What is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doing, and how bad will it get? America’s top diplomat recently concluded a 10-day, seven-country overseas trip that seemed designed to cause as much damage as possible (and perhaps firm up his own dubious reputation with an eye toward a possible 2024 presidential run). The reviews were disastrous: Bloomberg described the trip as a “troll,” in which Pompeo “angered Turkey’s leaders, infuriated the Palestinians and befuddled the French.”
The incoming Biden administration will be left to deal with the consequences. While Antony Blinken, Pompeo’s presumed replacement, has received support from liberal politicians and advocacy groups, some are asking what kind of world he will inherit. Determined to cause headaches for a President Biden, Pompeo is extending Trump’s nihilistic, burn-everything attitude to America’s foreign policy. That’s caused Democratic officials like Senator Tom Udall, who sits on the foreign affairs committee, to speak out.
“The President and Secretary Pompeo have squandered American credibility and weakened our national security with their endless saber-rattling, chaos, and political theater,” Udall said in an email. “I am confident that the recent announcements from President-elect Biden show that real leadership is coming back to the State Department so we can return to the smart diplomacy that the vast majority of Americans support.”
Biden’s Cabinet will largely be a restorative one. As a candidate, he promised to take America back to the Obama era’s multilateralism, with some lessons learned from the disastrous NATO intervention in Libya and the facilitation of Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war in Yemen. And surely Blinken will have a few diplomatic layups—relieved encounters with grateful foreign ministers, a celebration as the U.S. rejoins the Paris climate accord. But his relationships with Israel and its Gulf Sunni allies will be tested, not least by the obstacles being laid now by Pompeo and his team.
“They’re doing this on purpose,” said Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now. “They’re scattering mines around and trying to make it difficult for them.”
By forcing the incoming Biden administration to confront issues ranging from settlements to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and to a possible open conflict with Iran, Pompeo, blessed by Trump’s typical indifference, is placing “a series of political impediments” for his successor, said Susskind. Some of them may prove thorny down the road; others will demand his attention on day one. (Representative Rashida Tlaib has already asked Blinken to address Pompeo’s attempted suppression of the BDS movement, a protected First Amendment activity that conservatives have nonetheless sought to limit.)
Pompeo’s most important stop on his recent diplomatic tour was in Israel and the occupied West Bank, where he drank wine made in a settlement, offered succor to Israel’s right wing, and issued proclamations muddling the definitions of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Haaretz, the liberal Israeli newspaper, called it a “grotesque farewell party.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the opportunity to issue a statement imploring the United States not to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement, from which Trump withdrew and which Biden seems likely to attempt to rejoin.
Not long after his Israel visit, Pompeo reportedly met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Netanyahu, and the head of Israel’s Mossad spy service, in Noem, a futuristic planned city being built in the Saudi desert. The principal subject was almost certainly Iran and how far the not-so-secret allies could go in their clandestine campaign of industrial sabotage and cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities before crossing some unstated Biden red line.
At this late date, an all-out bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely, but even a limited strike could lead to great loss of life and regional conflict, including an attack by Iran or its proxies against American forces in Iraq. Iran may also escalate operations in Syria or its support of the Houthis in Yemen. (Iran-Contra veteran Elliott Abrams, who in his capacity as U.S. Special Representative for Iran visited Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in the weeks before Pompeo, recently warned Iran not to attack U.S. forces in the region.)
“That in and of itself will nevertheless poison the atmosphere and ensure that Biden starts off his presidency at the lowest possible starting point when it comes to regional developments,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Pompeo’s self-proclaimed “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions will only complicate efforts to rejoin the JCPOA. While the U.S. has applied economic sanctions against Iran in some form since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the restrictions have become even more debilitating under Pompeo and Trump. Blocked off from much of the global banking system, Iranians now struggle to get everyday medical supplies like insulin and personal protective equipment. (As with the deadly sanctions the U.S. applied to Iraq in the 1990s, the human toll here goes largely unrecognized.)
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, has said that Iran would consider rejoining the JCPOA in exchange for the dropping of sanctions. But even if some sanctions are eliminated—and they’ve had bipartisan support—rejoining the JCPOA may not be easy. An Iranian presidential election is scheduled for June, and some commentators expect a conservative victory, premised, much like Trump’s 2016 pledge to leave the Iran agreement, on a campaign message that diplomatic engagement with the West has failed.
“The Biden administration may calculate, and not incorrectly, that striking a deal with a lame-duck Iranian government is useless because the conservatives may come in afterward and upend a deal anyway,” Parsi said. “And then Pompeo and Trump’s calculation will have succeeded.”
That would represent a rare, if perverse, success for Pompeo. Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War, described Pompeo’s State Department tenure as an “unmitigated failure.” Along with his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, Pompeo may be one of America’s most singularly unsuccessful diplomats. Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat who, like Udall, sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, offered this assessment:
The Trump administration has engaged in a wholesale decimation of the State Department and foreign service, both under secretaries Tillerson and Pompeo. Secretary Pompeo used the Department of State to further his own craven political ambitions, putting his loyalty to Trump over his oath of office by tastelessly joking about the president’s harmful attempts to thwart the transition of power to President-elect Biden.
Beyond Pompeo puffing himself up as a swaggering statesman—he recently appropriated the hazily defined “Pompeo Doctrine” from a right-wing Israeli pundit—he has done real damage to regional diplomatic efforts. Labeling peace-minded NGOs as antisemitic imperils their funding, limits their ability to operate in Israel and the West Bank, and possibly endangers their activists. Another Pompeo initiative, to designate Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist group, would make it even more difficult to get aid to a country where tens of thousands of people face starvation. Meanwhile, the government’s talks with the Taliban about a peace deal continue to trudge on, seemingly advancing, albeit slowly, in spite of the secretary of state’s occasional participation.
Pompeo’s crude foreign policy, his Trumpist embrace of right-wing rulers, and his focus on his own political future have caused more suffering, not less, for innocent Palestinians, Yemenis, and Saudis, whose autocratic ruler has purchased huge amounts of U.S. weapons. Pompeo is working “not for some greater good,” Miles said. Instead, his aim is “literally just to screw the guys coming after [him].”
By establishing new conditions on the ground—a preeminent example of which is the moving of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—Pompeo has made his successor’s job more difficult, lest he excite right-wing sensitivities about challenging any policy seen as favoring Israel. “Trump’s unabashedly pro-Israeli policies have a good chance of enduring,” said Walter Hixson, a professor of diplomatic history at the University of Akron. “As usual, the Palestinians, justice, and genuine democracy will be the big losers.”
For observers like Trita Parsi, the incoming foreign policy team is cause for some relief. Blinken and incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan know the region’s leaders, and they have negotiated with Iran before. But of course, they’ll be dealing with problems that have been deliberately placed in their way.
“We shouldn’t be here,” said Parsi. “If the nuclear deal had simply been respected, we would have been in a dramatically different situation. This is a completely fabricated conflict at this point.”