Op-Ed: Mike Pompeo may speak like a tea party tub-thumper, but he deserves a chance
Mike Pompeo, who’s heading for confirmation as President Trump’s next secretary of State, has provided plenty of reasons to worry about his fitness for the job.
As a tea party congressman from Kansas, Pompeo often acted as an unrestrained partisan flamethrower. He denounced the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran as “surrender” and said the United States should “walk away from this deal.” He suggested that the best way to avert a nuclear threat from North Korea would be to remove Kim Jong Un from power. And he was one of the most strident voices accusing Hillary Clinton of hiding the truth about the 2012 Benghazi attack.
But there’s a contrary case to be made in favor of Pompeo: He’s not nearly as dumb — or as extreme — as he made himself sound when he was a member of the House.
That was Pompeo’s basic message in his Senate confirmation hearing this month, although he made the point a little less bluntly than I just did.
“I know some of you have read [that] I’m a hawk, I’m a hard-liner,” he told the senators. “There’s no one like someone who’s served in uniform who understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war.”
The Pompeo who appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a far more thoughtful and nuanced thinker than the Congressman Pompeo who made a career of scorching the Obama administration.
Pompeo isn’t nearly as dumb — or as extreme — as he made himself sound when he was a member of the House.
On Iran, Pompeo said he hopes the nuclear deal can be improved, not scrapped. On North Korea, he renounced any thought of regime change and said he hopes Trump’s upcoming summit with Kim will help achieve a “diplomatic outcome that America and the world so desperately need.”
Most notably, he staked out several positions that sounded very unlike Trump’s, although he did it quietly. One could even say diplomatically.
He said the U.S. needs strong alliances in Asia to counter China’s ambitions through multilateral diplomacy. He affirmed that climate change is real, that “there is likely a human component,” and that U.S. diplomacy needs to address the challenge. And he broke cleanly with his president on the question of Russia, reaffirming that Vladimir Putin meddled in the 2016 election, warning that he will try again and calling for the imposition of more U.S. sanctions. Asked whether the source of friction between the two countries was the “Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation,” as Trump had tweeted, Pompeo said no, the source is “Russian bad behavior.”
If the new secretary of State is as clear in the Oval Office as he was in the Senate hearing room, the republic will be well-served.
For Pompeo’s most important mission in his new job won’t be restoring the battered glory of the State Department. It will be acting as a Trump Whisperer — as one of the few aides who have the president’s confidence plus the courage to tell him when he’s wrong.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of State, never mastered it. Jim Mattis, the secretary of Defense whom Trump insists on calling “Mad Dog,” has.
Pompeo stands a chance, perhaps, because like Mattis, he looks and sounds hawkish and blustery even when he isn’t.
Pompeo appeared to know, from his first day at the CIA, that the key to power was winning Trump’s trust. He made a point of delivering the president’s morning intelligence briefing in person as often as possible, and tailored it to Trump’s short attention span.
Pompeo brings another hidden asset to the job: He understands how to run a federal agency. Tillerson undermined his own influence by embracing budget cuts and demoralizing the State Department workforce. Pompeo, by contrast, says he’ll spend every dollar Congress gives him, fill dozens of empty positions and restore “swagger” to U.S. diplomacy. Swagger may not be the most pressing need, but it’s better than neglect.
That still leaves a riddle: Who is the real Pompeo?
“I’m trying to think about which of the Mike Pompeos I’m being asked to vote on,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “Which is the one that is going to act if he gets confirmed as the secretary of State?”
People who knew Pompeo in the House, including some Democrats, say both sides are real. Under his fiercely partisan patina, Pompeo has secretly been a thoughtful internationalist all along — hawkish and conservative, to be sure, but a serious student of foreign policy.
Hawks can succeed as diplomats too. The best example may be George P. Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of State, who believed the willingness to use force was essential to diplomatic success.
There was a distant echo of Shultz in Pompeo’s opening statement to the Senate: “The military balance of power,” he said, “can set the stage and create leverage, but the best outcomes are always won at the diplomatic table.”
Trump is no Ronald Reagan. And Pompeo is no George Shultz — not yet, at least.
But he deserves a chance to try, not merely to live up to the promises he made at his confirmation hearing, but to complete an unlikely but worthwhile metamorphosis from tea party tub-thumper to statesman.
Doyle McManus is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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