US State Department may regain importance under a hawkish Mike Pompeo in sync with Donald Trump

WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, confirmed and sworn in on Thursday (April 26), will bring a hardball style to the role of America’s top diplomat. 

The former Congressman from the conservative Tea Party movement of the Republican Party has advocated a hard line on North Korea and Iran. He was against the proposed closure of the US' notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, once calling a hunger strike by prisoners a "political  stunt." At his Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, questions were raised over, among other things, his previously expressed anti-Muslim statements.

As such he is more controversial that his predecessor Mr Rex Tillerson – and was only narrowly approved by the committee.

But the State Department could also regain focus and sense of purpose after a period of hollowing out and drift under Mr Tillerson, who reduced the budget and, on the policy front, was publicly undermined by President Donald Trump - and in turn reportedly referred to the President as a “moron” , after one particular meeting.

Mr Pompeo graduated at the top of his class at West Point and served a five-year term in the military, part of it as a tank commander in Germany. 

He went to Harvard Law School, has been a corporate lawyer and a businessman, and was elected to Congress in 2010 from Kansas. For more than a year he has run the Central Intelligence Agency.

At his confirmation hearing, he tried to soften his tone, telling senators : “I know some of you have read (that) I'm a hawk, I'm a hard-liner.”

But, he said, “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.”

Mr Pompeo has a closer relationship with Mr Trump, with the two getting to know each other at regular intelligence briefings.

In mid March, after abruptly firing Mr Tillerson, Mr Trump told journalists he and Mr Pompeo were “always on the same wavelength.”

“The relationship has always been very good and that’s what I need as Secretary of State,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr Trump in a statement said that, “having a patriot of Mike’s immense talent, energy, and intellect leading the Department of State will be an incredible asset for our country at this critical time in history. He will always put the interests of America first. He has my trust. He has my support.”

 
 

Certainly, the fact that Mr Trump sent Mr Pompeo to Pyongyang over Easter – where he had an apparently unplanned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – shows he trusts him and they are on the same page. And Mr Pompeo is already making a mark with his reported intent to switch the nomination of Admiral Harry Harris, former Pacific Command (Pacom) chief, from Ambassador to Australia, to South Korea instead.

“US foreign policy will continue to be run out of the White House,” Mr Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the South-east Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, told The Straits Times in an email.

“But the fact that Trump and Pompeo are close and understand each other should help give the State Department a greater role in foreign policy than it had under Tillerson.” 

At his Senate hearing, Mr Pompeo pledged to “move forward as quickly as possible and fill vacancies” at the State Department, and “make the case to defend the resources the department needs” - as opposed to the budget cuts endorsed by Mr Tillerson.

This implied he understood that State Department staff were demoralised and felt ignored, Mr Hiebert wrote.

Ernie Bower, chief executive officer of the consultancy BowerGroupAsia, wrote in an e-mail: “Pompeo has signalled that he will move quickly and decisively to try to get the State Department back into the policy making game in the Trump Administration.”

But he cautioned: “Unfortunately, the US Foreign Service is like a beaten dog right now. They won’t easily trust a Trump Secretary of State after the Tillerson debacle and the wild swings on foreign and economic policy coming out of the White House. It will take time to get (the State Department) staffed up and functioning again.”

Certainly under Mr Pompeo American foreign policy will acquire a more hawkish edge.

“Mike Pompeo is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; he has a history of disdain for diplomacy,” Mr Will Saetren, research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, wrote in an e-mail.

Ironically, some of the opposition to him in the committee came on the basis of him being too in sync with the President, thus potentially enabling Mr Trump’s “worst instincts” as Democrat Senator Bob Menendez put it.

A former American Ambassador who asked not to be named, told The Straits Times on the phone: “It bodes well for the State Department that (Mike Pompeo) is trusted by the President. He said the right things at his hearing, including that he intends to encourage career officials.”

“But his skill as a diplomat remains to be seen. He has no real experience in diplomacy. And unfortunately the bar is quite low,” he said.