Mike Pompeo’s hawkish instincts may seem at odds with traditional diplomatic norms. But after 14 demoralizing months of budget cuts and staffing reductions for the State Department, his conservative political bent and closeness to President Donald Trump could breathe new vigor into an agency all too often sidelined on many of the nation’s most pressing national security matters.
Pompeo, the outgoing CIA chief, will bring a new, blunt-speaking style to the job of secretary of state, strikingly different from Rex Tillerson’s understated approach. Pompeo’s arrival in Foggy Bottom also promises far more aggressive stances on Iran and North Korea, and he’ll at least start with Trump’s full confidence — something Tillerson never enjoyed.
“One of the most important jobs for the secretary of state is to make clear to the world the president’s policies and priorities,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, an establishment Republican and initial Tillerson backer, said Tuesday, after Trump announced via tweet that Pompeo would replace Tillerson. “No one has a stronger relationship with President Trump than Mike Pompeo. This relationship will empower him throughout his tenure as secretary of state.”
Tillerson had been widely criticized for an aloof management style, which had alienated droves of career diplomats and driven many of the agency’s senior brass into early retirements. But his foreign policy was far less controversial, as he hewed to much of the agency’s pragmatic approach, from climate change to free trade agreements, and to preserving the Iran nuclear deal, even when that put him at odds with his president and his most conservative supporters.
In Pompeo, the diplomats and civil servants who make up the 70,000-strong department may now encounter the opposite: a fiercely partisan veteran of some of the most bitter battles in Congress while he was a House Republican, and someone willing to jeopardize his reputation to defend Trump, as evidenced when he called up journalists to try to discredit a New York Times story outlining Trump campaign connections to Russia.
But Pompeo also helped engineer a detente between Trump and the U.S. intelligence agencies after the incoming president likened them to Nazis. In doing so, Pompeo never lost his access to Trump, or experienced a mass revolt to his leadership like Tillerson faced at the State Department.
“Tillerson’s ouster is a sign of continued turbulence in U.S. foreign policy,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell University professor. “A potential silver lining is that the State Department will fare better under someone who has Trump’s ear.”
Immediately, there were calls for Pompeo to abandon Tillerson’s plans to shrink the department and empower marginalized diplomats.
While some opponents lambasted the former Kansas lawmaker for his posturing on a House panel that investigated Hillary Clinton and the 2012 Benghazi attack, some Democrats held out hope he could lead a State Department turnaround.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a harsh critic of Trump and Tillerson, said Pomepo would be wise to let the State Department’s talent “do their jobs.” Referencing the departure of many senior diplomats, Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said Pompeo will “need to recruit and fill the many offices that have been left vacant.”
While Tillerson sought to reduce staffing at embassies and consulates abroad, and seemed to hoard many of the agency’s minutest decisions among a small group of advisers, Pompeo sent more spies to the field and tried to improve the CIA’s agility and speed by cutting bureaucratic red tape and moving decision-making down the chain of command.
Pompeo said his goal as America’s spymaster was to create a culture that says: “If you are in a process and you’re not adding value, get out of the way.”
Pompeo and Tillerson navigated different paths with Trump, too.
While Tillerson survived a tumultuous year amid rampant speculation that the White House wanted him out, he was unable to use a much-touted alliance with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to keep his job. Pompeo took a more direct approach, carefully cultivating Trump and even assuming the previously lower-level responsibility of delivering the daily presentation of intelligence to the president in the Oval Office.
Bigger questions loom about Pompeo’s ability to counteract Trump’s often unpredictable decision-making processes. For all of Tillerson’s bureaucratic stumbles, some of the president’s most bitter adversaries credited the ex-oilman with acting as an adult and serving with dignity even as Trump publicly humiliated him.
And, as Trump noted Tuesday, he and Pompeo have a “similar thought process” on the Iran deal, which Trump has threatened to abandon unless there are significant changes by May.
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,” said Thomas Countryman, one of the career diplomats who left in early 2017. Countryman, who was assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said if Pompeo “has a disdain for diplomacy mirroring Trump’s, it will be bad for the department and the country.”unb