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Opinion Mike Pompeo swaggers his way to failure

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to reporters Nov. 28 after briefing senators on the war in Yemen and Saudi involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Mike Pompeo was supposed to rescue the State Department from its disastrous start in the Trump presidency. When he first turned up at Foggy Bottom on May 1, he promised to staff up a badly depleted bureaucracy, listen to its views and reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy after a year of dysfunction. State, he said, would get “back our swagger.”

Now, after a month that has seen the secretary offer smiles and excuses to Saudi Arabia’s murderous Mohammed bin Salman, trash Congress for “caterwauling” and inspire a rare revolt by Senate Republicans, it’s time to offer a verdict: Pompeo has managed to worsen the State Department’s already abysmal standing with every significant constituency. Legislators, major allies, the media, career staff, even North Korea are alienated. The only satisfied customer may be President Trump — and even he has grounds for grievance.

“Swagger” diplomacy sounds like a contradiction in terms, but Pompeo has made it his motto. He launched his Instagram account in September by rebranding State as “the department of Swagger.” An op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal last month was laced with it, contemptuously dismissing congressional and media outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. So was a speech he delivered last week in Brussels, in which he trashed the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Criminal Court, the Organization of American States, and, perhaps for good measure, the African Union.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded Nov. 20 to questions about the U.S. response to the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Reuters)

The results? The Senate voted 63-to-37 to halt all U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s calamitous intervention in Yemen, with 14 Republicans joining all 49 Democrats. The head of the IMF coolly observed that Pompeo didn’t know what he was talking about. And the European Union went ahead with plans to substitute euros for dollars in energy transactions, making it easier for the bloc to circumvent new U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Iran is one of several policy cul-de-sacs into which Pompeo has swaggered. Days after he took office, the administration announced that it was scrapping the nuclear deal struck with Tehran by the Obama administration, the European Union, Russia and China. Trump proclaimed that he was “ready, willing, and able” to negotiate a new deal, and probably he meant it; after all, he has pivoted from confrontation to negotiation with North Korea and China.

Then Pompeo undercut him. Two weeks later, in his first major speech, the new secretary laid down a formidable gantlet of 12 conditions for Iran to meet, covering not just its nuclear program but also its support for militias in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and its domestic repression. These were not grounds for negotiation but a barely disguised call for regime change. If Trump actually wanted to bargain with the mullahs, he would have to repudiate Pompeo’s list; if Iran responds to the ultimatums by resuming nuclear activity, the only alternative may be war.

Something similar may have happened with North Korea, where Pompeo was assigned to follow up Trump’s June summit with Kim Jong Un. The secretary’s first visit to Pyongyang was a disaster: The regime condemned his “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization,” and talks lapsed for months. A second visit in October yielded agreement only on the idea of another Trump-Kim summit. Evidently the North Korean ruler has decided he can’t do business with Pompeo. Maybe that’s because the secretary is refusing to give in to Kim’s unreasonable demands for sanctions relief and a peace declaration. But perhaps the dictator is also put off by the #swagger.

It’s doubtful the battered career professionals at State — or what remains of them — were surprised by these misadventures. Pompeo’s hard-line positions on Iran and North Korea were well-known when Trump nominated him. But the rank and file had hoped that Pompeo would at least improve on Rex Tillerson’s strange and self-defeating insistence on refusing to fill scores of empty positions and his reliance on a small coterie of aides.

Nope. Seven months after Pompeo’s arrival, nearly half of key posts at State remain empty, according to the Partnership for Public Service. Pompeo has yet to fill the jobs of a chief financial officer and four of six undersecretaries, as well as ambassadors to Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey, among others. An ambassador to Saudi Arabia was nominated in the middle of the controversy over the Khashoggi murder, handing the regime a gratuitous favor. Other key assignments have been turned over to special envoys with GOP connections recruited from outside the building.

Pompeo greets most questions about his performance with a tight smirk and a few dismissive words. It’s a manner that appears calculated to offend. It has won him few friends or allies in Congress or anywhere else. But then, he is performing for an audience of one: a president who loves #swagger.

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