BY PRABASI NEPALI
“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.”
Anyone following American politics, especially foreign policy can judge to what extent President Donald Trump has been following the precepts of former President Reagan – most objective observers can only answer in the negative. In the latest development of topsy-turvy US politics, the long-expected departure of Secretary of State [or external affairs cabinet minister] Rex Tillerson from the Trump administration has finally taken place. This has ended a tumultuous tenure as America’s top diplomat that was characterized by a series of major public disaccords with his boss the president – something that is unprecedented in US current history. Trump announced he would appoint current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace the former Exxon Mobil CEO. At the same time he plans to nominate the deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to the top post of America’s external intelligence agency.
Even in Republican ranks, this announcement has not been welcomed wholeheartedly. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, indicated on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he would oppose Trump’s nominees for secretary of state and CIA director. He said categorically: “I’ll do whatever it takes, and that includes filibuster” [the obstruction or delaying of legislative action, especially by prolonged speechmaking]. The senator elaborated and said he takes issue with Pompeo’s hawkish statements and support for regime change and does not think the congressman turned spy chief would be a “good fit” for the nation’s top diplomatic post. On Haspel, he said: “It’s just inconsistent with who we are as a people to have someone run our spy agency, that has all this enormous power, who is intimately involved with torture . . . and was supportive of the policy . . . Torture is the hallmark of totalitarianism.”
Tillerson’s ouster has been expected for so long that no one can be surprised that he has finally been replaced. His position had long become untenable, as he did not have the ear of
the president, and most damaging for a Secretary of State, his interlocutors were fully aware that he did not speak for the president. Thus, the only incredible thing about this development was that the charade lasted as long as it did. His replacement by Pompeo was in the air months ago and his rupture with the president was so palpable that it was only a question of when and not if whether he would be replaced. Sadly, he will not be missed at all, because he was the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time! In spite of his business credentials [some would maintain actually because of], he was ill-suited for the high position and bungled many things right from the start. He will principally be remembered as the least effective, littlest respected Secretary of State since World War II. Unfortunately, there may be a meeting of minds between Trump and Pompeo and a closely shared world view, but this is no cause for celebration, rather for alarm!
However, unsatisfactory Tillerson was at State, Pompeo will in no case be an upgrade. Tillerson had at least the courage to oppose Trump’s most impulsive moves. This will now completely vanish, since Pompeo will enjoy the president’s full confidence and will fully support him in his impulsive and bellicose initiatives. This will neutralize his ability to be a [possibly] better manager in the department. At the same time, Pompeo, like Tillerson does not have the relevant knowledge, experience or mental make-up to be a competent administrator-cum-diplomat to secure America’s position in the world. However, Pompeo was indeed first in his class at West Point and an editor of the Harvard Law Review. He is experienced in the ways of the ‘Washington swamp’ and launched a successful career first in business and later Congress (House of Representatives). Trump’s proponents give another spin to the changing of the guard at “Foggy Bottom” (where the Department of State is located) arguing that the “somewhat rough change” [in a final indignity for Tillerson, he learned of his dismissal only in a presidential tweet] was necessary to national security, since “Pompeo agrees with Trump’s priorities and understands that his job is to serve Trump’s agenda, not create one of his own” and like George Shultz with President Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger with President Richard Nixon, “the boss needs a trusted right arm, not a distant figure of uncertain commitment to core presidential goals” (Hugh Hewitt in “The Washington Post”). But does not Tillerson’s departure remove another check on an impulsive Trump?
Thus, on policy, Pompeo is much more hawkish than Tillerson, and especially on the Iran nuclear deal we can expect the administration to become more conflict-prone. Ironically, Trump is replacing a Secretary of State who was inept in diplomacy, with someone who disdains it! Pompeo has been opposed to the nuclear agreement right from the start and he will, therefore, advise the president, who is already so inclined, to axe it. However, at least now, a central problem in American diplomacy will no longer be vexing – that when Pompeo speaks, he will be speaking on behalf of the president. But according to Richard Haass, president on the Council on Foreign Relations (who also served both Republican and Democratic administrations in senior State Department and National Security Council positions) another quandary remains: “The question is whether, when President Trump speaks, it sounds like he has consulted his secretary of state” [?/!]
Pompeo’s views on Russia are a bit of an enigma, although as a congressman, he criticized President Vladimir V. Putin. As CIA director, Pompeo said he believed intelligence assessments that Putin was responsible for the cyber efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, but claimed without evidence that Russian meddling had not in fact influenced its outcome! Trump himself rejected those reports for angst that it would undermine the legitimacy of his election. Perhaps the biggest uncharted in the elevation of Pompeo is how it will have a bearing on talks/negotiations with North Korea. He had warned often since last summer that they were only “a few months” away from acquiring the capability of attacking the continental United States with a nuclear weapon. This assessment was based on the expectation of the time-frame necessary to solve the hurdle of designing a warhead encapsulated in an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can survive re-entry into the atmosphere.
The record shows that Pompeo has pandered to the president’s worst instincts and his loyalty has endeared him to the president. Will he, can he resist when the paramount national interest is at stake? As Stewart M. Patrick at the Council on Foreign Relations
wrote: “Observers will be watching whether his obsession with counterterrorism and hard power more generally leads him to short change investments in “soft power” – the traditionally bread and butter of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.”
Considering that the Trump administration is beset with many domestic problems of its own making, the Mueller investigation is closing in on Trump regarding election collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice, as well as the fact that the Republican Party is facing strong head winds leading up to the congressional and gubernatorial elections in the autumn, Trump and his administration may very well be tempted to start an unnecessary ‘foreign adventure’ to divert attention. As the respected New York Times columnist and Economics Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman wrote: “regimes in trouble…often try to rally the public with dangerous foreign policy adventurism.”
This is all the more alarming since according to The Washington Post, Trump also wants to oust the competent and level-headed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, head of the National Security Council. Since this is already an open secret, it leaves McMaster a very public embarrassment and emasculated. A retired four-star Army general Barry McCaffey tweeted: “Reluctantly I have concluded that President Trump is a serious threat to US national security. He is refusing to protect vital US interests from active Russian attacks. It is apparent that he is for some unknown reason under the sway of Mr. Putin.”