Democrats finally had their chance to question Mike Pompeo.
Almost two months after the Trump administration started an armed conflict with Iran, the secretary of state finally agreed to attend a congressional hearing. The House Foreign Affairs Committee would have two hours in February 2020 to grill Pompeo about the U.S. assassination of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani and the retaliatory Iranian missile attack that wounded over a hundred American troops at a base in Iraq.
To his apparent surprise, the first few Democratic questions had nothing to do with the January 2020 near-war in the Middle East. Instead, Democrats on the committee fired off a strange mix of questions about Iran, the coronavirus pandemic, and coronavirus in Iran. “Mr. Chairman, just so you know, we agreed that I would come here to talk about Iran,” Pompeo complained.
Republicans, meanwhile, were consistent in praising Pompeo’s hard line on the Middle East. And they attacked their Democratic colleagues for asking seemingly irrelevant questions. Pompeo smirked as Adam Kinzinger of Illinois denounced the “multimedia dog and pony show” and Lee Zeldin of New York called the hearing a “joke.”
It was not supposed to be like this. In an unusual step, Democratic committee members had originally planned to choreograph their questioning, so that they could hold Pompeo’s feet to the fire on the reasons for and consequences of the Soleimani strike. But during a secret dress rehearsal, the planning process broke down, forcing Democratic staff to rewrite the script at the last minute.
Responsible Statecraft confirmed these details with three congressional staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity, and obtained emails that described the planning process up until the hours before the hearing.
“As we discussed yesterday, the Committee’s goal for the hearing on Iran/Iraq/War Powers is a coordinated, cohesive narrative,” said a February 20, 2020 email sent from committee staff to different members’ offices, which was obtained by Responsible Statecraft. “In their meeting last week, the majority of our members expressed a strong desire for this strategy.”
A dress rehearsal was held on February 27. But it fell apart when several members argued they would rather ask about the coronavirus instead. After a heated argument, Democratic staff scrambled to rewrite the script the night before the hearing.
Some staffers and advocates were left feeling that Democrats had wasted the opportunity, an unprecedented experiment in congressional oversight, while others said they had made the most of a difficult situation.
“With the benefit of hindsight, that probably wasn't such a bad idea, but it did kind of throw out the tightly scripted approach and Pompeo was able to deflect for the most part,” said Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council, who confirmed by email that “there was something of a revolt right before the hearing” by members who would rather talk about coronavirus than Iran.
Stephen Miles, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Win Without War, noted that Democrats “just didn’t do good oversight over Donald Trump and his national security policy.”
“You can draw a direct line from Democrats’ unwillingness or inability to hold Donald Trump and his administration accountable for their failures in real time, and the way Joe Biden is being blamed for not cleaning up those failures,” Miles told Responsible Statecraft.
It had already been an uphill battle to get the secretary of state to speak under oath. Even before the near-war with Iran, Pompeo had ignored a subpoena related to then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearing. In the days after the Soleimani assassination, Trump administration officials were incredibly evasive in answering Congress’s questions.
And there were plenty of questions to ask. Officials gave conflicting reasons for Soleimani’s assassination, and documents later declassified by the Biden administration showed that the Trump administration had quietly acknowledged the risk of a full-blown war with Iran.
Pompeo had long dreamed of carrying out a “leadership decapitation strategy” against Iran, telling officials “don’t worry about if it’s legal; that’s a question for the lawyers” soon after becoming CIA director in 2017, according to a report from Yahoo News.
The Trump administration also promised that killing Soleimani would “restore deterrence” against Iran. Not only did Iran retaliate with a massive missile strike against U.S. bases in Iraq, but Iranian-backed militias in the region have continued to harass and attack U.S. forces, occasionally wounding or killing Americans.
Yet the administration was unwilling to answer congressional questions in public. Officials first informed Congress about the attack through a classified memo, and offered classified briefings. One of the briefings was so vague that Republican senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul immediately complained to the press, with Lee calling Trump administration officials’ behavior “insane” and “insulting.”
In the weeks after the Soleimani killing, the Democratic-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee continued to push for answers. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Pompeo agreed to attend a hearing on February 28, the morning before he was set to attend the Conserverative Political Action Conference. “We had to move heaven and earth to get you here for just two hours,” complained Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, during the hearing.
A two-hour hearing meant that Democrats and Republicans would each have an hour for their own questions. Democratic members and staff began quietly planning for the hearing. They agreed to choreograph their questions, ensuring that as many members as possible would get a chance to speak, and that the committee could pursue a consistent line of questioning.
On February 27, a day before the hearing, Democrats convened for a dress rehearsal. They even brought in the same consultants who had worked with Democrats on Trump’s first impeachment trial, according to one Democratic congressional staffer. All of this was highly unusual.
“Everybody has their script, everybody knows what they’re doing,” said one Democratic staffer. “It’s going really well. And then Ted Lieu raises his hand, and the wheels start to come off.”
According to that staffer, Lieu claimed that his constituents only wanted to hear about the coronavirus, which had just reached American soil. Several other members began to agree, and then David Cicilline of Rhode Island argued that Soleimani’s death was not even a bad thing, according to the staffer. The staffer called it an “open rebellion…not just against a Soleimani hearing per se, but against oversight.”
Rep. Lieu’s office declined to comment on “internal committee deliberations.” Rep. Cicilline’s office did not respond to an email request for comment.
Other staffers confirmed the broad strokes of the arguments that were made, although they did not mention specific members by name. In the words of a second Democratic staffer, it would have been “tone deaf” not to talk about the unfolding pandemic. “There’s no doubt it would have been better if it just focused on Soleimani, but some members would have regretted not asking about COVID,” a third Hill staffer said.
On the other hand, the House of Representatives had just held a hearing about coronavirus with several high-level health officials on February 26, and was holding another hearing on the topic with State Department officials — although not Pompeo himself — the afternoon after the dress rehearsal.
The committee eventually came to a compromise. The choreographed questioning would remain. But members would get to ask about either the Soleimani assassination or coronavirus. According to two staffers, committee staff had to stay up late into the night to rewrite the script for the hearing. Committee staff emailed members the order they were scheduled to speak in slightly after 10pm, and promised to send specific questions shortly after.
On the day of the hearing, Cicilline was the first to ask a question. He criticized the “conflicting information from [Pompeo] and other members of the administration about the reasons for the Soleimani strike, and about the details of its impacts,” before segueing into a speech about lack of trust in the Trump administration to handle the coronavirus pandemic.
Pompeo noted that Cicilline’s questions had nothing to do with Iran, so Cicilline asked whether the Trump administration was in contact with the Iranian government to talk about coronavirus. (The answer was no.) Ami Bera of California followed with a question about whether U.S. sanctions would be loosened to help Iran fight coronavirus. Pompeo insisted that sanctions were not a problem to begin with.
Some Democratic members did ask about the Soleimani strike.
Trump had originally claimed that the attack was necessary to stop an Iranian threat against specific U.S. embassies. But the administration’s report to Congress did not mention any specific threats, so Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Andy Levin of Michigan pushed Pompeo on the changing justification.
Brad Sherman of California asked whether the Trump administration would apologize for “trivializing” the injuries of American troops hurt by the Iranian missile attack. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota asked about the likelihood of further Iranian retaliation. And Joaquin Castro of Texas questioned whether “Congress authorized the president to attack Iran.”
But other Democrats did not even try to relate their questions to the Soleimani strike. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey asked whether Pompeo would defend State Department officials who tell the White House unpleasant truths. Adriano Espaillat of New York asked Pompeo whether he believes money should be diverted from building a border wall to coronavirus relief.
Lieu had been scheduled to ask about the Iranian nuclear program, and he did point out that Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material had increased since the Soleimani strike. But then he pushed Pompeo on whether the coronavirus was a “hoax,” as White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had claimed.
Pompeo called the question a “gotcha moment, it's not helpful.”
“There was almost no coverage of the Soleimani oversight, and Ted Lieu got like fifty thousand retweets for that shit,” the first Democratic staffer told Responsible Statecraft. “Pompeo stalling us for eight weeks worked…We were unable to do oversight, because he banked on, ‘if I only give them two hours eight weeks from now, they’ll have moved onto something else.’ And it was right!”
Matthew Petti is an independent journalist and a non-resident fellow at the Kurdish Peace Institute. He worked for various Jordanian news outlets as a 2022-2023 Fulbright fellow. Previously, he worked as a reporter at Responsible Statecraft and a national security reporter at The National Interest. His work has appeared in The Intercept, The Daily Beast, and Reason Magazine.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies at a hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Somali National Army soldiers march during the 57th Anniversary of the Somali National Army held at the Ministry of defence in Mogadishu on April 12, 2017. AMISOM Photo / Ilyas Ahmed. Original public domain image from Flickr
On February 15, the U.S. government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Somalia to construct up to five military bases for the Somali National Army in the name of bolstering the army’s capabilities in the ongoing fight against the militant group al-Shabaab.
This is a troubling development that not only risks further militarizing Somalia and perpetuating endless war, but comes with the potential of exacerbating geopolitical rivalries at the expense of the needs and interests of ordinary Somalis.
According to statements by U.S. officials, the bases are intended for the Danab (“Lightning”) Brigade, a U.S.-sponsored Special Ops Force that was established in 2014. Funding for Danab initially came from the U.S. State Department, which contracted the private security firm Bancroft Global to train and advise the unit. More recently, Danab has received funding, equipment, and training from the Department of Defense.
U.S. support is made possible by the 127e program, a U.S. budgetary authority that allows the Pentagon to bypass congressional oversight by allowing U.S. special operations forces to use foreign military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. The Intercept has documented similar 127e operations in multiple African countries, primarily in locations that the U.S. government does not recognize as combat zones, but in which AFRICOM troops are present on the ground.
But this MoU is about much more than the U.S. government’s proclaimed commitment to help Somalia defeat al-Shabaab. It is a clear indication of the growing geopolitical significance of the Horn of Africa, and comes at a time of mounting concerns (mostly attempts by Yemen’s Houthis to disrupt global shipping in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza) about securing the flow of international commerce via the Red Sea. It also coincides with a growing awareness that rising tensions in the Middle East could force the U.S. out of Iraq.
The U.S. government’s plan to train Somali security forces at newly-established military bases in five different parts of the country (Baidoa, Dhusamareb, Jowhar, Kismayo, and Mogadishu) is a back-door strategy not only to expand the U.S. military’s presence in Somalia, but to position itself more assertively vis-à-vis other powers in the region. Indeed, the 127e program is not the only policy that allows for the training and equipping of foreign forces as proxies: section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act further expands the ability of the U.S. to wage war via surrogate forces in places where it has not formally declared war, with the broader objective of countering the influence of adversaries like China and Russia.
While much ink has been spilled attempting to analyze great power competition on the continent, we have yet to adequately scrutinize the growing influence of middle powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar who are each attempting to negotiate their own sphere of influence, and whose involvement in the Horn points to uncertain, if not waning, U.S. power.
Turkey maintains its largest foreign military presence in Mogadishu, has trained Somali security forces, and more recently has worked closely with the Somali government in conducting drone strikes against Al-Shabaab. Further underlining deepening Turkish engagement in the country, Somalia and Turkey signed defense and economic agreements earlier this month. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have trained, and continue to train, local security forces as part of a broader strategy to secure access to regional markets and to assert their control over vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
With the drawdown of the African Union sponsored “peacekeeping” mission — previously known as AMISOM but renamed ATMIS in 2022 — analysts have expressed apprehension about the expansive nature of foreign actor involvement in Somalia and the risk of Cold War-style competition fueling instability. Indeed, the foreign-sponsored training of multiple “elite” contingents of the Somali National Army (Danab, Waran, Gashaan) has prompted internal divisions within the security establishment in Somalia as it raises chain of command issues and questions about the loyalty of these units.
As Colin D. Robinson and Jahara Matisek, both regional and military experts, have said, “The only thing worse is that various Somali units become more loyal and dependent on their foreign patron, short-circuiting the political logic of having security forces that look more like hired proxies than locally organized for self-defense. This may contribute to the growing perception of Somalia becoming a hyper-competitive arena; a republic of militias if you will.”
Equally significant is the recently announced Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, a separatist region in northwestern Somalia. According to the terms of this yet-to-be signed agreement, in exchange for Somaliland granting 20km of much coveted sea access for the Ethiopian Navy for a period of 50 years, Ethiopia would formally recognize the Republic of Somaliland as an independent nation. The MoU has elicited a wave of anger among Somalis who view Ethiopia as meddling in their internal affairs — and it is precisely this history of meddling that has in the past contributed to al-Shabaab’s support base as it positions itself as the defender of Somali nationalism and autonomy.
While the U.S. State Department called for respect for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and urged dialogue in response to the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU in the name of de-escalating tensions in the region, the February 15 announcement that the U.S. intends to ramp up its involvement in Somalia is hardly an indication of a neutral stance. Rather, it is an indication of U.S. positioning in an increasingly militarized jockeying by foreign powers in this strategic but troubled country and region.
In Mogadishu, many Somalis are welcoming the U.S. announcement, perhaps in some cases hoping for job opportunities, and in others viewing the U.S. military support and presence as a potential buffer against Ethiopia. But if the past several decades of U.S. mis-adventures in Somalia are any indication, expanding U.S. involvement risks perpetuating rather than minimizing further conflict.
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SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 9, 2021) The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation on scheduled deployments to the 7th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt/Released)
The U.S. will have almost half of its aircraft carriers deployed in the Pacific in the coming weeks.
The South China Morning Post reported on February 14 that five of America’s 11 aircraft carriers would all likely soon be deployed there at the same time. Two of the carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt have been participating in a military exercise with Japan in the Philippine Sea, the USS Ronald Reagan is in port at Yokosuka, the USS Abraham Lincoln departed San Diego earlier this month, and the USS George Washington is expected to relieve the Reagan in a few weeks.
This is an unusual concentration of America’s naval power in one region at once, and it is being widely interpreted as a show of force meant for China and North Korea.
The Biden administration has made a point of making more shows of force in East Asia over the last year to reassure Asian allies that the U.S. has not forgotten about them. That isn’t surprising given the importance that the administration attaches to the “Indo-Pacific” and an active U.S. role in it, but in doing this it may also be contributing to increasing tensions with both Beijing and Pyongyang. We have already seen some of this in the back-and-forth between the U.S. and North Korea since last summer as North Korea has answered U.S. naval deployments to South Korea with additional missile tests and more bellicose rhetoric.
While these carrier deployments are presumably intended to signal American resolve and commitment to its regional allies, they could easily encourage China and North Korea to engage in their own reciprocal demonstrations of strength. They are also a reminder that the U.S. approach to East Asia is still very much a “military-first” approach that gives short shrift and devotes relatively few resources to economic statecraft and diplomacy. International relations scholar Van Jackson warned about the dangers of this approach more than two years ago, and since then the U.S. has only ramped up its military spending and deployments.
Because Washington’s attention has been focused so intently for the last four months on the war in Gaza and the other conflicts in the Middle East connected to it, it seems that the administration wants to show that it isn’t neglecting East Asia. The carrier deployments in the Pacific appear to be an attempt to “make up” for the continued massive over-investment of energy and resources in the Middle East.
The show of force may satisfy some allied governments, but it could also confirm the impression in both friendly and hostile capitals that the U.S. is overstretched and trying to take on too many tasks at the same time. The habit of reassuring allies so frequently has its own costs, including encouraging greater allied dependence, and when it is done too often it can have destabilizing effects on the wider region.
One of the principle weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is an overreliance on military deterrence. This tends to ratchet up tensions more than necessary and undermines credible assurances to adversaries. The U.S. excels at reassuring allies with its displays of military power, but because it often fails to strike a balance by giving adversaries assurances about its intentions, our government can feed the fears of Chinese and North Korean leaders and encourage them to assume the worst about what the U.S. is doing.
The carrier deployments suggest that the administration doesn’t understand the need for balancing deterrence and assurance. Failing to balance the two risks making conflict based on a miscalculation more likely. As the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine recently wrote about U.S. deterrence and Taiwan, “This balance is essential because, if the level of punishment or denial capability acquired is in fact seen as threatening the adversary’s most vital interests, the adversary, rather than being deterred from taking aggressive action, will become more inclined to undertake or threaten preemptive or punishing moves of its own in order to protect those interests, thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the chance of conflict.”
By relying so much on shows of force designed to intimidate China, the Biden administration increases the risk of a crisis.
The potential danger with North Korea is arguably even greater, since the North Korean government has a long history of responding to U.S. and allied pressure with its own provocations and threats. To the extent that Pyongyang perceives the deployment of so many carriers to the Pacific as directed even partly at North Korea, Kim Jong-un may conclude that he needs to show off his country’s own capabilities with additional missile tests and possibly even a new nuclear test.
Last year, North Korea reacted very angrily to the arrival of the USS Ronald Reagan in Busan, so it seems reasonable to expect an even harsher response if there are multiple carriers in the vicinity. Given the increasingly hostile rhetoric already coming from Pyongyang in the last few months, it would not take much for a new standoff between the U.S. and North Korea to begin.
The U.S. can ill afford a new crisis in East Asia on top of the other conflicts that it is involved in, but its overly militarized approach to the region is not the way to avoid it. If Washington wants to make conflicts in East Asia less likely, it will need to do a much better job of understanding its adversaries’ thinking and of offering them assurances that they can believe. Right now, the U.S. is doing far too little of both, and that is making the U.S. and its allies less secure than they could be.
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Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”