President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo for the position. Now, the person who could head the top diplomatic post in the country doesn’t even seem to be a fan of diplomacy.
Pompeo supported the torture program before he suddenly opposed it, is hawkish on North Korea, opposes the Iran nuclear deal, and has sought to expand the drone program, allowing the CIA to carry out strikes in Afghanistan.
In an impromptu presser on the White House’s south lawn, Trump told reporters on Tuesday that he replaced Tillerson — who he fired while the Secretary of State was on an official trip in Africa — with Pompeo because:
…We disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal. I think it’s terrible. I guess he — it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something. And he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same. With Mike, Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process.
Pompeo has been an unpopular figure among human rights advocates for years. When Trump nominated him as CIA director, Human Rights Watch outright called for the Senate to reject his confirmation, citing his stance on torture, the surveillance program, whistleblowers (he called for Edward Snowden’s execution), and Muslims, who he said were “potentially complicit” in attacks against the United States and are “a threat” to the country.
Assuming Pompeo gets confirmed by the Senate, he is an odd choice for the country’s top diplomat. In 2014, Pompeo, then a Republican lawmaker from Kansas, told reporters at a roundtable meeting that a war against Iran would be preferable to signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” said Pompeo.
Signed between Iran, the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany, the JCOPA limits Iran’s enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relief. President Trump has said he wants to tear up the deal — if the European partners won’t “fix” it to his liking — something that Pompeo supports. The new secretary of state nominee has also repeatedly said that North Korea is “a handful” of months away from striking the United States for about a year now.
“I think this is tied to North Korea and possibly the sanctions actions – which Tillerson opposed….actually, so many policies,” said Barbara Bodine, a retired ambassador and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Answering questions via email, Bodine told ThinkProgress that Tillerson’s departure was “in the works” and that his critical comments of Russia on Monday came as a parting shot. “If you’re leaving, why not?” she said.
Pompeo’s potential appointment also comes at a crucial time for U.S.-North Korea relations. Just last week, President Trump accepted an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to meet and discuss ways to ease the tension over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
This comes after months of increasingly heated rhetoric between the the two leaders that has gone from name-calling to threats of actual attacks. As an expert previously told ThinkProgress, North Korea is three or four long-range missile tests away from having a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States. Included in the offer to speak is the promise to suspend those tests, so there is no way of presently knowing when the North Koreans will have the sorts of capabilities Pompeo has been talking about.
Rachel Stohl, managing director of Stimson Center and directs the the Conventional Defense Program told ThinkProgress that she was “shocked and surprised” at the announcement on Tuesday. “We’re trying to find predictability in an administration that has been nothing but unpredictable. So we have no idea ‘why now’ — was it well thought out?”
Calling Pompeo a “political choice” she added, “My concerns have to do more with issues related to transparency and accountability, the relevance of diplomacy as a key pillar of our strategy in terms of foreign policy — it can’t just be military force.”
The trouble is that the State Department has what Stohl calls a “thin bench” when it comes to diplomatic expertise, with what she describes as few “worker bees”– frontline diplomats and assistant secretaries in crucial posts such as South Korea.
“We need to think about what is diplomacy? Diplomacy is not about show of force. It’s not about threatening your interlocutors. Diplomacy is about listening, and compromise, and finding common solutions — or at least common approaches…and this administration is short on that experience,” she said.
The Trump administration went from having Tillerson, a former oil executive, to Pompeo, who also lacks international experience, at the helm of a state department that has been decimated. As Stohl pointed out, “The morale at the State Department is so low, and the staff is really paralyzed and unable to get anything done. You have really good people, really good civil servants who have dedicated their lives [to service] who are disheartened.”
Will Pompeo be able to turn things around — assuming he even wants to?
“I don’t know,” replied Stohl, with a deep sigh.