Rex Tillerson is reported to be on his way out against the backdrop of his increasingly frayed relationship with President Donald Trump. Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman who now leads the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is to take his place. Tom Cotton, a hawkish Arkansas Senator, is to head the CIA. The timing of Tillerson's departure remains uncertain, but the expected shake-up could come at the end of the year or early next.
According to the Washington Post, Pompeo “had been informally preparing to take over in Foggy Bottom, reaching out to potential candidates for positions and collecting ideas.” Rex Tillerson has been under fire for his stewardship of the State Department. His critics say the US diplomacy is in free fall with diplomats pushed out, and morale hitting rock-bottom. The reports about Tillerson’s departure appear in mass media amid the mounting from lawmakers and diplomats. It’s worth noting that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders did little to scotch the rumors. "There are no personnel announcements at this time," was the only remark she made, not denying that there was a transition plan in mind.
Replacing Tillerson with Pompeo could presage a dramatic change. The nomination of Mike Pompeo, a former congressman from the Tea Party, for State Secretary would likely sit well with many Republicans who served with him in Congress. He is known as a rampant anti-Russia, anti-Iran, and anti-North Korea hawk. Pompeo is also expected to be more hawkish on other key issues.
Will the US use force against Pyongyang? Pompeo supports a military option while Tillerson stands for a negotiated solution to the problem. Infamously, Trump once tweeted that Tillerson was "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Will the US tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran deal? Pompeo is known to be a stern critic of Iran and opposed the nuclear deal that was brokered with the country during the Obama administration. Tillerson says the JCPOA should remain in force, while Pompeo is an ardent advocate of getting the United States onto a collision course with Iran.
There will be internal resistance in the State Department if Pompeo decides to withdraw from the JCPOA. Many diplomats contributed to its achievement in 2015 and back the deal. A conflict appears to be inevitable as Pompeo’s assignment presupposes changing the approach to the agreement.
How will the new assignment affect the relationship with Russia, which is at its lowest ebb ever? It couldn’t be worse, actually. Pompeo believes in the conspiracy theory that Russia meddled in the US election. On the one hand, a breakup with Iran and more tensions with Moscow at the same time may be too much. On the other hand, Iran and Russia are SCO partners. The two closely cooperate in Syria and develop bilateral relations. The formation of Middle East NATO to counter Iran will hardly facilitate improvement of Russia-US relations. The policy hostile to Iran may lead to beefing up the American military presence in Syria, with the US and Russia being in different, if not opposing, camps.
The views of Mike Pompeo, the CIA Director, have put him in good stead with Donald Trump, while Tillerson openly espouses views at odds with those of the president. The alleged Russia’s interference into US elections appears to be the only issue President Trump and Mike Pompeo don’t see eye to eye on. The CIA director says Moscow meddled into the 2016 presidential elections, while the president expresses doubts over the credibility of “Russia did it” reports.
Senator Tom Cotton, an Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a student of Leo Strauss, the grandfather of the neocons. He is known to be a neoconservative and a hawk in favor of foreign interventions. The senator has always advocated aggressive, belligerent foreign policy, including the withdrawal from the Iran deal. He has urged US actions to bring about regime change in Iran through covert activity, and he believes that the use of force is an option.
Cotton believes that Trump is tougher on Russia than Obama was. “President Trump has appointed members to his Cabinet, and they’ve made deliberate statements that have been tougher on Russia than anything President Obama ever did,” he said in March on Fox News. According to him, Obama’s policy aimed at curtailing growth in defense spending, his nuclear deal with Iran, and his administration’s regulation of oil and gas development amounted to a “pro-Russia” policy, unlike the policy of President Trump.
At age 40, he is the youngest US senator with little experience in intelligence. The old guard at the CIA may not be willing to follow his edicts. CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, a 32-year veteran agent, may have a greater role to play. Like in the case of Pompeo, his views on Russia do not coincide with what the president says. Cotton believes Russia is an adversary.
The expected nominations of Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton could be seen as the return of neocons who greatly influenced the decision making-process in the days of George Bush Jr. Tillerson stands out as a much more moderate, sober-minded and reasonable person. It’s logical to expect further deterioration of the Russia-US relations, with neocons being in control of the State Department and the CIA.
The prospect for abovementioned nominations makes remember the events of 2003, when the State Department and the CIA played key roles in drumming up the case for war on Iraq. In late 2017, the drums of another big war in the Middle East are beating loud again.