After ousting Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, Donald Trump has decided to replace him with Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director. Pompeo’s views on Iran and North Korea, and more generally his lack of diplomatic experience, make him a terrible choice for secretary of state—especially given the international challenges the United States is now facing.
Checking Trump’s impulses
As former CIA Director Michael Hayden noted, “Secretary Tillerson was a counterweight to some of the instantaneous, spontaneous, instinctive decisions that the president was prone to make. And I think we’re going to miss the counterweight.”
A key concern is Trump’s impulses on international affairs. He has focused heavily on military power and has shown a clear disregard for international agreements and for the importance of maintaining close relations with US allies.
Tillerson was a strong voice against pulling out of the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson also argued that it was important to maintain US credibility as a negotiating partner, both regarding past agreements and the possibility of future negotiations with North Korea.
He and others, including the general who commands US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, argued that the Iran deal is not perfect—it was the result of a negotiation, after all—but the United States is better off with the deal than without it.
In contrast, Pompeo’s worldview is very similar to Trump’s, which may embolden Trump to act on his impulses.
This issue is even more important now that John Bolton is to become Trump’s national security advisor, since he seems likely to encourage some of Trump’s most dangerous impulses.
The future of the Iran Deal
Pompeo has echoed Trump’s view of the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “disastrous” and saying he wants to see it ended.
And that could happen soon. Trump has said he will reimpose economic sanctions on Iran in mid-May if the other partners to the accord don’t agree to take steps to “fix the terrible flaws” of the deal. That seems unlikely to happen.
Pompeo’s disdain for the deal, and for diplomacy more generally, is clear. As a congressman, he was one of a group of people—including John Bolton—who advocated stopping the negotiations with Iran and instead bombing its nuclear facilities. In a 2014 meeting with reporters, he told them this could be done with “under 2,000 sorties” and that “This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.”
Scuttling the deal would be a disaster. It would end the current strict limits and intrusive verification on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. It would also sow discord with a number of our close allies, who remain committed to the deal, and likely enflame anti-US sentiment in the region. It would also undermine US credibility on future negotiations.
Negotiations with North Korea
The credibility issue is important as the United States moves toward talks with North Korea about its nuclear and missile programs.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un recently offered to meet with Trump, who jumped at the opportunity. This is significant since Pyongyang said it is willing to talk about denuclearization, which is a long-standing US pre-condition for talking.
Moreover, the North said it will halt nuclear and missile tests while talks continue. Since the testing freeze can be readily verified, this is an important step: It means the freeze verifiably stops testing and gives ongoing evidence that North Korea is serious about the talks. This sets about as good a stage as one can imagine for talks that could lead to meaningful changes in North Korean nuclear and missile programs.
But how much will Pyongyang be willing to put on the negotiating table if it sees the United States walk away from the Iran deal despite international inspectors confirming that Iran is carrying out its side of the bargain?
And once talks start, will the US approach be negotiation or confrontation? Who at a high level in the administration is supporting diplomacy?
Pompeo advocates regime change in North Korea. As with Iran, his statements on North Korea seem to support military action against the country—something Bolton argued in favor of as recently as last month.
The administration has ramped up international sanctions against the country. Is it willing to negotiate an easing of sanctions for steps that lower hostility between the two countries and pave the way toward further steps? Or will it demand the North “denuclearize” before it is willing to reward its behavior? If the US does not negotiate seriously, but instead uses the talks as a forum to castigate Pyongyang for bad behavior, it will throw away an important opportunity and reignite hostilities.
The wrong choice
The United States needs a secretary of state who is a strong supporter of diplomacy as a means of improving US security. Mike Pompeo is not that person.
The Senate should reject his nomination and insist that the president choose someone who respects the benefits of diplomacy, which is a vital component of US security.