When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the rounds on Capitol Hill last week to explain the Trump administration’s latest State Department budget request, he got a beating from both sides of the aisle. The request, a 21 percent reduction in funding from the previous fiscal year, was dead on arrival for members of the House Foreign Affairs and Appropriations committees. The same man who promised to bring “swagger” back to U.S. diplomacy was now trying to justify a $13 billion reduction to the department’s accounts. Members of Congress simply couldn’t square the circle.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, not known for his brashness, was livid. “I don’t know whether this administration really believes we can mount an effective foreign policy…on a shoestring budget, or if the people calling the shots just don’t care,” he surmised. “But Congress won’t stand by and see American leadership on the global stage undermined.” Congressman Mike McCaul, the ranking Republican who is normally a defender of the administration, was just as aghast and vowed to “plus up” the request. And Congressman Hal Rogers, the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called the budget “detached from reality.”
If this were the first time Pompeo had attempted to put lipstick on the pig of a State Department cut, perhaps Republicans and Democrats alike would have excused it as an anomaly. But last year, he did the same thing: in fact, the meat ax he asked for was even larger. Lawmakers were just as contemptuous of those numbers as they are with the current figures. It appeared to many that America’s top diplomat was devaluing diplomacy as a core component of U.S. foreign policy.
In all fairness, it’s unfair to judge dedication to diplomacy on budget numbers alone. Like all departments and agencies of the federal government, the State Department is not immune to wasteful spending. In a way, Pompeo deserves some credit for realizing that more money doesn’t necessarily yield better results. Yet as the old saying goes, the numbers don’t lie. The Trump administration’s $42.8 billion State Department budget is peanuts compared to a Pentagon bureaucracy that remains a cash-eating machine (Trump wants $750 billion for the military this year alone).
American foreign policy is in a prime position for a significant adjustment away from military solutions. But in order for that shift to happen, the defense budget either needs to go down substantially or the State Department budget needs to be reinforced.
Pompeo is either a firm believer in these cuts or tried and failed to change Trump’s mind during inter-agency deliberations. Neither of those scenarios reflect particularly well on him as the leader of American diplomacy.
Were Pompeo out there promoting reasonable diplomatic resolutions to difficult global problems, the kerfuffle over the budget could perhaps be forgiven (Congress, after all, was always likely to discard the administration’s proposal in favor of its own). But on any number of foreign policy priorities, Pompeo has acted more like a playground bully than a diplomat trying to find openings for success. As State Department veterans Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky write in Politico, Pompeo “has proven far more adept at managing Trump than U.S. foreign policy and has embraced an ideological and uncompromising hard line that aligns with his own temperament, convictions and perhaps his presidential ambitions in the Republican Party.”
That perfectly sums up Pompeo’s diplomatic style to date, which has revolved around a no compromise approach to U.S. adversaries and a tone deaf, tough love approach to its partners and allies. Rex Tillerson was pilloried throughout his one-year tenure at Foggy Bottom for his lack of concrete results—a criticism that was frequently unfair given constant interventions by the likes of senior White House advisor Jared Kushner and the president’s own Twitter account. Pompeo, however, has a close relationship with Trump and his team but has nonetheless been unable to make headway on issues as diverse as holding Saudi Arabia accountable, ending the civil war in Yemen, denuclearizing North Korea, and managing Washington’s relationships with the Europeans. Tillerson at least had the excuse of being undercut by people in the White House. Having glad-handed the president at every opportunity and all but categorized him as the messiah of the modern era, Pompeo can’t use the same pretext.
Granted, nothing in the secretary of state portfolio is easy—particularly for someone like Pompeo, who came into the job with far less diplomatic experience than previous secretaries like Jim Baker, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, and even Condoleezza Rice. But diplomacy is the art of the possible, and in Pompeo’s case, possible solutions are typically waved away as weakness, insufficiently indicative of America’s power, or, dare I say, appeasement.
If Pompeo was interested in good-enough solutions, for instance, he wouldn’t be browbeating the Europeans to cut off all foreign trade with Iran—despite the fact that they’ve made it abundantly clear from the outset that they have no intention of tearing up the Iran nuclear deal. He would not continue to peddle the fiction that Saudi Arabia is doing its due diligence as it continues to prosecute an air war in Yemen that kills an abominable number of civilians. (On March 26, the Saudi-led coalition hit a gas station near a hospital in a remote part of Yemen’s northern countryside, shutting down the facility and killing seven people in the process.) Nor would he continue to go along with the fantasy of North Korea’s immediate denuclearization, an objective about as unrealistic as the New York Mets wining the World Series this year.
Nobody said being the secretary of state was going to be smooth sailing. It’s easy for those of us in the peanut gallery to yell and scream. Indeed, there is plenty Pompeo wouldn’t be able to do even if he was a negotiating savant; the world has a funny way of throwing twists and turns between points A and B. America’s adversaries get a vote, every state is driven by its own interests, and sometimes diplomacy falls short when the respective parties are not prepared to sit down and deal. But it’s up to Pompeo in his role as the leader of U.S. diplomacy to recognize when opportunities arise, when it’s time for a stick, or when carrots are the better tool to safeguard U.S. interests. To date, carrots have been missing from his repertoire.
We don’t know how long Pompeo will be on the job. As he joked a few weeks ago, there may come a time when he finds out through Twitter that Trump has decided to move on, a la Tillerson and the toilet. Or Pompeo could leave on his own terms, choosing to get back into the political game.
Yet for as long as he’s sitting in the secretary’s suite, Pompeo needs to prioritize statesmanship over politics and sucking up to the boss. Otherwise, the former congressman from Kansas will set a dangerous precedent for any successor, one that says going along to get along is a better way to pad one’s career prospects than telling the president the honest truth about what is and is not possible.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The American Conservative.