Who is the real Mike Pompeo and what does he really think about Russia, Iran, Afghanistan or Syria?
Moscow has been noticeably reticent about US President Donald Trump’s dismissal last week of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his replacement with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief Pompeo.
This is curious considering how often Trump’s perceived missteps quickly become grist for Russian propaganda to highlight America’s stupor. Moscow, however, must be quietly pleased with Pompeo’s appointment.
Pompeo was the one intriguing member in Trump’s previous cabinet that Moscow had been able to engage. Amidst persistent rumors that Pompeo was poised to replace Tillerson, the top intelligence czars in Moscow made a quiet trip to the US in late January.
The team comprised Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Alexander Bortnikov, who runs the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and Lieutenant General Igor Valentinovich Korobov, head of Russia’s military intelligence, or GRU, the country’s largest foreign intelligence outfit.
Although these Russian officials figured on the US’ sanctions list, someone in Washington waived the visa ban and let them in. The State Department was reportedly not in the loop. Presumably, Pompeo wanted to hear them out and Trump obliged – or vice versa. Pompeo later confirmed that he met the Russian intelligence officials.
Pompeo also summoned the CIA’s station chief in Moscow to be available at Langley Air Force Base when the Russian spy chiefs arrived. The discussions were most certainly substantive and of the highest importance to America’s national security and global strategies.
But what actually transpired has remained strictly between Pompeo and Trump – and, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom the returning Magi would have reported back.
With Tillerson’s departure, the first phase of US foreign policy in the post-Obama era appears to be ending. At its most obvious, it has been a transition vulnerable to hiccups due to a paucity of intellectual content and realism, and contradictions and competition among senior policymakers.
Questions of direction still abound. How does the US pivot to Asia while also jettisoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement? How does the US tap into China’s rise to create synergy with ‘America First’ objectives without an equal relationship?
How does America rev up NATO when Europe is literally falling apart? And how does the US extract out of China desperately needed help in taming nuclear North Korea without accommodating China’s core interests elsewhere?
An incremental militarization of US foreign policies has been apparent. The surge in Afghanistan, mission creep along Russia’s western borders and forward policies toward Syria, Iraq and Yemen have all sent a message that the US is again prowling the commons and flexing muscle to push its interests.
That’s a departure from Obama’s tack, which safeguarded interests if and when they came under threat.
Trump’s role in this shift, of course, is debatable. The US president has clearly been consumed not just by the media bias against him but also the unending blood sport conspiracies, including the constant harping about the possible crimes he may have committed without clear evidence of any wrongdoing.
Distracted and combative, Trump has been seemingly absent on many foreign policy issues, leaving his generals with the latitude to march forward.
Somewhere toward the middle of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, author Michael Wolff writes, “The president liked generals. The more fruit salad they wore, the better. The president was very pleased with the compliments he got for appointing generals…What the president did not like was listening to generals, who, for the most part, were skilled in the new army jargon of PowerPoint, data dumps, and McKinsey-like presentations.”
In sum, if Wolf has it right, Trump finds them boring. The manner in which Trump elbowed out National Security Advisor H R McMaster on North Korea policy signaled as much.
Still, the generals in the White House promptly inserted a caveat into Trump’s decision of March 8 to meet Kim Jong-un by flagging just a day later that the meeting would take place only after Pyongyang took concrete steps to roll back its nuclear program.
A week later, in a March 16 phone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump “reiterated his intention to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by the end of May.”
The White House readout of the conversation ended saying, “The two leaders (Trump and Moon) expressed cautious optimism over recent developments and emphasized that a brighter future is available for North Korea, if it chooses the correct path.”
What effect Pompeo’s stewardship of US foreign policies and diplomacy will have on US-Russia ties, which went into free fall during Tillerson’s tenure, remains to be seen. What is beyond doubt, though, is that US diplomacy will now move in tandem with Trump’s thinking on foreign policy.
Interestingly, the changing of the guard at the State Department coincides with the beginning of Putin’s new six-year term in the Kremlin. The first stirrings of US policy change under Pompeo may appear in Syria, where Trump’s generals have expanded their mandate to launch an open-ended hybrid war against Russia, Iran and the ruling Bashar al-Assad regime.