AMMAN, Jordan — Mike Pompeo uses language economically, and that was evident on his first foreign trip as secretary of state. Many of the messages he conveyed required few words.
When he headed directly from his swearing-in ceremony Thursday for the airport, Pompeo said he aims to get the State Department’s “swagger” back.
With no aides brought over from the CIA or Congress, he boarded the plane alone. To the career professionals shunted aside at the State Department under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, Pompeo’s simple gesture was an invitation to show him their worth.
Pompeo visited three countries in the Middle East, suggesting he expects to own U.S. diplomacy in the region. At every stop, he lambasted Iran as the singular most malign influence in the Middle East and warned people not to be surprised if President Trump withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal this month.
It was an action-packed beginning for any secretary of state, as he headed back to Washington to address employees on Tuesday and sit in his Foggy Bottom office for the first time. In the coming weeks, he will start to demonstrate how he plans to occupy the largest platform in U.S. diplomacy.
His Middle East visit suggested he is positioning himself to take a larger role in trying to coax Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table for what Trump has said would be the ultimate accomplishment in dealmaking. Up to now, that has been in the portfolio of Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law.
The trip underscored the difficulties in balancing the Middle East peace process with the ramifications of the embassy move to Jerusalem and the administration’s focus on Iran.
Pompeo’s encounters went smoothly when he was in Saudi Arabia and Israel, two countries that see Iran as an archrival for regional dominance.
But it was more complicated in Jordan, another key U.S. ally in the region but one that considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the chief impediment to peace and stability. After Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi described it as such, Pompeo declined to challenge him.
“Precisely how to rank it, amongst all the various challenges, I’ll defer on that,” he said. “Know that it is an incredible priority for the United States to provide whatever assistance we can to allow the two parties to come to a resolution of this incredibly long-standing and important conflict.”
Pompeo sidestepped criticism of Israel’s crackdown against Palestinian protests along the Gaza Strip border, where 39 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded in a month of violent encounters. Israel says it is defending its border and protecting its citizens, and that it targets only instigators of violence.
Pompeo demurred when asked if Israel is overreacting.
“We do believe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves, and we’re fully supportive of that,” he said.
Aides characterized Pompeo’s debut as a diplomat as a chance for him and world leaders to get to know each other. As the former head of the CIA, however, he was already a familiar figure in some of the capitals he visited.
Pompeo made as much as he could of the fact that he was on his maiden trip.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, he told diplomats he was with them in his 13th hour on the job. In Israel, he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he hadn’t even been to his office yet.
And at the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, he wrote in a guest book, “I am honored to visit Jordan on my very first trip as secretary of state.”