If and when Mike Pompeo is confirmed as secretary of State, he will inherit a department that has not only spent the past few decades losing ground to the Pentagon as the prime mover of U.S. foreign policy, but was also systematically gutted by his predecessor Rex Tillerson, who downsized the agency and pushed out droves of professional diplomats with centuries of collective experience.
Given that Tillerson’s only real legacy at State is one of painful cuts, staff attrition, rampant demoralization, and failed corporate-style management, it is natural to hope that his successor, however odious his politics may be, will at least prove a better manager on account of actually having a background in government service. This hope was expressed on Tuesday in pieces like this one from the Associated Press, which wishfully asserted that “his conservative political bent and closeness to President Donald Trump could breathe new vigor into an agency all too often sidelined on many of the nation’s most pressing national security matters.”
Tillerson, of course, lacked both Trump’s ear and his confidence. The AP also noted that Pompeo’s leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency was more focused on agility and delegation than Tillerson’s micromanaging approach at State. Pompeo is seen as a more forceful personality than Tillerson and could prove a more commanding presence on the world stage.
Even former ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, perhaps the second least likely person in the world to stand up for Mike Pompeo after Hillary Clinton herself, took to the opinion page of the New York Times to suggest that, if he wanted to, Pompeo could restore the State Department to its former glory and save it from utter irrelevance. In her op-ed, Power suggested that the secretary-designate move quickly to fill all of our empty ambassadorships, take steps to attract new foreign service officers, and change rules that discourage former employees from coming back to the department.
Yet Power also acknowledged that Pompeo was a driving force behind the endless partisan investigation into the 2012 attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead. A man who played such an outsize role in politicizing the position he is now poised to assume, for the thinly veiled purpose of damaging Barack Obama’s presidency and Clinton’s own political ambitions, seems particularly unlikely to Make American Diplomacy Professional Again.
“It may be that no Trump appointee can … attract diplomats to serve under a commander-in-chief who seems to hold diplomacy in contempt,” Power wrote. “But Mr. Pompeo has to try.”
Will he, though? Indeed, is that even what he’s being put there to do?
While history may remember Tillerson as one of the least competent and effectual secretaries of State in modern American history, in the final analysis, that’s not why he was fired. Tillerson lost his job because for all his many faults, he wasn’t a yes-man: He didn’t flatter Trump’s ego or back up his obviously wrong positions. He refused to participate in the lie that Russia didn’t really meddle in our elections. He even got caught calling the president a “moron.” He neither sought nor needed Trump’s approval.
Indeed, the fundamental irony of Tillerson’s ouster is that for how bad he was at his job, at the end of the day, it was trying to do it well that did him in. In this context, there is little reason to believe that Mike Pompeo’s State Department will function much more effectively than his predecessor’s. The facts before us suggest that it’s not really intended to.
Up to this point, the main obstacle to diplomacy in this administration was not Tillerson, but Trump himself. Yes, it was ridiculous that Tillerson had his staff print out Trump’s tweets (presumably including the one that fired him) so that he could find out what the policy agenda was for the day, but what’s even more ridiculous is a president issuing foreign-policy directives on Twitter in the first place.
In their Tillerson postmortem at Politico, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky pointed out that Trump has never taken diplomacy or the State Department seriously. Tillerson’s ham-fisted downsizing of the department was neither accidental nor his own idea; Trump put him there to do just that. Had Tillerson been a better manager it might have helped stanch the bleeding of talent from the foreign service, but it would not have made much difference to his success, because Trump has never understood the point of having a secretary of State in the first place, or of having anyone other than himself speak to the world on behalf of the United States. To understand Trump’s opinion of the State Department, one need look no further than his proposal last month to underfund it by nearly $9 billion.
Pompeo’s main appeal to Trump, meanwhile, is that he shares the president’s disdain for civilian diplomacy as a means of solving problems and advancing the American agenda internationally. On the policy side, that means the Iran nuclear deal is on even thinner ice and war with North Korea is that much more likely. The best-case scenario is that because Pompeo is simpatico with Trump’s hawkish attitudes, he can get him to listen to reason and calm down when he really goes off the rails.
On the personnel side, meanwhile, it’s hard to see how a deeply partisan, military-first, hard-core Islamophobe transplanted from the CIA, whose chances of survival in his role may depend solely on his willingness to validate Trump’s worst instincts, will convince all the professional diplomats who have left the department in the past year to come back. Tillerson’s mismanagement may have been the proximate cause of their departures, but the more fundamental issue remains that the president clearly doesn’t think the work they do matters.