Magazine | May 6, 2019, Issue

Mike Pompeo’s Two Audiences

(Roman Genn)
One is the president, the other is the world

‘I don’t know if you’ve ever traveled with the secretary,” says a friend of Mike Pompeo’s, “but you’ll see that he squeezes in every minute trying to be productive.” The secretary of state confirms it just minutes after his airplane takes off from Andrews Air Force Base. It’s the middle of February, around 9:15 p.m., six hours before he’s due to land in Budapest for a five-day tour taking him from Hungary to Brussels to Iceland. But instead of sleeping, Pompeo is getting a head start on the week’s diplomacy: talking to the State Department press corps in the back of the modified Boeing 757.

The visit turns into an impromptu press conference when a reporter asks Pompeo, looming in the aisle of the cabin, whether he’ll run for the Senate in 2020 (which Pompeo has since ruled out publicly). Another asks whether he misses anything about being in Congress (which he answers with a grin before reminding us that the conversation is off the record). The secretary has already said he needs to sleep, but he stands in the aisle for 15 minutes, throwing chum to a hungry group of veteran reporters who, like him, are looking at six straight days of work with little sleep and plenty of travel. Which is to say that this is a group of reporters who are bound to get a little prickly.

Being a diplomat is a full-time job — even when you’re off the record.

Pompeo always knows his audience, which is perhaps the best answer to why he’s been able to keep a senior position since the beginning of the Trump administration. April marks one year since Pompeo became secretary of state: an eternity in this cabinet, where top officials come and go as they gain and lose the presidential seal of approval. Pompeo, a California native and former Kansas congressman, has been in Donald Trump’s cabinet since Trump tapped him as CIA director in January 2017. That practically makes him, as South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham recently quipped at a committee hearing, the longest-serving member of government.

Secretary of state is among the most visible and challenging cabinet posts. The nation’s top diplomat has to be able to hold forth about international crises of varying sorts without pausing for a briefing. He will be able to speak directly or vaguely as the situation demands, sounding sincere all the time. He should understand foreign customs and possess a baseline level of historical knowledge. Pompeo checks these boxes: On the trip, Pompeo answers questions about Chinese telecom company Huawei, slain columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and disintegrating Venezuela while juggling meetings with controversial Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, persecuted Hungarian civil-society groups, and former Soviet political prisoners. He receives ornate greetings at palaces in both Bratislava and Warsaw. He trudges through snow to visit a NATO base in eastern Poland, and participates in a fraught, more-than-50-nation summit on Iranian issues held in an empty Warsaw soccer stadium.

But of all the demands of the job, the most important when serving a thoroughly undiplomatic president is to be able to show the world that the Trump administration has a coherent, consistent foreign policy while at the same time satisfying the mercurial Trump. Like Janus, Pompeo faces in two directions: back to the White House and out to the world.

Michael Richard Pompeo was born in December, 1963, in Orange, Calif. Neither of his parents graduated from college, “but both worked their tails off,” he says, for a manufacturing company. Pompeo attended public school before heading off to West Point, where, in 1986, he graduated first in his class with a degree in engineering. His siblings stayed in southern California: His older sister is a teacher; his brother, a social worker.

A classmate of his says, “I remember getting on the bus” in the summer of 1982 “and sitting across from a young guy, saying, ‘Hey, I’ve never been here, do you know where they’re taking us?’” Pompeo, the young guy across from him, responded that he’d never been east of the Mississippi. But by the late 1980s, Pompeo was stationed as a cavalry officer in Europe. His line today is that he patrolled the Iron Curtain during the fall of Communism. He left the Army in 1991 and entered Harvard Law School, where he edited the Harvard Law Review and studied under conservative, Catholic professor Mary Ann Glendon.

There’s no doubt about Pompeo’s conservatism. Asked which books have shaped his thinking, he cites F. A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Glendon’s Rights Talk. It’s a curious pairing — Hayek lauds individualism and believes that the ideal state exists only to protect the market, while Glendon suggests that a language of individual rights fails to capture the moral obligations that people owe to one another — but Pompeo seems more interested in a book he’s currently reading that was written by former Iranian political prisoners. His mind is not in the clouds but on the job.

After law school, Pompeo started with a group of associates a Wichita, Kan., aerospace firm called Thayer. It manufactured and sold components to aviation giants such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. In 2006, Pompeo left the firm for a brief stint at an oil company before running for Congress in 2010.

Pompeo was in a favorable district, and it didn’t take long for him to become one of the House’s more prominent Republicans — especially on matters of foreign policy. He befriended well-known Republicans such as Trey Gowdy, whose locker was next to his in the House gym and whom he roped in to fly with him to Kansas to campaign in 2012. “He convinced me he was in a tough primary,” Gowdy says with a laugh, of a race Pompeo won by more than 30 percentage points. “Shame on me for falling for the ‘I’m in the race of my life’ argument.” Pompeo’s first taste of visibility was serving with Gowdy on the Select Committee on Benghazi.

Pompeo gained real attention, however, as he continued to stake out a consistent, hawkish line on Middle Eastern issues. In 2013, he and Senator Tom Cotton co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed arguing that Republicans should support Barack Obama’s plan to use military force in Syria to stave off Iranian and Russian inroads. When Obama infamously retreated from his “red line” after Syrian president Bashar al-Assad presided over the gassing of civilians, Pompeo and Cotton were among the president’s loudest critics. “Mike simply shook my hand and said, ‘It was nice to be on the right side of history with you,’” Cotton recalls.

Later, as the Obama administration worked on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Pompeo was — again — among its loudest critics. A former Hill staffer describes the several ways Pompeo attacked the Iran deal, from bringing to defense bills granular amendments banning the purchase of heavy water from Iran to applying for an Iranian visa that was never going to be issued. Of course, since Pompeo ascended to the top of Foggy Bottom, the American stance on Iran has changed.

You can forget that Pompeo is just under six feet tall. He’s a barrel of a man whose military background is obvious as soon as he uses the phrase “mission set.” (It comes early in any unscripted conversation.) When I call him on the phone, weeks after he flew to Europe but minutes after he sat through Manhattan traffic, he answers with a weary “This is Mike,” but when the man is engaged, he perks up, and seems like a steamroller.

So his stage presence passes Trump’s “central casting” test. But winning over the audience — especially the man at its center — is key to surviving Trump’s reality show. Since taking office, Trump has soured on a number of cabinet officials, but Pompeo has emerged as a Trump whisperer. As CIA director, he managed to condense into a digestible form Trump’s daily intelligence briefings, which had been a source of annoyance for the commander in chief. As secretary of state, he appears frequently on the Fox morning shows, talking as much to his boss as he does to his interlocutors.

Outwardly, there’s no daylight between the two. “President Trump provides the direction for American foreign policy,” Pompeo tells National Review. “My mission is to take that and translate it into the State Department’s implementation strategy and then share that with a team and let them knock it out of the park.”

Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson in a return to normalcy for an administration that often lacks it. Simply by reversing some of the former Exxon CEO’s more divisive moves, Pompeo earned good will almost immediately from longtime State hands. Tillerson had set out to restructure (read: downsize) the department, suggesting that 8 percent of its full-time work force could be axed, cutting promotion rates for foreign-service officials, and instituting a hiring freeze. It’s a classic promise to make the capital work like a business; it’s also a classic formula for failure.

Pompeo arrived at a department in the midst of a morale crisis, with scores of high-level positions vacant. He immediately set out to fix the crisis. The hiring freeze is over, promotion rates are back up, and Pompeo now holds regular “Meet with Mike” sessions with Foggy Bottom bureaucrats. Although fewer, but still many, high-level positions remain vacant, stories of a crisis at the department have abated.

Tillerson’s vision of his mission departed from Pompeo’s in another, more crucial respect. Rumors of Tillerson’s calling Trump a “moron” or standing in the way of his desired plans left many people — foreign leaders, the media, casual observers, and members of both parties — guessing at what the Trump administration’s foreign policy actually was. “Unfortunately, not many people perceived Secretary Tillerson as speaking for President Trump,” says Senator Tom Cotton. It’s a perception that Tillerson’s comments since leaving the role have only confirmed.

‘I don’t think anyone doubts that Pompeo has the trust and confidence of the president,” Cotton says, something on which even Pompeo’s critics agree. Translating Trump’s instincts about the world into policy is far from an impossible task. For those instincts are intelligible, even if the president’s own grip on the subject is tenuous. Trump may be a realist, but he’s a particular type: what Walter Russell Mead called a “Jacksonian,” adhering to a foreign policy that is rooted in a desire to protect the “American folk community.” Jacksonians believe, wrote Mead in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, that “countries, like families, should take care of their own; if everyone did that, we would all be better off.” They have little regard for internationalist moralism or treaties that aren’t in American interests, and “they do not believe that utopia is just around the corner.” There aren’t many Jacksonians in the media, the academy, or the ranks of senior fellows populating D.C. think tanks, Mead notes, so the tendency meets with plenty of criticism. But Trump fits it.

Pompeo’s conservatism overlaps enough for a fruitful collaboration. “Fukuyama simply got it wrong,” he tells me when asked how he thinks about the rising threats to American preeminence. “There will consistently be those who want to undermine the democratic values that we hold dear. . . . But make no mistake: America will prevail.”

Chief among those who want to undermine American values, in Pompeo’s mind, is the Islamic Republic of Iran: “They present an enormous risk to the West, and they have been incredibly destabilizing in the Middle East.” But this belief landed him in the most contentious episode of his tenure. After the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia orchestrated the murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi expatriate Jamal Khashoggi, Pompeo rejected calls to downgrade relations with the Saudis, which would have represented a fundamental reorientation of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

A stable regime in Riyadh has been an American goal since FDR, but it hasn’t come without cost or criticism. Pompeo appeared with Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman just weeks after the murder, and penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the “Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on” over the Khashoggi case. It was cover, he argued, for “the same people who supported Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Iran” to advance their agenda. He also defended Saudi involvement in the ongoing war in Yemen, which, he argued, was necessary to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.

Since then, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi nationals connected to the killing. Yet in interviews, Pompeo has avoided blaming Mohammed directly despite the CIA’s finding that the prince “probably ordered” the killing. As welcome as a departure from the Ben Rhodes school of foreign policy might be, Pompeo can sound evasive. The media haven’t forgotten the incident. He would argue that he hasn’t forgotten Iran’s dreadful record.

At State, former Mitt Romney campaign hand Brian Hook holds a senior position on Iranian matters, an appointment that has drawn criticism from outside Pompeo’s orbit. Some argue that the department could be more proactive in tightening sanctions and privately view the so-called “maximum-pressure campaign” as little more than a branding strategy. Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon has reported on an ongoing debate in the administration over waivers that allow the Iranian regime to continue engaging in oil- and nuclear-related commerce. Asked about the debate, Pompeo alludes to disagreement over “particular tactics,” saying, “There’s often good, solid, robust debate from people acting in good faith . . . to get the change in the regime’s behavior.

Regardless, there has been much about his tenure to satisfy Iran hawks. The administration just declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization — the first time the U.S. government has designated an arm of a foreign government as such.

When Pompeo’s instincts seem at odds with Trump’s, you wouldn’t know it. When the president announced via tweet that it was “time for our troops to come back home” from Syria, Pompeo characterized the decision as merely “a tactical change.” It seemed like an understatement, but Pompeo seems to have spoken it into reality as American forces remain in the country. Pompeo remains outwardly optimistic, too, in the matter of North Korea, where he conducted early talks with Kim Jong-un before the Hanoi summit in February broke down.

Pompeo, also unlike his boss, has long been a candid opponent of Vladimir Putin’s. “Let me assure you that Vladimir Putin is intent on undermining democracies throughout the world,” he said to a crowd of young activists in Slovakia. That there have been no public skirmishes between Trump and his top representative is a testament to their relationship. “Mike is uniquely well situated to convince the president that Russia is not our friend and they had nefarious motives in 2016” says Gowdy. “If you’re as smart and perceptive as Mike Pompeo, and you have a consistent audience with the president, and you arm yourself with information . . . you can pull that off.”

But the ultimate arbiter of Trump’s foreign policy is Trump, and Pompeo is sure to give him credit. “We need to make sure we engage [China] in a way that protects America, in the same way that we did for every other threat that has faced the United States,” he tells National Review, which “no previous president” has done. “President Trump,” he says, “is determined to right that.”

The administration’s national-security strategy, to which department officials frequently refer, makes clear that the U.S. is in a renewed great-power competition with China and Russia. Hours after landing in Budapest, Pompeo warns European officials that partnering with Chinese telecom company Huawei, which does plenty of business in Hungary, would risk a downgrade in U.S. relations. The U.S. is reasserting itself in the region, says a senior State Department official: “If we don’t win in Central and Eastern Europe, where do we win?”

Pompeo is an indefatigable worker and consumer of information, which must come in handy on the job. The life of the secretary of state is one of greetings on airport tarmacs and ducking into motorcades. It’s a life of working lunches with representatives of countries your president might have just mocked, and press conferences with journalists annoyed that Fox News is playing on the Boeing C-32. It must be exhausting, and not just because Pompeo’s itinerary allows him, oh, four hours of sleep per night during the week. It must be exhausting because it’s diplomacy: simultaneously important and overproduced, potentially determining the course of world affairs yet featuring absurd levels of unnecessary pomp. The Middle East conference in Warsaw may have been significant — the rift between France and Germany on one hand and the U.S. on the other deepened, while Israel and the Arab states grew closer — but it’s hard not to laugh at the spectacle of a conference with a handful of participants being held in a cavernously empty soccer stadium, capacity 58,000.

“It is different, to be sure, than anything I’ve experienced before,” says Pompeo, but he soldiers on. He never seems overwhelmed. And, of course, he’s always aware of his audience. On the flight back home, the airplane meal is a bacon cheeseburger; when his wife, Susan, travels with him to visit medical facilities and schools, or to meet with the families of diplomats stationed overseas, it becomes a turkey burger. “Maybe that should remain a mystery,” Pompeo says when asked who sets the menu.

What isn’t a mystery is Pompeo’s longevity. He’s as effective an advocate of the administration’s foreign policy as Trump could hope for, and he’s obviously suited for the role. Because he speaks for the president, Pompeo insists the administration is making a lasting change in the world for good. That might be true, especially with respect to Iran and China. But as Atlantic Council senior fellow Damir Marusic has pointed out, our hotly contested domestic politics will surely cause our foreign policy to become increasingly erratic as each faction vies to ratchet back the achievements of the others. Trump won’t be president forever. But when power changes hands, whether in two years or in six, Pompeo won’t be going anywhere. He’s been able to successfully navigate one of the more difficult political environments in recent memory and keep his reputation, which suggests that when the Trump administration is a memory, Pompeo will remain at the top of the country’s mind.

This article appears as “Being a Diplomat Is a Full-Time Job” in the May 6, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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