalism. We've done it. #Swagger.” 

Cabinet secretaries on their way out the door generally try to paint themselves in the most positive light possible, both to pad their own self-worth and to improve their legacies when the history is eventually written. Pompeo, however, takes embellishment to an extreme, as if the last two-and-a-half years have been a golden era for U.S. diplomacy and the institutional integrity of the State Department. 

What has Pompeo really accomplished as America’s top diplomat? What policies under his reign have actually produced lasting benefit for the United States? As somebody who follows the State Department relatively closely, I’m not buying what Pompeo is selling.

First things first: Pompeo was no friend of the State Department. Normally, those in charge of Foggy Bottom don’t trudge up to Capitol Hill during the budget process and argue in favor of a spending cut for their department. Yet Pompeo, hoping to stay tied to Trump’s hip lest he be excommunicated like James Mattis or John Bolton, had no compunction about giving outlandish justifications for why the U.S. diplomatic corps could use less money, less staff, and therefore less power in the inter-agency. Even Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate found his explanations absurd — so absurd, in fact, that Congress overruled the administration’s requests and appropriated more money to the foreign affairs budget.

The State Department is supposed to be the U.S. government’s center of diplomacy. Foggy Bottom takes great pride in being a non-partisan institution (or at least as non-partisan as non-partisan can get in Washington), a place where party politics is prevented from seeping into the building’s inner sanctum. Pompeo, however, took partisanship to a whole new level. Previous politicians-turned-secretaries were largely able to transition into the role of statesman or stateswoman. Pompeo, for whatever reason, was either uninterested in making the transition or was so infatuated with the daily political brawls of his former Capitol Hill existence that even pretending to be above it was beyond his capacity. 

Whenever Pompeo delivered an address or spoke to the press (when he wasn’t yelling at them), he couldn’t help but lash out at congressional Democrats as obstructionists, naifs, or appeasers. At times, he showed more interest in relitigating the Obama years than doing the diplomatic work at the core of being…well…a diplomat. Pompeo was also intensely personal in his quarrels with lawmakers, a basic no-no when part of your job entails lobbying for your department in Congress. 

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was stalling the administration’s ambassadorial nominees, Pompeo chose to release a statement blaming Sen. Robert Menendez specifically for “putting our nation at risk” rather than address the matter privately as previous secretaries did. Mike Pompeo was arguably the most partisan secretary of state in U.S. history, the precise opposite of what the State Department needed at a time when a federal agency’s power is only as good as its relationships on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue.

And then there is the policy aspect of Pompeo’s leadership. That doesn’t work in his favor either.

While one must ultimately place the blame on President Trump for the lack of results, Pompeo was one of the most influential cabinet secretaries in the administration and its chief executor of its foreign policy. Normally, secretaries of state come to an early understanding  that allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good typically results in outcomes that range from bad to worse. Those tasked with being diplomats tend to want to engage in diplomacy. Unfortunately, the Pompeo doctrine was nearly indistinguishable from the John Bolton school of negotiation: 1) give the other side a list of exorbitant demands that are bound to be rejected, and 2) sanction, pressure, or wait them out until they eventually cave. 

That doctrine failed across the board. On May 21, 2018, Pompeo delivered an Iran policy speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he listed 12 separate demands the Iranian government had to meet. Some of those demands were so extreme — the withdrawal of all Iranian troops from Syria; an end to all support to proxies in the Middle East; ceasing uranium enrichment—that they would amount to a wholesale change in Tehran’s decades-long foreign and nuclear policy. 

Pompeo was one of the key principals urging Trump to retaliate militarily against Iran when a U.S. drone was shot over the Persian Gulf in 2019 and was a central voice in the administration who argued internally for the targeted killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and assuring the public that it would deter further Iranian “malign activity.”  Notwithstanding his proclamations that “maximum pressure” has been “extraordinarily effective,” Iran is more belligerent and sure of itself today than it was when Pompeo’s pressure policy came into effect. No amount of B-52 overflights or naval presence missions has deterred Iran or made it think twice about bending to Washington’s will. 

Ditto Venezuela. When Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro was a tinpot despot who could barely keep his Chavismo revolution afloat. Today, Maduro has managed to consolidate his power, snuff out internal and external challenges to his rule, and outlast the Trump administration’s oil and financial sanctions through ship-to-ship transfer schemes and support from China, Cuba, Russia, and Iran. There is virtually no active State Department-led diplomatic initiative for Venezuela — indeed, the most promising negotiating process between Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition was undermined by Washington’s own hardline position.

The North Korea file isn’t a beacon of success for the Pompeo regime either. What was once viewed as a potentially historic diplomatic opening between Washington and Pyongyang in 2018 has long since devolved into stalemate, with each viewing the other as the main impediment to a groundbreaking agreement. This failure can’t all be laid on Pompeo’s shoulders — who can forget John Bolton’s attempt to torpedo the talks on national television before they even started?

The dead-end nuclear talks are a product of multiple factors, including the vastly different positions held by the U.S and the North, 70 years of mistrust and antagonism hanging over the bilateral relationship, and the fact that Kim Jong-un sees his regime’s nuclear deterrent as the essential guarantee of his own survival. As a protagonist in this story, however, Pompeo shares part of the blame. That he ticked off the North Koreans with impolitic statements about Pyongyang going “rogue” no doubt tempered the atmosphere for dialogue.

Two weeks after the 2020 election, Pompeo was asked about his views toward President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy team. He was, to use a generous word, unimpressed. "I know some of these folks, they took a very different view, they lived in a bit of a fantasy world,” he said on Fox News. "They led from behind, they appeased. I hope they will choose a different course.” 

After reading Mike Pompeo’s glowing assessment of himself, one has to question whether it is he who is living in a fantasy world.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018. (Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock)
Analysis | Washington Politics
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