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Mike Pompeo, who led Donald Trump's Mission at US state dept, leaves with dubious legacy

The New York Times
·8-min read

Washington: Spurned by many foreign allies, ridiculed by adversaries, disliked by a significant number of his own diplomats and trying to preserve his political future, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week offered an insight into his legacy as a commander of the Trump administration's scorched-earth foreign policy by citing a seminal moment in his personal history.

In 1983, when Pompeo was a cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point, an Iranian-linked militia bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 US troops. By his own telling €" "My life wouldn't be the same after that," Pompeo said on Tuesday, in his last public speech in office €" it was a powerful indoctrination for a young soldier in training to protect the United States from deadly enemies.

Thirty-five years later, after becoming the 70th secretary of state in 2018, Pompeo embraced the same military mentality to confront the world. Foreign policies were described as "mission sets", and his wife, Susan, was a "force multiplier" in disarming dignitaries and families of state department employees.

Pompeo dismissed the power of persuasion, instead trying to strong-arm European leaders, taunting rulers in China and Iran, and working to keep dictators off-balance, including negotiating with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un but not President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

But by rejecting the traditional role of predictable diplomacy and mirroring President Donald Trump's own style, Pompeo's strategy backfired, according to foreign policy analysts and a large cohort in the state department.

As he leaves office, Pompeo, 57, has been tagged by a number of officials and analysts with the dubious distinction of the worst secretary of state in American history.

That will come back to haunt him as he considers running for president in 2024 or seeking another elected office, as he is widely believed to be doing. "The glass is far more empty than it is full," said Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security and a former diplomat who advised late senator John McCain's presidential campaign as the Republican nominee in 2008.

Fontaine noted that Iran is now closer to building a nuclear bomb and that North Korea has more nuclear weapons than it did at the beginning of the Trump administration. Relations with key European leaders, the United Nations and other diplomatic and economic alliances are in worse shape. The United States has less standing to promote democracy and human rights in the world than it did four years ago, according to many career diplomats.

And Pompeo's role in enabling the president's shadow foreign policy in Ukraine €" undermining years of US support to ward off Russian military aggression €" raised concerns among lawmakers during House impeachment hearings in late 2019 about whether his loyalty to Trump outweighed US security interests.

Pompeo is not the first military man to become the country's chief diplomat: Colin Powell had retired as a four-star army general before becoming George W Bush's secretary of state in 2001. Powell's tenure was forever stained by his citing of faulty intelligence to urge the invasion of Iraq in 2003 €" what he has called "painful" and a "blot" on his record €" but he is widely viewed as more of a statesman than Pompeo.

For political purposes, Pompeo might hope to be remembered as a key player in Trump's administration €" a designation that is far more tarnished abroad than it is with hard-core Republicans who care little about foreign policy in elections. After the storming of the Capitol by Trump's supporters this month, however, a growing number of Republican officials have sought to distance themselves from the departing president.

Notably, Pompeo has not, although people close to him said he was appalled by the attack. Instead, he has continued a barrage of daily Twitter posts that began on 1 January to herald what he called his foreign policy successes, echoing Trump's campaign slogans.

Pompeo was at the fore of the Trump administration's crackdown on China, Iran and Venezuela, using a mix of economic sanctions and provocative policy shifts to reshape global strategy against each.

That was especially the case for China, as Pompeo emerged as the administration's most vocal critic of Beijing. He took every opportunity to highlight China's human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities and, as a parting shot, he is now considering whether to declare them acts of genocide.

He has also led global condemnation of Beijing's expansionist ambitions and oppression in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea. Other nations, however, have refused to follow the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organisation, which stripped funding from the UN agency during the coronavirus pandemic, which Pompeo insisted on calling the "Wuhan virus," again echoing Trump.

In dealing with Venezuela, Pompeo marshalled about 60 countries against Maduro after disputed elections and battered the government in Caracas with sanctions. But Maduro has remained in power.

In Europe, Pompeo is credited with helping to strengthen NATO as a bulwark against Russia, including through increased military spending. Alexander R Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary-general who was also a former US ambassador to Russia and South Korea and an assistant defence secretary, said Pompeo had helped protect NATO from Trump's "contempt for the allies and bullying tactics."

Pompeo also deployed shuttle diplomacy to warm relations between Israel and states in West Asia and North Africa as part of the Abraham Accords, the administration's signature foreign policy achievement. But those peace pacts were largely brokered by Jared Kushner, the president's senior advisor and son-in-law.

Pompeo has steadfastly supported Israel by defying internationally recognised norms, such as by moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and declaring Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the legitimacy of West Bank settlements. As an evangelical Christian €" a group that makes up a key conservative political constituency €" Pompeo has sometimes framed actions against Iran in religious terms linked to Israel and biblical prophecy.

The Abraham Accords were part of a pressure campaign to isolate Iran with sanctions and military threats that began after Trump withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran in May 2018, just weeks after Pompeo moved to the state department after serving as the CIA director.

Over the next two years, he repeatedly vexed efforts by other world powers to keep the 2015 nuclear deal intact. Pompeo was visibly energised by jousting with Iranian officials on Twitter: "You know you're on the side of angels when this happens," he tweeted on Tuesday, months after Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, called him the "Secretary of Hate."

Pompeo was among Trump's advisors who pushed for military strikes against Iran, which the president resisted in June 2019 but allowed in January 2020 to kill a top Iranian general who was in Iraq.

Still, Pompeo reversed himself in November, among a group of senior officials €" including Vice-President Mike Pence; Christopher C Miller, the acting defence secretary; and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff €" who countered the president's request for strike options against Iran with a warning that it could easily escalate into a broader conflict in the last weeks of Trump's presidency.

Pompeo has described himself as a disciple of "realism, restraint and respect" €" an approach advocated by his longtime financial backer, Charles Koch, a conservative billionaire whose network of donors gave more campaign contributions to Pompeo than to any other congressional candidate in the country in four House elections from 2010-16.

As secretary of state, Pompeo has hardly been secretive about his political future €" first eyeing a Senate campaign from Kansas, his adopted home state, and then fuelling expectations that he might run for governor in 2022 or president in 2024. His turbulent tenure at the state department was characterised by a series of investigations, some of which continue, including whether he violated ethics laws by engaging in political activity while on the job.

Yet Koch's continued financial support is far from assured. With a focus on soft-power diplomacy instead of war, the Charles Koch Institute €" his policy foundation €" is pouring $7 million in new grants to two Left-leaning think tanks, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the International Crisis Group, that will have influence in the Biden administration.

Pompeo's support for expanding NATO, striking Iran and keeping U.S. troops in conflict zones have not been forgotten, said Will Ruger, the foundation's vice president for policy and research.

"I don't believe that the secretary is a card-carrying realist and restrainer," said Ruger, whom Trump nominated in September to be his ambassador to Afghanistan.

In a farewell message, Pompeo made clear that the military was paramount under his watch.

"Leading @CIA & @StateDept, I constantly focused on protecting our great military and all Americans," he tweeted on Thursday. "If nothing else, our enemies knew: attack our soldiers & you will pay."

Lara Jakes c.2021 The New York Times Company

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