A Sycophant, Not a Statesman
Susan Glasser of the New Yorker has a fascinating, in-depth profile of Mike Pompeo, the former Tea Party congressman who has surfed the Trump tsunami to great heights. He is described alternatively as the most talented of Donald Trump’s whisperers and one of “the most sycophantic and obsequious people” around the president.
Of course, you can’t succeed in Trump’s world without ingratiating yourself to the boss. And Pompeo is hardly the first staffer or cabinet member inside the Beltway to suck up to a superior. Stroll the hallways of the House or Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill and you’ll soon hear a subordinate singing the praises of the lawmaker he or she works for. Washington is a town, after all, where careers are made by making bosses look good.
Pompeo, however, isn’t an ordinary minnow swimming in a sea of big fish. He’s the secretary of state, someone who’s supposed to leave politics at the door and serve the president with honest, fact-driven advice. Yet he’s already failed miserably at the former and is sub-par at the latter.
Transitioning from a brash backbencher to America’s top diplomat can be a difficult move to pull off. Politicians by their very nature are usually partisans, loyal to party leadership and ready to seize the slightest opportunity for self-enhancement. Diplomats are different creatures entirely. The skill set needed to build consensus with foreign adversaries is far different than screaming at the top of your lungs in support of bills that never see the light of day. Some people can acclimate to the new environment. Others simply can’t.
Throughout his first year as secretary, Pompeo has been either unable or unwilling to serve as statesman. That’s not to say he doesn’t play one on the world stage, flying from capital to capital, meeting high-profile foreign dignitaries like the South Korean foreign minister and the Saudi crown prince. He has racked up quite a few miles, some of which—like a surprise visit to Iraq in the spring when tensions between Washington and Tehran were just heating up—seem more political than strategically necessary.
Playing the statesman, however, is not the same thing as being the statesman. A statesman would recognize when a strategy, like the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran, is not only ineffective at meeting American objectives but exacerbating the very problems it’s supposed to address. A statesman would advise the president to craft realistic objectives and scenarios before a negotiation begins. (The fact that, for example, working-level denuclearization talks with North Korea haven’t even begun yet suggests that this critical step is being skipped over entirely.) A statesman also doesn’t trash his predecessors in overtly political terms or scold journalists for asking questions. He treats Congress’s oversight powers with respect and works to court lawmakers in both parties on behalf of the State Department’s interests and priorities.
Pompeo, for whatever reason—ideological rigidity, partisan instinct, a desire to remain Trump’s favorite cabinet member, unbounded ambition—has woefully underperformed on all these counts. He treats members of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees with contempt, neglecting to send the necessary certifications and reports by deadlines established under the law. His fixation on Iran, which has persisted throughout his career, is helping drive a dangerous cycle of confrontation that the Trump administration should be trying to escape rather than fuel. And while his close kinship with Trump has given the State Department more access during inter-agency debates than was had under Rex Tillerson, his advocacy for a $13 billion cut to the department’s budget makes one wonder whether America’s chief diplomat is all that interested in diplomatic solutions.
The two jobs Pompeo has excelled at are staying in Trump’s good graces and increasing the morale of State Department employees. These were not easy feats to accomplish: in fact, they are often at odds with each other.
But what is the point of all this access if it doesn’t lead to good decisions and sound policies that actually serve U.S. interests? Perhaps a lawmaker could ask that question during Pompeo’s next appearance on Capitol Hill.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.