The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pompeo’s pandemic performance ensures his place among the worst secretaries of state ever

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department last week. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool/Reuters)

Let’s recall how the U.S. secretary of state has historically behaved at a time of grave international crisis: circling the globe (at least telephonically); formulating a coherent multilateral response; and lining up nations behind it — starting with America’s closest allies.

Now, consider how Mike Pompeo spent his time last week, as cases of covid-19 soared in the United States and numerous other countries. He kicked off Monday by indulging in a pointless war of words with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whom he accused of lying about the country’s grave coronavirus outbreak.

Then he flew off to Afghanistan, where, after a brief and failed attempt to persuade President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah to put aside their deep-seated differences, thereby facilitating the pre-election troop withdrawal President Trump wants, he resorted to the administration’s favorite foreign policy tool: abruptly cutting off aid.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on March 23 a $1 billion cut in U.S. aid to Afghanistan after he failed to resolve a power struggle in top leadership. (Video: Reuters)

On Wednesday, Pompeo had an opportunity to lead when foreign ministers of the Group of Seven convened by telephone. James A. Baker III, George Shultz or Madeleine Albright would have emerged with a clear statement of purpose by the world’s leading democracies — perhaps a commitment to aiding the poor nations and refugees that face devastation by the new disease.

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Instead, Pompeo blocked the G-7 from issuing any communique after the other ministers sensibly refused to go along with his petty insistence that it refer to the “Wuhan virus.” The message he sent was clear: Scoring a rhetorical point against Beijing is more important to this U.S. administration than forging a consensus with Britain, France, Germany and other close allies.

On Thursday came a video summit of the Group of 20, a larger group of nations, currently chaired by Saudi Arabia. Pompeo called that regime’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ahead of the virtual gathering to ask that he “rise to the occasion and reassure global energy and financial markets.” Translation: Saudi Arabia should stop the oil price war it is waging with Russia, which has caused global prices to tank and contributed to the plunge of U.S. stocks.

No dice, apparently. Though he has enjoyed endless pampering by the Trump administration, up to and including forgiveness for murder, the crown prince made no move to comply with Pompeo’s appeal — and the virtual summit produced nothing of substance.

Has any secretary of state been worse in an emergency? It’s impossible to think of a more feckless performance since World War II. Pompeo’s dreadful week followed a month in which he has been all but invisible on the coronavirus issue, apart from one appearance at Trump’s daily press conference-cum-reality show.

While more responsible leaders have struggled to contain the pandemic, Pompeo has pursued pet causes as if nothing else were happening. That’s especially true of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which he, more than any other official, has promoted. The Islamic republic is staggering under one of the highest rates of infection in the world, with more than 38,000 reported cases as of Sunday; mass graves have been dug for the more than 2,600 dead.

Even close U.S. allies, such as Britain, are calling on the Trump administration to ease sanctions that are inhibiting shipment of medical supplies and humanitarian aid to Iran’s 80 million people. Yet Pompeo appears to view the epidemic as a handy means to compound “maximum pressure.” To what end? Regime change, which the secretary of state has made clear he favors, is hardly likely to be the result. More probable is wholesale death of innocent people, and the further discrediting of America’s claim to humanitarianism.

Pompeo’s crusade against China is even more senseless. He has dedicated himself to affixing blame to Beijing for the epidemic, seemingly in an attempt to counter growing Chinese efforts to aid other nations — initiatives that the Trump administration has failed to match. “The Chinese Communist Party poses a substantial threat to our health and way of life, as the Wuhan virus clearly has demonstrated,” Pompeo proclaimed after the G-7 meeting, denouncing China for “claiming that they are now the white hat.”

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Such overheated rhetoric will mean little to Italians and other Europeans who have welcomed Chinese supplies of medical equipment, while getting nothing from Washington. The head of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs told The Post that “it is going to change for good the perception of who is leading in the world, and it’s not the United States.”

If so, Pompeo won’t be solely at fault. Much of what he did last week was no doubt aimed to please his boss, the prime promoter of “America First.” That doesn’t change how this secretary of state will be regarded by history: Pompeo’s pandemic performance will ensure his place among the worst ever.

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