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After ‘Rexit’: What's next for US diplomacy under Pompeo?

AFP file photo | Outgoing US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L). Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/AFP | Mike Pompeo speaks at The Center for Strategic and International Studies on April 13, 2017 (R).

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's departure and his replacement with CIA Director Mike Pompeo has raised questions about the future of US foreign policy under a hawkish top diplomat who may be little inclined to challenge the impulses of his boss.


Despite his lack of diplomatic experience, former Exxon CEO Tillerson was a firm believer in using diplomacy to advance US interests abroad and was widely seen as a moderating influence on President Donald Trump. But Trump famously differed with his secretary of state on several areas of international policy.

Their relations may have hit a low point as early in the administration as last July when Tillerson reportedly called Trump a "moron" and then declined to deny it.

In contrast, Pompeo has flattered Trump and lauded his understanding of international issues. “The president’s handling these duties in a way that I’m incredibly proud to be part of his team,” Pompeo has said, adding: "He asks really hard questions."

Speaking to reporters as he departed the White House for California on Tuesday, Trump said the shakeup at the State Department had been in the works for a while, contradicting reports that Tillerson first became aware he was out of a job with Trump's morning tweet.

“Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time,” Trump said. "We got along, actually, quite well, but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal – I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK...”

"We were not really thinking the same," Trump continued. "With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process."

So what "thought process" will be governing US diplomacy from now on? Pompeo's public statements have so far indicated a hawkish approach to an "expansionist" Iran, a desire to pressure China into taming North Korea as well as a deep and abiding scepticism of both climate change and Russian intentions. On some foreign policy issues, he seems to mirror the blustery style of his boss.

Taming North Korea

After the surprise announcement earlier this month that Kim Jong-Un had offered to hold direct talks and that Trump had accepted, Washington now finds itself heading into a possibly make-or-break round of nuclear negotiations with a new, untested top diplomat and without an ambassador to South Korea.

In a lengthy appearance at the Aspen Security Forum last July, Pompeo said that Kim “continues to develop, test, attempt to verify, not only in the launches that we see – many of which have failed, but [he has] learned from each one – but continues to develop software that improves day by day”.

“This threat is very real.”

But it is not only Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missiles that are cause for concern, he said. Both Seoul and US interests in the region remain under threat from short-range missiles while regional “flashpoints” risk sparking a conventional war on the peninsula.

Pompeo said that while at times Kim may appear to act irrationally from a Western perspective, “I am convinced that in some space he understands his core mission, which is to keep himself in power.”

Asked whether regime change in Pyongyang was on the table, Pompeo suggested that option came with many unknowns and would require a great deal of regional cooperation.

“I wasn't suggesting that was something we were working [on]..." he said. But "day in and day out, [Kim] talks about the destruction of the West through the use of a nuclear armed missile. And to the extent we can convince not only the Chinese but the Russians, the Japanese, the South Koreans that there is an outcome there that benefits each of them, I think we increase the likelihood that we get that outcome.”

Pompeo has said that pressuring China to exert more influence on Pyongyang “is among our most productive paths”.

“China today represents about 80 percent of the trade, hard currency trade, with South Korea,” Pompeo said in Aspen. “And inevitably across a border like that will go things you wish that did not go across that border. And so I'm very hopeful that we can convince China that that's not in their best interest.”

Iran's regional ambitions

Tillerson became a vocal advocate of international diplomacy within the administration despite his prior lack of experience in statecraft. He encouraged Trump to stick with the Iran nuclear deal and verify Tehran’s compliance with its terms, rather than tear it up as Trump has repeatedly threatened to do.

But like Trump, Pompeo has long been sceptical of the July 2015 deal – known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – and opposed it as a member of Congress.

He told the Aspen security summit that while the deal might “stop a few centrifuges from spinning”, there were not enough robust measures in place to ensure Iranian compliance.

“This is Iranian compliance today: Grudging, minimalist, temporary, with no intention of really what the agreement was designed to do,” he said. “It was designed to foster stability and have Iran become a re-entrant to the Western world, and the agreement simply hasn't achieved that.”

Pompeo said that Iran today is intent on “extending its boundaries, extending its reach”, adding that Tehran is “the world's largest state sponsor of terror, and they now have a significant foothold in Syria”.

Hezbollah is but one example of the Iranians using proxy forces to achieve their outcomes, which is an expansionist capacity to control and be the kingpin in the Middle East,” he said.

“Their efforts in Yemen, their proxies in Iraq now firmly gaining power inside of Iraq, each of those present threats to the Gulf States, to Israel and to America's interests.”

>> Timeline: A history of Iranian nuclear diplomacy

Pompeo went on to say the Trump administration is focused on figuring out “how to push back against Iran not only in the nuclear arena but in all the other spaces as well”, and that the White House is prepared to try a radically different approach.

“When we get our strategy in place I am confident you will see a fundamental shift,” he said. "... one of the first things the president did is to go build a coalition of the Gulf States and Israel to help find a platform which could uniformly push back against Iranian expansionism.”

But leverage against Iran is also undercut by other Western nations renewing their economic links with Tehran before its full compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal is confirmed.

“France just did a deal with China and the National Iranian oil company – a $5 billion deal with an entity that remains sanctioned by the United States of America, fascinating.”

“So that's a diplomatic challenge,” Pompeo said.

Profile: Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo tapped for State Department

Tehran's 'puppet' in Syria

US actions in Syria are part of a broader goal of stabilising the Middle East in line with US security interests, Pompeo told the Aspen conference. [W]e have to think about Syria in the context of the greater Middle East, and it is providing the conditions so that we can have a more stable Middle East, to keep America safe –it is that straightforward,” he said.

And once again, he sees Iran as working against these interests.

From an intelligence perspective, “it is difficult to imagine a stable Syria that still has Assad in power”, Pompeo said. “He is a puppet of the Iranians and therefore it seems an unlikely situation where Assad will be sitting on the throne and America's interests will be well served.”

Asked what Russia’s long-term interests were in Syria, Pompeo prompted laughter by saying: “They love a warm water naval port and they love to stick it to America.”

“I am sort of kidding, but I think they find any place that they can make our lives more difficult, I think they find that something that's useful to them.”

Asked if Russia was a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State group, Pompeo said: “In Syria, no.”

Nevertheless, Pompeo said real gains have been made against the IS group (ISIS), whose power and influence has been roughly halved in recent months.

“In the Middle East today ISIS is about 50 percent of the end strength that they were at just a short time ago. And their capacity to recruit today is less than it was at the peak ... But the threat from terrorism, from radical Islamic terrorism, is something we're going to be at for an awfully long time.”

Russian interference

Many observers have questioned the timing of Tillerson's firing, coming as it does a day after he said Russia was "clearly" behind the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in Salisbury, southern England. The White House has so far declined to comment on Russia's possible role, calling the attack an “outrage” but not mentioning Russia despite being pressed by reporters repeatedly on the subject. “Right now, we are standing with our UK ally,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Even after British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the attack, Sanders said only that the attack “was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible”, adding: “We offer the fullest condemnation.”

In testimony on Russian election interference before the Senate intelligence committee last May, Pompeo publicly broke with Trump in saying he agreed with the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia hacked and leaked information, and used disinformation, to influence US elections.

Asked whether Russia continues to use “active measures” to “influence policy-making here in the United States”, Pompeo answered in the affirmative, adding: “[T]his has been going on for a long time.”

Pompeo told the Aspen summit that it has become much cheaper and easier for Russia to wield soft power on a larger scale with the advent of the internet. “It used to be it was expensive to run an ad on a television station; now you simply go online and propagate your message,” he said. “And so they have found an effective tool, an easy way to go reach into our systems and into our culture, to achieve the outcomes they are looking for.”

Asked if the Russians had learned lessons from 2016 and were likely to apply those lessons to midterm elections in 2018 as well as the next presidential vote in 2020, Pompeo was unequivocal.

“Yes, sir. And I hope we learn from it as well and will be able to more effectively defeat it.”

Paris Agreement: Questioning climate change

Former Exxon oil chief Tillerson may have surprised onlookers last year when he challenged Trump’s criticism of the Paris climate deal, urging him not to withdraw from the 2015 accord. His entreaties fell on deaf ears, however, and the United States withdrew from the non-binding agreement in June.

Pompeo’s views on climate fall more into line with those of the Trump White House. He criticised former president Barack Obama for signing the Paris Agreement at the time, calling it part of a “radical climate change agenda”.

The CIA director has long been an outspoken sceptic of the threats posed by climate change, even questioning the science behind it.

“Look, I think the science needs to continue to develop,” he said during a June 2013 interview on C-SPAN. “I’m happy to continue to look at it. There are scientists who think lots of different things about climate change. There’s some who think we’re warming, there’s some who think we’re cooling, there’s some who think that the last 16 years have shown a pretty stable climate environment.”

At his Senate confirmation hearing last year ahead of being approved to lead the CIA, Pompeo told lawmakers that to consider climate change a top national security priority was “ignorant, dangerous and absolutely unbelievable”.

'Dismantling diplomacy'

"The lesson of Tillerson is ... do not disagree with the president publicly," Aaron David Miller, a vice president of the Wilson Center, told CNN.

While Pompeo’s ideological affinity with Trump might help him avoid Tillerson’s fate, some analysts say sending the CIA chief to the State Department might also help streamline policymaking.

“The White House and Pompeo’s CIA have been on the same page on Iran, on North Korea, on ISIS, on al Qaeda…” Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, told FRANCE 24. “What this move does is it aligns the White House with the Central Intelligence Agency and now with the Department of State."

With Pompeo taking over, Pregent said the CIA will no longer need to convince the Department of State of the veracity of intelligence on Iran or North Korea. "And I think that’s a good thing for US foreign policy.”

But Pompeo’s future at State may not be certain. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for secretary of state Colin Powell, said he wasn’t so sure Pompeo will be approved at his Senate confirmation hearing in April.

“There are people like Bob Corker, [Republican] chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who still appreciate diplomacy as an instrument of national power,” Wilkerson said. And Corker knows that all Pompeo is going to be is “a mouthpiece for Trump”.

Pompeo is "going to continue dismantling diplomacy as an instrument of national policy, he’s going to continue to be fawning and sycophantic towards the White House, and he’s going to be very public and very brutish in his own rhetoric”, Wilkerson predicted.

Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's chief of staff

Foreign policy consultant Molly McKew also criticised the Trump administration’s rejection of traditional diplomacy, including its consistent sidelining of the regional experts and career diplomats at the State Department.

“The wholesale rejection of the idea that the diplomatic corps of the United States of America has knowledge that can apply to these challenges is a little bit ridiculous,” she said.

“Certainly there is always a need to change up thinking and bring in fresh views, but I think the real legacy of Rex Tillerson will be remembered as the gutting of the State Department.”

The United States is facing a range of diplomatic challenges as it seeks to strike a nuclear deal with North Korea, find some sort of nuclear and regional détente with Iran, and hammer out an appropriate response to Russian interference.

All of this is taking place “while we have fraught relationships with most of our traditional allies”, McKew observed.

“I think this is a very challenging period for American foreign policy.”

The FRANCE 24 Debate: Tillerson's exit

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