Pompeo's trip to seven nations offers awkward moments amid election transition

Pompeo (third from right) and wife Susan (third from left) speak with officials after arriving in Paris on Nov 14, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo embarked on a seven-nation tour that will put his counterparts in an uncomfortable position, as he presses for cooperation on Trump administration foreign policy priorities that Joe Biden is likely to abandon when he takes office.

The 10-day trip to Europe and the Middle East is made even more awkward by Mr Pompeo's refusal, like President Donald Trump, to recognise Mr Biden's victory in the Nov 3 election.

Pompeo has even spoken, perhaps in jest, about preparing for a second Trump term when the president's current term expires at noon on Jan 20.

After departing Washington late on Friday (Nov 13), Mr Pompeo's trip will take him to France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Almost all of the officials Mr Pompeo will meet - including French President Emmanuel Macron, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman - have congratulated Mr Biden on his victory and pledged to work with his administration, something Mr Trump's team has so far refused to do.

Complicating matters even more is that those leaders can expect a very different approach once Mr Biden is in office.

Mr Trump reversed many of President Barack Obama's initiatives on issues such as Iran and climate change.

Mr Biden, in turn, is expected to begin unwinding Mr Trump's efforts, as well as his tight embrace of leaders criticised as authoritarian.

A big part of Mr Pompeo's trip appears to be aimed at putting in place policies that will be difficult for Mr Biden to undo.

That's especially the case on Iran, where the Trump administration has imposed a web of sanctions designed to curb the country's nuclear programme and punish it for ties to terrorist groups.

While those efforts have largely cut off Iran's oil exports and damaged its economy, it hasn't dislodged President Hassan Rouhani's government or forced it back to the negotiating table.

A related objective will be to make it harder for Mr Biden to go back into the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that Mr Trump abandoned in 2018.

The trip may also serve a longer-term purpose for Mr Pompeo, who has made little secret of harbouring further political ambitions and may seek to run for president in 2024.

His stop in Israel will include visits to the Golan Heights and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, something no past secretary has done for fear of antagonising the Palestinians.

Mr Pompeo, like Mr Trump, has made championing Israel a central theme of his tenure.

He courted controversy during his most recent stop in Israel in August, when he recorded a speech to the Republican National Convention from a Jerusalem rooftop.

"There's no policy they can put in place with 68 days remaining that wouldn't be easily overturned, and my guess is that Secretary Pompeo wants one last opportunity to make the case to President Trump and potential voters in 2024 for the fabulous achievements of the Trump administration," said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defence policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's going to talk about how Europeans contributed more toward Nato's defence during Trump's tenure and relations have never been better with Israel," she added.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters on Friday on customary condition of anonymity, denied that was the strategy.

The official said the US was pressing ahead with its "maximum pressure" strategy against Iran. Just as Mr Pompeo will seek to make his priorities more permanent, foreign leaders may try to extract concessions that will outlast Mr Trump.

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That will probably include the Saudi leader, who can expect far more scepticism from a Biden administration than from Mr Trump, who pointedly made the kingdom his first overseas destination as president in 2017.

Another leader with immediate priorities is Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces possible sanctions for buying Russia's S-400 missile defense system and still wants the US not to punish Halkbank, the Turkish bank convicted in a sanctions-evasion scheme.

But Mr Pompeo isn't meeting Mr Erdogan or other Turkish leaders on his visit. US officials said that's because of scheduling conflicts and because Mr Pompeo's focus is on religious issues.

Still, the optics of Pompeo visiting Turkey, an important NATO ally, without meeting any of its leaders, are hard to ignore.

Yet Mr Erdogan is already looking ahead to the Biden administration, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Erdogan is getting ready for a charm offensive toward President-Elect Biden," Cagaptay said. "He'll become whatever Biden wants him to be. He's getting ready for that pivot."

Pompeo has bristled at the notion that foreign leaders may already be looking past him to his successor as secretary.

On Fox News earlier this week, he was asked what he thought about all the congratulatory calls and tweets.

"If they're just saying 'hi,' I suppose that's not too terribly difficult," Mr Pompeo told Fox anchor Bret Baier. "But make no mistake about it: We have one president, one secretary of state, one national security team at a time. It's appropriate that it be that way."

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