Belgium. Saudi Arabia. Israel. Jordan. That sounds like a nice vacation, but it’s actually where Mike Pompeo spent his first five days as the newly minted secretary of state.
After his official confirmation last week, Pompeo set out on a high-profile diplomatic trip to Europe and the Middle East. Starting on April 26 in Brussels, Pompeo met with NATO leaders and reaffirmed America’s commitment to the decades-old alliance — and to pushing back against Russia.
He used an opportunity in Riyadh to lambaste the Saudis for their diplomatic blockade of Qatar and disastrous war in Yemen (even though the US helps Riyadh in that fight). And while in Amman, Jordan, Pompeo backed Israel’s “right to defend themselves” from mass protests in Gaza, where Israeli forces have killed nearly 40 Palestinians over weeks of skirmishes.
Pompeo is now back in the United States, but his whirlwind charm offensive is far from over. On Tuesday, he feted the Army’s football team at the White House and gave his first speech to State Department employees.
It’s quite a start for the nation’s top diplomat, who wasted no time taking the reins from his embattled predecessor, Rex Tillerson. Pompeo’s also made it clear that, unlike Tillerson, who notoriously kept the press at arm’s length, he wouldn’t be shying away from the media during his tenure.
On Sunday, he appeared on ABC’s This Week, doing the interview from Saudi Arabia. He also invited journalists to accompany him on the overseas trip, and made a point of engaging with them and doing interviews on the plane — something that was considered standard protocol for traveling secretaries of state but that Tillerson rarely did. Pompeo even has his own Twitter account now.
Experts say the new secretary may be setting a new tone for how the State Department — and US diplomacy more generally — will operate now that he’s at the helm.
“Pompeo’s first week was a successful down payment on the promise of returning the forms of US diplomacy to normalcy,” Heather Hurlburt, a foreign policy expert at the New America think tank in Washington, told me. “He traveled abroad, interacted with the media, met with US diplomats and families and thanked them for their service, and he did not get crossways of the White House on policy in public.”
So Pompeo in his first week underscored one thing for sure: He’s no Tillerson.
Pompeo stood by Trump on the Iran nuclear deal
Trump has until May 12 to decide if he will remove America from the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under the deal, a group of countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union — agreed to lift crippling sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program, giving it greater access to the global economy.
But Trump hates the deal, in part because he claims Iran can still obtain nuclear weapons in less than a decade. All signals point to Trump ending America’s participation in the accord within the next two weeks. Pompeo, during his trip to Europe, seemed to confirm that.
But Pompeo saved his major Iran criticisms for the Middle East leg of his trip. Iran “is indeed the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world, and we are determined to make sure it never possesses a nuclear weapon,” he said in Riyadh on Sunday. He also said Iran should face punishments for their malign actions in the region. “We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats to Israel and the region and Iran’s ambition to dominate the Middle East remains,” Pompeo said after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 29.
It’s not overly surprising that Pompeo and Trump are in lockstep over the Iran deal. Pompeo is an Iran hawk and a vocal critic of the agreement. And now that he’s the new secretary of state — who supposedly speaks for the president — it’d be weird if he and Trump openly disagreed on such a key foreign policy issue.
Yet Pompeo’s trip shows how in sync Trump and Pompeo are compared to Trump and Tillerson. Here’s one famous Iran-related example: After a meeting with Iranian officials on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last September, Tillerson informed reporters that Trump was “still considering” whether to decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal.
But just a few hours earlier, Trump told reporters that he had made up his mind on the matter. “I have decided,” Trump said to a group of reporters following a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York.
It’s possible Pompeo and Trump will break openly on other matters, but the trip underscored how simpatico they are on the Iran deal.
Pompeo is already a more public — and media-friendly — figure than Tillerson
Tillerson notoriously shied away from the press, in part because he disdained the media and didn’t fully grasp the public-facing nature of his job.
Politico’s Nahal Toosi noted that Tillerson didn’t hold a town hall for three months after becoming the secretary. He would rarely speak with journalists or respond to shouted questions. It also took two months for the traditional daily briefing to restart under Tillerson’s watch.
Pompeo, however, has taken a different approach.
He allowed multiple journalists to travel with him on his foreign trip, took questions on the record from them on the plane, and appeared Sunday on ABC’s This Week. That’s quite the turnaround from the Tillerson days, but it’s also a return to the norm. It’s expected that secretaries of state frequently appear in public and speak with the press, natural things to do for the nation’s top diplomat.
Tillerson also often remained cloistered in his office suite, failing to interact with State Department employees. And when he traveled abroad, he sometimes didn’t visit staffers at US embassies, a longtime custom for previous secretaries.
Pompeo, however, acted more in line with that tradition: He met with embassy staff during his trip and spoke during a town hall on Tuesday, his first day in the State Department building. He told officials during brief remarks at his opening speech to employees that he hoped to return the “swagger” to “the most important diplomatic corps in the world.”
James Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation who served on Trump’s transition team, told me it’s no surprise Pompeo is comfortable with the more public aspects of his job. “He’s a politician and he’s more comfortable in the media environment,” Carafano said, referring to Pompeo’s three-term stint in Congress.
He also noted that Trump and Pompeo have a chummy relationship, which might give the new secretary a longer leash than Tillerson had. “Pompeo can be a little freer because he can play the complementary role with Trump,” said Carafano.
Pompeo’s current openness could be an anomaly, which he may choose to eschew down the line. He also stayed away from the spotlight somewhat when he led the CIA, but that’s somewhat to be expected for the head of an intelligence agency.
But for now, at least, the new secretary seems camera-ready.
Pompeo said the right things in Europe
It’s noteworthy that Pompeo hopped on a plane to NATO headquarters in Brussels mere hours after his confirmation.
Trump caused a stir last May when he failed to affirm NATO’s Article 5 — the alliance’s provision where members consider an attack on one country as an attack on all — during a trip to Brussels. Trump eventually backed Article 5 the following month during off-the-cuff remarks at a White House press conference, but his long reluctance to do so worried allies.
Pompeo made sure to leave no doubt about America’s stance now. Speaking at a press conference on April 27, he said that the “United States commitment to the collective defense under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty remains ironclad.”
Pompeo also made a point to address another lingering fear among the US’s European allies: Trump’s seeming coziness with Russia, NATO’s perennial foe. During that same press conference, Pompeo harshly criticized Moscow, denouncing its incursions into Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as the March 2018 nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom.
“In light of Russia’s unacceptable actions, NATO is more indispensable than ever,” Pompeo said. “The United States has made abundantly clear that NATO should not return to business as usual with Russia until Moscow shows a clear change in its actions and complies with international law.”
That Pompeo made sure to let European countries know America stands with them and against Russia — and did so less than a day after becoming America’s top diplomat — is a big deal. It sends a positive signal to America’s worried allies across the Atlantic and gives experts hope that things may start to turn around at the State Department.
“Things are going in the right direction,” Thomas Hill, formerly a top Republican staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me. “If this is the baseline, and it only goes up from here, that would be fantastic.”
Yet Pompeo also made sure to bring up Trump’s biggest complaint about NATO, calling on European countries to share more of the defense spending burden.
That shows he knows how to walk the line with his boss for now. The question is if he can keep this up going forward. “The test is going to be whether Pompeo can preserve his relationship with the president,” Paul Musgrave, a foreign policy expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told me.
If he fails that test, Pompeo might see himself go the way of Tillerson.