Can Mike Pompeo Save US Foreign Policy?
After more than a year of struggling to engage constructively with US President Donald Trump's administration, the world should start thinking realistically, instead of hopefully. Mike Pompeo's takeover as Secretary of State could provide an ideal opportunity to do just that.
MADRID – Rex Tillerson’s tenure as US Secretary of State was one of the shortest, most turbulent, and most ineffectual in the history of that illustrious post. Not only did he gut the State Department; he was also out of the loop in President Donald Trump’s administration. Will his replacement – outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo, an “America First” true believer who has Trump’s ear – fare any better?
Tillerson’s departure comes at a time when Trump seems to be seeking to separate himself from a national security team that has often acted as check on the president’s worst instincts, at times even ignoring his more impulsive declarations. That effort is exemplified by the recent appointment of firebrand John Bolton to replace the embattled H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.
This new phase carries significant risks; the selection of Bolton, in particular, has raised fears that the US may be headed for a destabilizing conflict. But it may also amount to an opportunity for a kind of reset: with a secretary of state who is unlikely to say what the international community wants to hear, a more open and candid dialogue might be possible, opening the way for realistic, mutually beneficial action.
This does not mean that the international community – or, more specifically, America’s allies in Europe – should expect the Trump administration suddenly to act more like previous US administrations, say, by reversing its efforts to undermine free trade. On the contrary, paeans to the rules-based international order or the transatlantic community will continue to get us nowhere.
But there are three areas where a Trump-approved transactional approach can produce agreement that serves US interests, while stabilizing the broader international community. The first relates to Russia – not questions about its role in the 2016 US presidential election, but rather efforts to rein in Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy.
Since at least 2008, Putin has relished playing the role of international spoiler. But, in recent months, an emboldened Russia has taken its destabilization tactics to a new level, exemplified by Russian mercenaries’ direct attacks against American forces in Syria, Putin’s rollout of nuclear-powered cruise missiles, and the attempted murder of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom. The Trump administration has also accused Russia of mounting cyber attacks that would have enabled it to sabotage American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems at will.
Russia may be too weak to offer real global leadership, but it remains influential enough to do serious damage. Impelling it to play a more positive and responsible international role is thus in everyone’s interest. Now is the time for Trump to make good on his campaign promise to build a more constructive relationship with Russia.
It is already clear that sanctions alone do not work. And kowtowing to Putin or tiptoeing around his transgressions seems only to embolden him. What is needed is a more precise mix of carrots and sticks. Tillerson failed to strike the right balance, but perhaps Pompeo, with his direct line to the White House, can do better.
The second area where progress can be made is nuclear non-proliferation. Here, the main focus will be North Korea. Trump and Kim Jong-un have already publicly declared their willingness to engage in face-to-face talks, though it is not clear how the situation will develop. In any case, action on North Korea should be just one part of a broader effort to advance non-proliferation, which could help Trump to redefine a presidency that has so far been marked largely by chaos and conflict.
To this end, Trump could carefully apply his “North Korea model” – a combination of saber-rattling and bluster to force a diplomatic initiative – to Iran. On this front, Bolton’s appointment might even help, as it lends added credibility to the threat of the use force, which is required to make such an approach work.
Pompeo shares Trump’s disdain for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which he argues does not go nearly far enough to rein in the country’s behavior. But that deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was never intended to stand alone; rather, it was supposed to be the first step toward addressing Iran’s aggressive behavior in other areas.
Far from dismantling the JCPOA, as Trump has often threatened to do, he and Pompeo should build on it, tying it to additional initiatives that cover Iran’s behavior more generally. Such an effort would attract support from much of the rest of the international community, including America’s European allies, as well as Israel, which views Iran as an existential threat. All major global players would breathe easier knowing that the JCPOA was safe.
Even Russia, which now faces the prospect of an uncomfortable coexistence with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Syria, would have plenty of reason to support a comprehensive containment strategy, tied to the JCPOA. For Trump, such a strategy would amount to a significant foreign-policy success, seemingly vindicating his “madman” approach to diplomacy.
Pompeo should also focus his attention on reversing the damage Tillerson did to the State Department. That institution, with its global reach and diplomatic competence, has long acted as a critical lever of American power in the world. Yet, today, it is a shadow of its former self.
During Tillerson’s tenure, the State Department lost four of its five “four-star” or career ambassadors, while failing to fill many key positions, including the assistant secretaries of state for African, Near Eastern, and South and Central Asian affairs. Add to that a weakened mandate and flagging morale, and the department has lately seemed to be fading into irrelevance.
Pompeo can stop the rot, revitalizing the State Department’s role in US foreign policy. This would be good for the Trump administration, which needs support in dealing with international challenges. And it would be good for the rest of the world, which would benefit from the stability and direction the State Department provides (even when we do not agree with US policy).
After more than a year of struggling to engage constructively with the Trump administration, the world should start thinking realistically, instead of hopefully. Pompeo is close enough to Trump that he may have the power to make real changes. We must do everything in our power to ensure that those changes are for the better.
Trump’s New National Security Team
While Mike Pompeo and John Bolton have shown that they can communicate with Donald Trump, neither has ever shown any capacity for dealing with a crisis, much less arresting the decline of US leadership in the world. The expected meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be their first test.
DENVER – US President Donald Trump’s recent cabinet shakeup – with former CIA Director Mike Pompeo replacing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and foreign-policy hardliner John Bolton replacing H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser – represents a significant shift in national security priorities and attitudes. A dangerous world could become more dangerous still.
After over a year of near-daily drama, the world has begun to adjust to the reality of the Trump administration, which includes frequent ad hominem attacks on foreign leaders and capriciousness in relations even with close allies. Beginning with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, America’s allies, especially in Europe, have recognized that they can no longer count on the US as a partner.
As a result, these leaders are increasingly attempting to mitigate the effects of the Trump administration’s unilateral decisions, many of which directly undermine global cooperation. Notably, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – two initiatives that would have helped to cement America’s global leadership, had the Trump administration not insisted on regarding them as Lilliputian conspiracies against the US.
More recently, Trump doubled down on this approach, announcing stiff tariffs on aluminum and steel, from which some allies – but not Japan – are temporarily exempted. This doesn’t look good for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had rushed to be the first to embrace the Trump administration. While Abe will recover his political footing on the tariff issue, he will be far more cautious moving forward.
As these developments unfolded, Tillerson and McMaster struggled. Diffidence and arrogance is a fatal combination for a secretary of state, yet that is precisely what Tillerson displayed – and he rarely seemed to have a good day in the job. Similarly, McMaster – a hasty but welcome replacement for the disgraced Michael Flynn – seemed to be in over his head, unable to connect with the president or manage interagency dynamics.
By contrast, Pompeo and Bolton have shown that they can communicate with Trump – no small feat for a president who, well into his second year in office, has yet to develop a strong relationship with his national security team. But neither has ever shown any capacity for dealing with a crisis, much less arresting the decline of US global leadership.
Becoming Secretary of State – the cabinet’s most prestigious position – is a significant step up for Pompeo, whose short tenure as CIA director was preceded by a six-year stint in the House of Representatives, representing Kansas’ fourth congressional district. Most Americans first heard of him in 2015, when he grilled then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her supposed role in the tragic death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya. While that performance could conceivably indicate a welcome concern about the security of US diplomats abroad, it also indicates a politicized approach to security and decision-making, which was also reflected in Pompeo’s tenure at the CIA.
As for Bolton, he has served as a political appointee in several administrations. He made his mark as an archenemy of traditionally apolitical government agencies, which Trump administration officials have now labeled part of the “deep state,” regularly accusing such professionals – as well as diplomats – of “appeasement.”
A relentless bureaucratic brawler, Bolton is not without accomplishments. His Proliferation Security Initiative, launched during President George W. Bush’s administration, is generally regarded as a diplomatic success that has helped to foster international cooperation. But, for the most part, Bolton has shown himself to be a foreign-policy hawk with a penchant for unilateralism.
With the North Korea crisis looming, the world will not have to wait long to find out how Bolton’s and Pompeo’s inclinations translate into action. Both are expected to start their new jobs in the run-up to Trump’s expected summit with Kim Jong-un – the product of yet another abrupt unilateral decision by Trump.
Many within the Republican Party who are skeptical of diplomacy, of whom Bolton is a leader, have balked at Trump’s decision to meet with Kim, arguing that talks with dictators are a waste of time that ultimately play into autocrats’ hands. Even those who instinctively support diplomacy have serious doubts: with no further diplomatic steps available, if Trump’s gambit fails, only military solutions will be left.
Bolton and Pompeo may believe that the best possible outcome is for the meeting to take place, with Trump storming out angrily. But a negative outcome is not what most people want, especially given the lack of compelling alternatives. And it is almost certainly not what Trump wants, given his eagerness to prove that he was wise to accept Kim’s invitation to meet. The extent to which Pompeo and Bolton support the initiative will thus have a significant impact not just on the summit itself, but also on Trump’s presidency.
Successful summits tend to be those that are well prepared. Will Bolton be willing to engage the South Korea’s leaders, whom he has so often criticized as appeasers, in order to harmonize the US and South Korean positions? Will he or Pompeo work with the Chinese to identify an effective mode of cooperation? Will either official be willing to meet with the North Koreans before the summit to ensure a positive outcome?
A president may pull a rabbit out of a hat from time to time. But that trick is possible only when diplomats – usually led by the national security adviser and the secretary of state – have prepared the props. Whether Pompeo and Bolton can do so remains unclear. What is clear is that we will have to rely not on experience, but on hope.
Lessons from the Iraq War After 15 Years
In the 15 years since former US President George Bush launched the Iraq War, the Middle East has been wracked by turmoil, and America's standing as the post-Cold War era's benevolent hegemon has been irreversibly eroded. Are US policymakers about to repeat this tragedy of errors?
MADRID – It has been exactly 15 years since the start of one of the most fateful episodes of the early twenty-first century: the Iraq War. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the French newspaper Le Monde famously declared, “Nous sommes tous Américains” (“We are all Americans”), and even predicted that Russia would become America’s main ally. But US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 blew that prospect to smithereens.
We now know that the war, in addition to causing many of the Middle East’s current troubles, marked the beginning of the end of America’s post-Cold War hegemony. We also know that, though it was sold as part of the “war on terror,” the groundwork for the invasion had been laid well before 9/11.
As early as January 1998, the neoconservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC) sent a letter to then-President Bill Clinton urging him to topple Saddam Hussein. And, after winning the presidency in 2000, Bush declared Iraq one of his top two security priorities. Not coincidentally, Bush’s administration included ten of the 25 signatories of the PNAC founding statement of principles, including Dick Cheney as vice president and Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.
Soon enough, the Bush administration became obsessed with promoting the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, despite the absence of any conclusive evidence. In September 2002, Rumsfeld received a now-declassified intelligence report stating that, “We don’t know with any precision how much we don’t know” about the “status of WMD programs” in Iraq. It made no difference.
In all likelihood, the Middle East would have been spared a great deal of suffering had the United States acted with more caution and rigor, as Hans Blix – the head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission – had advised. In May 2003, while aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush delivered a speech in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.” But if the mission was to free Iraq from terror, reconstruct the country, and enhance security on all levels, it was an absolute failure.
It is generally agreed that the war in Iraq caused many more problems than it resolved. Prominent US politicians who supported the 2003 invasion – including many Republicans – now admit that it was a mistake, as do a majority of Americans. But, while the 2003 invasion was a profoundly misguided policy, both in form and in substance, the chaos that consumed Iraq and the rest of the region stem from additional mistakes made by US policymakers after Saddam had been removed from power.
Above all, there was the Bush administration’s “de-Baathification” policy, which sought to eliminate every vestige of Saddam’s neo-Baathist regime. Iraq is a Shiite-majority country, but Saddam’s political apparatus was dominated by Sunnis, many of whom had acquired deep religious convictions during a period of Islamization in the 1990s. After being excluded from the reconstruction process, many Sunnis turned to militant sectarianism.
De-Baathification also led to the dismantling of the Iraqi army. Thousands of military personnel, suddenly deprived of income and status, found new hope in the incipient Salafist Sunni insurgency, led by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State (ISIS). The insurgents opposed not just the US occupation, but also its perceived beneficiaries: mainly the Shia majority.
Some ex-Baathists ended up in US detention centers, where abusive practices were widespread. While interned in centers like Camp Bucca in Southeastern Iraq, ex-Baathists and Salafists commingled, and the military experience of the former fused with the ideological extremism of the latter. By the time ISIS proclaimed its “caliphate” in 2014, an estimated 17 of its 25 principal commanders – including the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – had spent time in US detention centers between 2004 and 2011.
Meanwhile, sectarianism was creating havoc in Iraq’s Shia-led government. In 2010, the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was re-elected, though his State of Law Coalition had won fewer seats than the more moderate Iraqi National Movement, led by Ayad Allawi. Barack Obama’s administration could have weighed in to help Allawi form a government, but instead enabled Maliki – Iran’s preferred choice – to hold onto power. Maliki’s policies became increasingly personalistic, clientelistic, and polarizing, fueling Salafist jihadism, which had sustained several blows prior to the 2010 election.
The Obama administration’s refusal to back Allawi was a precursor to its premature withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011. Both episodes cleared the way for the jihadist insurgency that was already moving into neighboring Syria. Less than three years later, the US was forced to return to Iraq; soon thereafter, it also launched an intervention in Syria.
Now, after a long and arduous campaign, ISIS has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. But the past 15 years have demonstrated that we cannot be complacent. Depriving ISIS of its territory does not eliminate the ideology that sustains it. In fact, it might radicalize it even further.
Looking ahead, the hope is that Iraq’s general election in May will deliver a government that is committed to ruling through consensus, maintaining stability, and defending the country’s institutions. Moreover, the next government will have to reach out to Iraq’s independence-minded Kurds and find a satisfactory way to integrate them into the political process.
For the US, in particular, one of the most important lessons of the past 15 years is that military interventions aimed at regime change will almost always lead to disaster, especially in the absence of a sensible plan for what comes next. The Iraq War showed that the cost of unilaterally forsaking diplomatic channels can be enormous.
One hopes that the Trump administration – particularly the incoming secretary of state, Mike Pompeo – will heed these lessons as tensions with Iran heat up. Iran’s growing regional influence owes much to America’s mistakes in Iraq, starting with the abandonment of diplomacy. A similar US approach to Iran would lead to another generation – or more – of turmoil in the Middle East.
Trump’s Dangerous Blank Check
The US Department of Defense’s decision to drop an 11-ton "super bomb" over a geographically isolated Islamic State redoubt in Afghanistan does not reflect a coherent counterterrorism policy. In fact, it was an example of political leaders allowing military means to determine foreign-policy ends.
NEW YORK – The US Department of Defense’s decision to drop an 11-ton Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb over a remote Islamic State (ISIS) redoubt in Afghanistan does not reflect a coherent counterterrorism policy. As many commentators have pointed out, it was yet another case of tactics swallowing strategy – a mode of policymaking that was auditioned a week earlier in Syria and that could lead to catastrophe if tried on, say, the Korean Peninsula.
More specifically, the Afghan attack was an example of letting military means determine policy ends. Rather than identifying an urgent national-security threat and weighing the options for countering it, US military commanders seem to have perused America’s unused arsenal, happened upon the MOAB, and sought a place where its power could be put on display.
Naturally, they had to find a relatively civilian-free target, but not necessarily one posing a serious national-security threat, or serving as an important stronghold of the Afghan insurgency. The all-purpose rationale for dropping a MOAB in the Afghan mountains was that, after eight years of Barack Obama’s alleged weakness, using America’s largest nonnuclear bomb would “restore deterrence.” Never mind that a global, decentralized network of extremists will hardly be deterred by high-intensity detonations over remote badlands.
The Department of Defense is the one national-security bureaucracy that has been spared US President Donald Trump’s tempestuous outbursts. But while the military obviously has a crucial role to play in combating violent extremism, the Trump administration is wrong to give the Pentagon free rein.
This approach is dangerous for two reasons. First, Pentagon officials are professionally biased with respect to national-security threats. They tend to overestimate the efficacy of military means in eliminating threats, while underestimating the role of diplomacy, intelligence, or law enforcement.
The second reason is Trump himself. When asked about the decision to haul the MOAB out of storage, he dodged the question. “Everybody knows exactly what happened,” he said. “And what I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done their job as usual. So, we have given them total authorization.”
Blank-check authorization by a geopolitically challenged commander-in-chief means that the Pentagon is now operating not just without oversight, but also with impunity. It should go without saying that outsourcing national-security policy to an adrenaline-fueled agency that will not be held accountable for its decisions to use force cannot end well.
To understand the risks, look no further than the response of former US Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Intent on responding to al-Qaeda’s attack with a demonstration of military might, they sought a battlefield where the military could strut its stuff.
The various urban locales where the 9/11 attackers had plotted and prepared – for example, Hamburg – were, to put it mildly, unsuitable for a “shock and awe” display of American military might. So the US targeted Iraq, which Cheney preposterously described as “the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” Never mind that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and that toppling a secular Arab dictator would do nothing to stop religiously minded non-state extremists.
The decisive role that the Iraq invasion played in the rise of ISIS, as well as in the ongoing collapse of the liberal international order, should have served as a warning to policymakers who would delegate America’s national security to politically unaccountable decision-makers. Apparently, it didn’t.
Indeed, not even Obama avoided the trap of allowing America’s military means to determine its foreign-policy ends. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine is mostly correct that Trump has thrown Obama’s caution to the wind. But, by resorting so extensively to drones as a counterterrorism instrument, Obama provided a pernicious precedent for the decision to drop the MOAB.
To be sure, Obama had some good reasons for relying on drones. Unlike ground troops making split-second decisions under live fire, drone operators are less vulnerable to the fear or rage that can lead to battlefield and civilian massacres. But Obama also used drones simply because he had them. The very existence of these weapons seems to have played some, albeit incalculable, role in the decision to deploy them.
Because drones all but eliminate the risk of American casualties, they can be used against targets that do not necessarily pose a direct and significant threat to US national security. That is exactly what happened under Obama: How America fights was allowed to determine where and why it fights. As the convenience of drones led to mission creep, his administration authorized kill-not-capture missions in areas of the world where the direct threat to US interests was negligible.
The same can be said of using a MOAB to obliterate a few dozen fanatically cruel but relatively insignificant fighters lurking in a tunnel complex in the Spin Ghar mountains. If the objective was to send a message that “America is back,” one can only wonder who, exactly, is receiving that message and what their reaction is likely to be.
One answer is the US media. As the 2016 presidential election made painfully clear, America’s “free press” functions less as a check on political power than as a conveyer belt for unprincipled deception and distraction. Following the MOAB strike, the US press fulfilled that role, providing duly sensational coverage.
Cable news channels, in particular – even those with a mythical “liberal bias” – cannot resist trumpeting Trump’s inane rants and absurd fabrications. But when Trump’s antics have lost their novelty, the administration will have to find new ways to divert our attention from his current and past scandals. Regrettably, the US military seems ready and willing to lead the way.
We can only hope that the next US military strike – whether in North Korea or in the Persian Gulf – won’t trigger a genuine national-security emergency. If it does, unfortunately, Trump’s under-staffed, over-militarized, and politically untouchable national-security apparatus will be frighteningly unprepared to meet the challenge.