Ears perked up at the State Department last week when CIA Director Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s pick to become secretary of State, told senators at his confirmation hearing that “You will seldom find me ensconced on the senior level of any building.”
For a year, Mr. Trump’s short-lived first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, isolated himself on the State Department’s storied seventh floor to pursue a slash-and-burn department reorganization. So the implication of a boss who would roll up his sleeves and consult – even value – the rank and file was music to a good many diplomats’ ears.
But Mr. Pompeo is not out of the woods – or assured of becoming the nation’s top diplomat – just yet.
With one Republican and a rising number of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee already saying they will vote against confirmation, the former Kansas congressman looks unlikely to get an affirmative committee vote and faces an uncertain outcome in a full Senate vote later this month.
His chances were probably enhanced by reports that the president dispatched his CIA chief and secretary of State nominee to Pyongyang over Easter weekend to meet secretly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The meeting, meant to pave the way for Trump’s own meeting with the rogue leader, will likely burnish Pompeo’s diplomatic credentials and blunt the criticism from some that he is too much of a hawk to take the country’s diplomatic reins.
“From my perspective this is a plus,” said Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, appearing at a Monitor Breakfast Wednesday in Washington. “What many people don’t know is that for years we have kept back channels to North Korea through intelligence, [so] it’s perfectly logical [the CIA director] would be the person to have the first meeting.”
Yet for all the misgivings about Pompeo – and they are many, mostly pertaining to his longtime advocacy of regime change in North Korea, his preference for bombing Iran’s nuclear program out of existence, and his past Islamophobic and anti-gay remarks – his promise as an effective repairman with the ability to revitalize American diplomacy is what’s keeping his nomination afloat.
Indeed, while the key to a successful run as secretary of State may be a close rapport with the president, experts say, what is needed above all in Mr. Tillerson’s wake is a strong manager who will act quickly to turn around a hollowed-out and demoralized diplomatic corps.
Pompeo, the former Army platoon leader who won over Trump with his daily intelligence briefings, is widely seen as checking both boxes.
“As CIA director, Pompeo spent the better part of a year depending on the career people out of necessity, because the CIA has so relatively few political appointees,” says Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department Middle East official under Secretary of State John Kerry. “But he also built a close and trusted relationship with the president and the White House,” he adds, “and if he can combine those two attributes as secretary of State, he would at least have the foundation for moving things forward from their current very low state.”
For Mr. Goldenberg, who is now director of the Middle East Security Program at Washington’s Center for a New American Security, the trick for Pompeo will be to advocate for the diplomatic corps in his charge before a president who has dismissed those same career diplomats as a fetid part of Washington’s “swamp.”
Pompeo “will have to figure out how not to be the skunk at the president’s garden party,” Goldenberg says, “even as he works to maintain the loyalty of a diplomatic corps that is going to be looking for him to do just that: challenge the president’s inclinations and occasionally disrupt the party.”
Culture at CIA
Certainly no one is arguing that the State Department’s sense of its mission and its role in crafting foreign policy were enhanced during Tillerson’s short stint at the helm. Most senior positions remain empty after many seasoned officials and career diplomats either resigned in the face of the administration’s animosity or were forced out. Dozens of ambassadors’ chairs, many in key posts such as Germany and South Korea, remain empty.
Tillerson willingly took on the task of implementing the administration’s plans for a 30 percent budget cut for the department – a plan whose most deleterious impact, some critics say, will be to shrink recruitment of young talent into the department and to discourage others from aspiring to a career in diplomacy.
Senator Corker, who says he “avidly supports” Pompeo’s nomination, used Wednesday’s breakfast appearance to underscore his view that not just Pompeo’s words but his actions as CIA director suggest he’s the right captain to right the State Department ship.
“He’s done a very good job creating a culture at CIA that’s good, he understands the importance of diplomacy,” Corker said. “He is the right person to bring the appropriate culture to the State Department.”
Corker also addressed Democrats’ criticism that Pompeo has not always upheld the values they see as a must for anyone aspiring to promote America’s image around the world, including religious tolerance and respect for individual freedoms. As a congressman from Kansas, Pompeo espoused critical views of Muslims and Islam and expressed anti-gay sentiments.
Indeed, in announcing his opposition to Pompeo’s nomination Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, said that Pompeo’s “past sentiments do not reflect our nation’s values, and are not acceptable for our nation’s top diplomat.”
But Corker said he thought Pompeo had moved beyond the sentiments he expressed in Congress. “He’s had a maturing time as head of the CIA, I think it’s had an effect on him,” Corker said. “His former comments – he’s not that person.”
New direction unlikely
Yet for some former high-ranking State Department officials, all the political wrangling over what Pompeo once said and whether or not he’d really work to boost a deflated diplomatic corps is distracting from the bigger story – that the Trump administration is furiously deepening a sustained shift in foreign-policy making and execution from the State Department to the White House.
“I’ve had any number of people tell me not to fear, that [Pompeo] is a military man and a respecter of the ranks who will put his troops at the State Department first and will make sure their voices are heard, and I hope that turns out to be true,” says Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. “But I also see how beholden he is to the administration’s script,” he adds, “so I don’t expect him to venture too far from the vein of thought that disregards and even holds in contempt the soft power and everything else the State Department is about.”
Pompeo may indeed move quickly to fill key positions that Tillerson left vacant, Mr. Wilkerson says, but he doesn’t expect that to fundamentally alter the State Department’s gradual eclipse.
Pompeo “realizes there are some key posts he must fill and some critical places he’ll need to post people,” says Wilkerson, who is now distinguished adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
“But we’re not bringing in the fresh recruits.… We’re essentially eating our seed corn. It’s an ideological predilection,” he adds, “and I don’t see that Pompeo is going to change any of this.”
Indeed Wilkerson, while hardly a fan of the current administration, underscores that the hollowing out of the State Department so flatly attributed to Tillerson has actually been a feature of a decades-long shift of foreign-policy decision-making from the State Department to the White House.
“We set in motion this redesign of our foreign-policy structure with the National Security Act of 1947, which in many respects was a new constitution, and we’ve been pursuing this shift ever since,” Wilkerson says. “The result is that over time [the act] has placed all the power into the NSC [National Security Council] staff, while the resources – the money the State Department gets – has dwindled to a minuscule amount.”