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Mike Pompeo’s Faustian bargain

Why is the secretary of state writing God-awful op-eds?

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Saudi Arabia. It was a bad op-ed. Why did he write it?

When I say the op-ed was “bad,” I do not mean that it was bad because Pompeo adopted a position I disagreed with — though I’m not exactly a fan of his full-throated defense of Saudi Arabia. One can acknowledge that Saudi Arabia is morally in the wrong on its murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and in the way it has prosecuted the war in Yemen while still making an argument that the overall alliance is not worth abandoning.

No, what is surprising is that Pompeo’s op-ed seemed almost designed to needlessly anger stakeholders that the Trump administration cannot afford to alienate. The secretary of state made some laughable assertions that are easily rebutted.

“The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East,” Pompeo wrote, pointing to Saudi work in Iraq. This conveniently elides Riyadh’s myriad efforts to destabilize parts of the region, including its war in Yemen and its embargo of Qatar. This kind of lazy assertion is guaranteed to alienate the foreign policy community, which means that journalists will have little trouble finding expert quotes that savage the administration’s defense of Saudi Arabia.

More importantly, Pompeo complained that, “The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on.” It is odd to see a former member of Congress write something that he knows will annoy even GOP supporters in Congress. And, sure enough, less than 24 hours after Pompeo’s op-ed ran, the Senate advanced a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The Trump administration lost the vote by close to a veto-proof margin. This was exactly the outcome Pompeo was hoping to avoid.

Why would the secretary of state use such undiplomatic and counterproductive language? It is worth considering two recent stories that illuminate some of Pompeo’s activities at Foggy Bottom.

Earlier this month the Daily Beast’s Eric Banco and Asawin Suebsaeng tucked this anecdote into a story about State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert:

[Nauert’s] tenure at State has not been without its hiccups or missteps, including a bizarre kerfuffle that since July has reverberated throughout various echelons of the administration, such as the West Wing, and was dubbed by one senior Trump administration official as “the Pompeo cheese incident.” It was prompted by a story published in Bloomberg by its State Department correspondent Nick Wadhams titled, “Inside Pompeo’s Fraught North Korea Trip,” which included a simple, blink-and-you-miss-it pair of sentences:
“By the morning of his second day, Pompeo had enough. Instead of the elaborate breakfast prepared for him, he ate toast and slices of processed cheese.”
Those two sentences sparked a minor crisis for Nauert. Pompeo, those close to him say, is acutely aware of media coverage of himself, cognizant of how other senior officials and cabinet secretaries have fallen out of favor with the president due to embarrassing or negative reporting on them. The president, a voracious consumer of media and TV, has also been known take unflattering tidbits from articles and use them to humiliate underlings and associates, say several people close to Trump.

This week, Politico’s Alex Thompson and Eliana Johnson reported that Pompeo made some surprising hires at State. Mary Kissel, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer who made some scathing and public criticisms of Trump, was just hired by Pompeo to be his new senior adviser for policy and strategic messaging. And as Thompson and Johnson note, “While other foreign policy experts have found themselves blacklisted for trashing Trump, Kissel is Pompeo’s second recent hire who has done so: In August, he appointed Jim Jeffrey — who joined dozens of GOP foreign policy insiders in signing a letter denouncing Trump — as special representative for Syria engagement.”

So what is going on? I suspect that Pompeo’s WSJ op-ed was intended for an audience of one: the president. Like many of his predecessors, Pompeo knows that he can only be an effective secretary of state by pleasing his boss. Unlike many of his predecessors, Pompeo is doing this not through diplomatic activity or negotiating prowess, but by publishing pugnacious op-eds that echo the president’s language. In return, he gets to do things like staff the State Department the way he would like.

This is not an insane strategy given the current political chaos. It’s certainly a better political strategy than what his immediate predecessor Rex Tillerson attempted. Still, I suspect Trump will go ballistic if he ever reads about these new State Department hires. More importantly, the words of the secretary of state matter, and Pompeo is debasing his rhetoric to signal his loyalty to the president.