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Defender of World Order or Trump Mouthpiece? Pompeo Is Tested by North Korea, Iran and U.S. Allies

| Feb. 24, 2019

In the eyes of Mike Pompeo, the day was shaping up to be one of his most commanding displays of diplomacy since becoming secretary of state. Months of planning had finally yielded a meeting among reluctant European officials, Arab leaders and the Israeli prime minister to strategize over confronting Iran.

Then, in a lunchtime speech, Vice President Mike Pence shattered the fragile unity.

Addressing the officials as they met this month in Warsaw, Mr. Pence denounced the United States’ closest allies — Britain, France and Germany — for coddling “Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.” He demanded they stop undermining American-led sanctions and follow President Trump in renouncing a nuclear deal the Europeans were trying to save.

Privately, Mr. Pompeo briefly erupted. Aides said he complained Mr. Pence had undermined diplomacy — which one European official said included near-agreement about imposing new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile tests — and prompted fresh headlines about trans-Atlantic tensions.

But publicly, Mr. Pompeo never voiced his anger, keeping relations with the White House stable.

Almost a year into his job, Mr. Pompeo, 55, has managed to pull off what few other Trump-era senior cabinet members have accomplished — staying in the president’s good graces and wielding power without countering White House pronouncements or policies.

Now he faces his greatest test. This week, Mr. Pompeo will accompany Mr. Trump to a summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, to try to keep an effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons from going off the rails.

Mr. Pompeo must keep Mr. Trump, 72, from being duped by the North’s wily leader, Kim Jong-un, who is half the president’s age. He also needs to prevent the president from undermining the American negotiating position on denuclearization. After meeting with Mr. Kim in June in Singapore, Mr. Trump declared that the matter was “largely solved” and that “there is no longer a nuclear threat” from North Korea — contradicting American intelligence agencies, whose judgments the president largely ignores. Mr. Pompeo told CNN on Sunday that the North remains a nuclear threat.

In private discussions with Korea experts, Mr. Pompeo has conceded that he would be lucky if the North agreed to dismantle 60 percent of what the United States has demanded. But he said even that would be more than any other administration has achieved.

Over all, Mr. Pompeo has been more of an evangelist for the president’s “America First” approach than any other cabinet member. Whether he should serve as a megaphone for Mr. Trump and the White House, or be more strident in confronting the president over the uncomfortable realities of foreign policy, is now the central question of Mr. Pompeo’s leadership of the United States’ diplomatic corps.

Others in the administration wince at presidential tweets. Mr. Pompeo, a former Tea Party Republican congressman and C.I.A. director, tells his staff to evaluate each one on whether it can be leveraged into something useful.

Sometimes he works behind the scenes to try to contain the damage, but rarely drops any hint of his opposition in public.

After Mr. Trump abruptly declared in December that the United States would soon withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria, the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned. But Mr. Pompeo told aides the withdrawal was the president’s prerogative and defended it as a “change in tactics, not in mission.”

Still, he is not always in step with Mr. Trump. He has pushed ahead with sanctions against Russia, and in Poland, he watched American and Polish troops in a live-fire exercise near the Russian border — an unsubtle message to Moscow not to test the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But generally, Mr. Pompeo, a strong partisan and ideologue, aligns with Mr. Trump. In a scathing nationalistic speech in Brussels in December, Mr. Pompeo criticized institutions the United States helped create to maintain its global power — the United Nations, European Union, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization.

In a January speech in Cairo, Mr. Pompeo attacked the policies of President Barack Obama. There has been little, if any, precedent for such a broadside of former administrations from a sitting secretary of state. Mr. Pompeo was widely criticized for it. By contrast, he praised President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s repressive leader. He did the same with two other leaders who have authoritarian tendencies, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.

On major issues, “the president is working to undermine us, and if Secretary Pompeo is supporting that, this is a fault,” said R. Nicholas Burns, an under secretary of state under President George W. Bush and a Harvard professor whom Mr. Pompeo has consulted.

“He’s an institutionalist, and he’s done some things well, starting with rejuvenating the State Department after Rex Tillerson dismantled so much,” Mr. Burns said, referring to the president’s first secretary of state. “But on policy, he has been the voice of unilateralism, of ‘our way or the highway.’ And he’s discovering, just recently, that the world is pushing back.”

This article is based on conversations with more than two dozen current and former American officials, foreign diplomats and policy advisers, most of whom agreed to discuss Mr. Pompeo on the condition of anonymity.

Sticking to Trump, While Rebuilding an Agency

John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, sometimes expresses his own views and tries to bend policy, as he did on Syria, when he said American troops would stay as long as Iran had troops on Syrian soil. Mr. Trump quickly quashed that thought.

By contrast, Mr. Pompeo unfailingly sticks to the presidential line. For example, he publicly refuses to acknowledge the intelligence agencies’ assessments — including those prepared by his former staff at the C.I.A. — that contradict Mr. Trump on matters like North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State.

The president has rewarded Mr. Pompeo’s loyalty by anointing him the point person on several signature issues. Those include North Korea and Afghanistan, a subject on which one American official said Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump speak directly to each other, sidelining Mr. Bolton.

Mr. Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, also talks of global religious freedom as a priority.

The American foreign policy establishment is ambivalent toward Mr. Pompeo, praising him for reinvigorating the diplomatic corps while criticizing him for his policies and ideology.

After he took over the State Department last April, Mr. Pompeo promised to return “swagger” to the ranks, which had been depleted and demoralized under Mr. Tillerson. He resumed hiring young diplomats and appointed respected career officials to top positions. Still, many ambassadorships remain empty, which he blames on a Senate backlog.

Mr. Pompeo is much more in sync with Mr. Trump on policy than with career foreign service officers, whose recommendations often contradict the White House. Mr. Pompeo supported the president’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal — two of Mr. Obama’s signature initiatives that many American diplomats enthusiastically backed.

Mr. Trump’s move to withdraw American troops from Syria shocked Brett McGurk, who served for more than four years as the special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State. Mr. McGurk resigned and was swiftly labeled a “grandstander” by the president. Mr. Pompeo remained silent and on the sidelines.

Negotiating With a Nuclear North Korea

Shortly after the first meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, the North’s leader, Mr. Pompeo began trying to turn their vague communiqué from Singapore into a road map for denuclearization.

It was not easy. Mr. Trump’s tweets that the problems were solved led Russia and China to loosen restrictions on trade with North Korea. When Mr. Pompeo visited Pyongyang, the North’s capital, in July, Mr. Kim refused to see him. And Mr. Pompeo got nowhere on persuading North Korea to declare its nuclear assets.

Months later, the priorities have changed. While Mr. Trump once talked about swift movement on denuclearization, he has since said there is plenty of time.

Mr. Pompeo’s chief envoy for North Korea, Stephen E. Biegun, signaled in a January speech that Pyongyang might not need to disclose its nuclear assets until later in the process — raising questions in the National Security Council and among arms experts about how they would know if Mr. Kim had actually reduced his arsenal. Had Mr. Pompeo moved the goal posts?

In Hanoi, Mr. Pompeo’s largest challenge will be to extract from Mr. Kim a timetable for dismantling his nuclear program. He must also reconcile how the United States and the North define denuclearization, and wants to keep Mr. Trump from having much time alone with Mr. Kim, where the president might make snap concessions.

While Mr. Pompeo still insists “complete, verifiable denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula is the goal, he says Pyongyang may begin to receive benefits — perhaps a liaison office — as he seeks to “reduce the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea.’’

To some, that word, “reduce,” is a sign of a creeping acceptance of reality.

Confronting Iran but Straining Alliances

A senior aide said Mr. Pompeo “has been all about Iran,” dating to his time in Congress. His forceful approach has incited tensions with European allies and the Iraqi government, whose support the Trump administration needs to keep American troops there.

Mr. Pompeo is banking that sanctions on Iran will compel political change there. In Warsaw, Mr. Pompeo said he hoped the Iranian people would rise up against their autocratic government, which he has criticized for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and regional military campaigns.

To his frustration, the European countries that negotiated the nuclear deal alongside the United States — Britain, France, Germany — refuse to follow Washington’s lead. They are working to keep Iran in the deal and to continue trade. Few other issues have so poisoned relations with allies.

The same is true in Baghdad, where Mr. Pompeo pressed Iraqi leaders in January to stop buying energy from neighboring Iran. Weeks later, the Iraqi prime minister said he would not abide by American sanctions, given that natural gas and electricity from Iran are critical for power-starved Iraq. And in September, over the objections of Iraqi officials and some American diplomats, Mr. Pompeo closed the United States Consulate in Basra, citing concerns about Iran.

Mr. Pompeo has followed Mr. Trump’s lead in reaffirming ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main adversary, despite concerns from even Senate Republicans about the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. No other issue has been more telling of Mr. Pompeo’s support of the transactional nature of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy.

In October, following the crisis that erupted after Saudi agents killed Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist, Mr. Trump sent Mr. Pompeo on an emergency trip to Saudi Arabia. Images of Mr. Pompeo smiling and shaking hands with Prince Mohammed ignited widespread criticism.

After another visit in January with the prince, who is waging a catastrophic war in Yemen and whom the C.I.A. has concluded ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, Mr. Pompeo told reporters accompanying him that the United States had “a deep, longstanding relationship” with Saudi Arabia.

“That’s who our partner is; that’s who our strategically shared interest is with,” he said.

Rallying Around Regime Change

On Jan. 4, Mr. Pompeo appeared on a video screen in a room in Lima, Peru. He was speaking to officials from 13 nations who had gathered for a meeting of the Lima Group, formed in 2017 to address the economic crisis in Venezuela.

They were weighing what actions to take against President Nicolás Maduro, the authoritarian leader of Venezuela. The Canadian envoy was pressing for a declaration on the illegitimacy of Mr. Maduro’s government. Others were unsure.

Mr. Pompeo delivered the same message he had made in person days earlier to leaders of Brazil and Colombia: Come up with a solid plan, and the United States will stand with you.

That helped push the countries to issue a bold statement demanding that Mr. Maduro not start another term, said two people briefed on the discussions.

Then a debate unfolded in the State Department over whether the United States should take the same step. Some officials recommended caution. But Mr. Pompeo chose to take a stronger approach, one person said, helping prompt the Trump administration’s first overt attempt at regime change.

On Jan. 23, Mr. Trump announced he recognized Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly leader, as Venezuela’s interim president.

In those early weeks, diplomacy was a success for Mr. Pompeo.

“Either you stand with the forces of freedom or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem,” Mr. Pompeo said at a United Nations Security Council meeting. On Feb. 4, most of the European Union’s members recognized Mr. Guaidó.

But Mr. Pompeo’s new special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, is known for a contentious history with Latin America that involves violence and what some call imperial overreach.

And the Venezuelan military still supports Mr. Maduro. Since Friday, pro-Maduro forces have killed at least four civilians in clashes over American aid supplies.

Mr. Pompeo’s diplomacy may have reached its limits. Roberta S. Jacobson, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Mr. Pompeo had failed to cultivate the deep international ties now required.

“He hasn’t engaged in creating relationships and supporting the international institutions that you need when you want allies to be with you at a tough time,” she said. “Instead, we go it alone.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wong, Edward and David E. Sanger.“Defender of World Order or Trump Mouthpiece? Pompeo Is Tested by North Korea, Iran and U.S. Allies.” The New York Times, February 24, 2019.