Commentary: The pros – and cons – of Pompeo as secretary of state

Soon after Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo completes his confirmation hearings, he will spend his first day of work confronting the missiles of spring. In one case, President Donald Trump and Pompeo have signaled they want to back away from the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran; in the other both men seem intent on securing a similar deal with North Korea. It will be Pompeo’s counsel to Trump that will help shape the nuclear landscape of America’s foreign policy.

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Trump’s choice of Pompeo to replace the fired Rex Tillerson places an ardent critic of the Iran nuclear deal as the nation's top diplomat, alongside a president who delivered an ultimatum in January to fix the deal's "terrible flaws.” Unless Western Europe (as well as China and Russia) agrees to press changes on the Iranians, Trump will not extend American sanctions relief when the current waiver expires on May 12. That move could scuttle the 2015 agreement and spin Iran back into the nuclear development cycle.

Trump previously singled out the Iran nuclear deal as one of the main policy differences he had with former Secretary of State Tillerson. Pompeo’s starting position on the agreement is unambiguous: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo tweeted during his CIA confirmation hearings.

But sometimes, as the old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. Pompeo will find some regions more complex as secretary of state than he did as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Pompeo will inherit a Department of State that views the Iran agreement as one of its key legacy successes; his staff will be challenging his hardline views. One pending question is the fate of Rex Tillerson’s senior policy adviser Brian Hook. Even as Tillerson was being fired Tuesday Hook was hurrying to Vienna for meetings with European allies in the hopes of coming up with new measures to placate Trump. Alone among Tillerson’s inner circle, Hook has not announced his resignation and appears intent on staying on. If Pompeo keeps him, Hook can be expected to offer dissenting views.

State is riddled with vacancies, and Pompeo will have a chance to exert his control over the organization by filling them with allies. But the optimism some have gently expressed that Pompeo will embrace the “building” that Tillerson held at arm’s length is likely misplaced. Pompeo made it clear at Central Intelligence that he is Trump’s man, and his appointments probably will mirror that. Pompeo’s ties to conservative organizations suggest he’ll have a pool of the like-minded to draw from, and his close relationship with Trump means his choices won’t run into the resistance often experienced by his predecessor.

Culture-wise, Pompeo will almost certainly clash with career diplomats. There is nothing analysts at State hate more than to have a theory dismissed with “But over at CIA they say…” and Pompeo will walk into the building with that chip on his shoulder. Personality-wise, Pompeo is said to have a temper and firm opinions. At State, one does not raise one’s voice, and the suits aren’t the only thing favored in shades of gray.

On the plus side, Pompeo’s close relationship with Trump might prove an asset. Under the disfavored Tillerson, many American diplomats wondered aloud if their views were ever carried into the policy discussions at the White House. It was the same abroad, where Trump’s constant undermining of Tillerson, often via Twitter, no doubt left his foreign interlocutors wondering if it was really worth their time to bother with him. If – as rumors suggest – other senior White House staffers like McMaster and Kelly depart, Pompeo’s status and value to Trump will only grow.

As secretary, Pompeo will also become more conscious of the powerful role Iran now plays in Iraq. While at the CIA Iran is simply known as a bad guy, over at State it is seen as an odd bedfellow, a pseudo-partner. Effectively defeating Islamic State in Iraq is a little-mentioned foreign policy success for Trump, and one due significantly to cooperation with Iran. Tehran’s control, via military aid, over the Shi’ite militias, and its influence among key politicians, means that it holds the key to stability in Iraq. With Iraq’s elections for the next prime minister scheduled for May 12, Tehran has some cards of its own to play, including threats to vulnerable American forces and diplomats based in Iraq right at the time Washington might re-implement sanctions.

If Pompeo’s new counterparts in Western Europe, China, and Russia can use him to get Trump’s ear, they might persuade the president to extend his sanctions waiver on Iran, buying time to negotiate a “soft exit” that would delay enforcement of secondary American sanctions so international companies could trade with Iran without the threat of losing the American market.

Pompeo's most recent comments on North Korea underline the fact that he is now in lock-step with Trump: "We've gotten more than any previous administration – an agreement to not continue testing nuclear weapons and their missile program, the things that would put them capable of getting across the threshold, ” Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation” before Tillerson’s ouster. Pompeo's move to Foggy Bottom appears timed to have him shepherd through summit plans; one report claims the reason Trump is putting Pompeo at the State Department now was because he "wanted a strong team ready for North Korea."

Trump very likely wants a deal with North Korea that, ironically, will be similar to the one Obama made with Iran – reduced sanctions in return for progress on denuclearization. The highly-technical agreement with Tehran, with its tethered sanctions, inspection protocols, and multinational angle, could even serve as a quiet blueprint for what may happen with the North.

Pompeo is well-placed to help. One of his first acts at the CIA was to revamp intelligence collection on North Korea to inform the administration's sanctions campaign. Pompeo will be ready to suggest which sanctions can be adjusted for whatever impact Trump is seeking. And unlike others at State, whom Trump would probably fear were trying to make him look weak, Pompeo is trusted. Pompeo has also been in charge of a covert cyber campaign against the North, hinted at on several occasions, which can be strategically dialed up or down as appropriate.

Pompeo as secretary of state stands at an important policy intersection. He is a true believer in Trump’s world view, and a steady, influential figure in Washington. But whether he can help prevent a nuclear crisis will depend on whether he can be the link between Trump’s vision and the rest of the world or whether he will toady along as an enabler for an increasingly chaotic White House.

About the Author

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.