Mike Pompeo is among the most qualified secretaries of State to ever hold his position. He graduated first in his class from West Point and served subsequently in the 4th Infantry Division based in West Germany.
He was a successful businessman, congressman, and director of Central Intelligence before finally moving over to Foggy Bottom. Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose supporters bragged about her qualifications, Pompeo had both military and private sector experience and did not owe his rise to his spouse. Pompeo represented the 4th congressional district in Kansas because he founded a business there and lived there for more than a decade before his turn to politics. Clinton, on the other hand, let her earlier turn to politics shape her move to a state with a Senate spot opening.
It has become fashionable in some quarters to lambast Pompeo as “the worst secretary of State ever.” Here, for example, is a Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times saying just that. And here is Jackson Diehl making much the same point on the Washington Post opinion page for which he is deputy editor. Norm Ornstein, a contributing editor at the Atlantic (and my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute,) agrees. So too does Aaron David Miller, a veteran Clinton-era peace processor who is now a resident at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
By any reasonable metric, these critics are wrong. The decisions by both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations with Israel show that the peace process conventional wisdom to which Pompeo’s predecessors adhered was false. The Middle East peace breakthrough gives Pompeo a high-profile success that many of his predecessors lack. The likelihood that more Arab and Islamic states will do the same will be icing on the cake.
The recent Serbia-Kosovo deal is also a triumph. Nor is there any reason to apologize for the “Maximum Pressure” campaign on Iran. That his opponents would water down U.S. demands that Iran cease terrorism as well as nuclear and ballistic missile work is frankly the real scandal.
Historians will likely conclude that Pompeo’s most significant contribution to U.S. strategy and security was to change the conversation in Washington with regard to China. Previous secretaries of State embraced the idea that China would reciprocate goodwill or adhere to the foundations of the post-World War II liberal order. This, of course, was nonsense. Pompeo has made the necessity to counter Chinese inroads globally a core mission that will not be easily undone.
One of the reasons why so many bury Pompeo’s successes and target him with irrational animus is because, alongside former UN Envoy Nikki Haley, he is a leading contender for the 2024 Republican nomination for president. Partisans hope to tarnish his reputation beyond repair.
Not surprisingly, many of the attacks miss their mark. Recent criticism of Pompeo’s wife Susan is ignorant and overblown.
Within the U.S. military, spouses are a team. Military wives (or husbands) perform functions in close coordination with their spouses’ staff, especially with regard to the social side of the job. It goes unstated, but at more senior levels, promotion depends on it. No military spouse, however, would ever get an official email for correspondence with her husband’s staff.
Likewise, the blowup surrounding Pompeo’s housing on a Navy compound loses its partisan sting when the multimillion-dollar savings in security costs are considered. The broader scandal becomes why the U.S. taxpayer should have had to pay double for Secretaries of State John Kerry or Rex Tillerson’s security. Then, juxtapose the vehemence of the attacks on Pompeo with the press turning a blind eye to Kerry’s multimillion-dollar tourist junket to Antarctica for his favored aides or the ethical questions raised by the Kerry State Department’s funneling of contracts to his daughter’s charity and the cynicism and emptiness of the attacks on Pompeo become apparent.
That does not mean that there are not fair issues to criticize. Many of these have less to do with Pompeo himself than the president whom he serves. Take, for example, the Ukraine debacle which led to the Trump impeachment hearings.
A careful reading of the evidence shows that Pompeo sought to thread the needle as Trump and personal associates like Rudy Giuliani pursued a quid pro quo in Ukraine. He did his best to shield Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from the president’s ire and protect her broader career. Pompeo could have resigned, but that would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater given the uncertainty of who a replacement might be or if a replacement could even be confirmed.
I have been sharply critical of the Taliban peace talks, especially with regard to State Department strategy and Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s behavior. Taliban insincerity gives no reason for optimism. “At the moment the U.S. and Afghan governments have no plan B,” a senior member of the Taliban’s negotiating team recently explained.
“Only the Taliban have a plan A and B. Our plan A is a peaceful political solution, and Plan B, definitely a military takeover.” Realistically, however, the genesis of Taliban talks, just like those with North Korea before them, lies with Trump rather than Pompeo.
The secretary of State plays with the cards he is dealt by the president rather than the cards he would deal himself. Should Pompeo run for president, opponents might try to sully Pompeo’s reputation with Trump failures in North Korea and Afghanistan. To be fair, however, the North Korea failure predates Pompeo’s tenure by decades, and it was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s State Department which chose to strike deals with the Taliban before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Pompeo’s term in office, of course, would be ended by a Trump loss in November. For Pompeo, however, an imminent end to his tenure as secretary of State might have a silver-lining: Unshackled from the White House, he could show what the Pompeo doctrine really could be without fear of suffering meaningful reprisal from a lame-duck Trump.
Trump, for example, has largely shielded Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from accountability for his behavior. Pompeo might push forward a formal designation of Turkey as a state-sponsor of terror, which it objectively deserves. Likewise, he could formally de-list the Kurdistan Workers Party to add coherence to U.S. policy in Syria. Simply put, the Cold War is over, the Kurdistan Workers Party has evolved, and the group has not engaged in anti-American terrorism for decades, if at all.
In Iraq, Pompeo might re-open the U.S. consulate in Basra to show Iran that it cannot push the United States away from its partners. He could likewise overrule his own Africa Bureau and open a consulate in Hargeisa, Somaliland, in order to further a partnership with the unrecognized country in order to further an alliance of democracies and give it moral and military support to resist China.
While Pompeo was right to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, that action could easily be reversed by Biden or the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which will be whispering in his ear. Pompeo might therefore have the State Department demolish or sell the old U.S. embassy building in Tel Aviv, just as it has already sold the ambassador’s residence in nearby Herzliya. As for Lebanon: Enough is enough. U.S. taxpayer funds are not an entitlement, nor should UN peacekeepers who have failed at their task to prevent Hezbollah from re-arming have their failed mandate extended.
Pompeo might also do right by Taiwan and recognize Itu Aba (Taiping) as the island it is, thereby extending Taiwan’s territorial waters significantly. Likewise, he should stop the State Department’s decades-long moral equivalency between pro-Western Morocco and pro-Cuba Algeria and fully and formally recognize the Western Sahara as an integral part of Morocco. Historically, it is.
Trump’s November defeat is far from certain, and this campaign against the backdrop of the pandemic is like none other. Still, Pompeo unrestrained would be a gift not only to U.S. national security but also to his successors who could accept the fruits of Pompeo’s decisions without having to fight the political battles themselves.
About Michael Rubin
Arab politics, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Horn of Africa
Bio & Experience
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.
Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.
- Foreign Military Studies Office: Contract Analyst, 2012–present
- Naval Postgraduate School: Senior Lecturer, 2007–21
- Middle East Quarterly: Editor, 2004–09
- Coalition Provisional Authority (Baghdad): Political Adviser, 2003–04
- Office of the Secretary of Defense: Staff Adviser, Iran and Iraq, 2002–04
- Council on Foreign Relations: International Affairs Fellow, 2002–03
- Hebrew University (Jerusalem): Fellow, The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, 2001–02
- Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs: Fellow, 2000–01
- Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok (Iraqi Kurdistan): Visiting Lecturer, 2000–01
- Yale University: Lecturer, Department of History, 1999–2000
- Iranian Studies: Assistant Editor, 1994–97
Ph.D. and MA in history; BS in biology, Yale University
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