He's cleaned up the State Department. But his fanaticism over Tehran is misleading his boss.
Daniel R. DEPETRIS
Once upon a time, the United States and Iran were relatively solid security partners. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi struck a 17-page accord designed to usher in a long-term relationship between their two countries. The document was referred to as the Treaty of Amity, it’s goal codified in the very first article: “There shall be firm and enduring peace and sincere friendship between the United States of America and Iran.”
U.S.-Iran relations, of course, have been anything but amicable over the last four decades. The downfall of the Shah in 1979 and the consolidation of power by Iran’s clerical establishment a year later has been only one of the major inflection points in a relationship that seems to get worse with each passing year. Thus did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a man who has had an ax to grind with the ayatollahs from the day he was sworn in as a member of Congress in 2010, announce last week that Washington would no longer consider the Treaty of Amity legitimate. “The Iranians have been ignoring it for an awfully long time,” he said. “We ought to have pulled out of it decades ago.”
For those of us in Washington who believe there should be at least some communication channel between Washington and Tehran, this decision was yet another signal that President Trump and his national security advisors are largely uninterested in diplomacy with a country that they view as an arch-enemy. But for those inside the administration and the Beltway’s powerful circle of Iran hawks, Pompeo’s cancelation of the treaty affirmed why President Trump was smart to tap the former Kansas congressman to be America’s top diplomat.
Mike Pompeo entered the secretary of state job in an unenviable position. His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, was commonly depicted as detached from the workforce and uninterested in doing what diplomats do: negotiating deals on behalf of the American people. Tillerson’s intense focus on reforming how Foggy Bottom did business, whether it was lobbying for cuts in the budget or ushering in a campaign to overhaul the bureaucracy, rubbed many employees the wrong way. Dan Drezner, a professor at Tufts University, was so incensed over Tillerson’s performance that he wrote a column in the Washington Post demanding a change in leadership at the top. About seven months later, the former oil tycoon was unceremoniously canned by President Trump via tweet, their personal and professional relationship having hit rock bottom.
Pompeo’s first mission was to restore a basic level of confidence within the State Department’s workforce, one he committed himself to during his address on his very first day. He discussed bringing “swagger back” to a department depicted in the mainstream media as empty of staff and demoralized after a year under Tillerson. Rejuvenating the foreign service’s confidence would be an enormous undertaking even in a less frenetic time. But for Pompeo, it’s simply another portfolio in a stack that included everything from improving the State Department’s relationship with its congressional overseers to wading through the muck of North Korean nuclear diplomacy.
How has Pompeo fared during his first four months on the job? Any assessment at this time is wildly premature, but the game of second-guessing is hardwired into Washington culture. At this point in Pompeo’s young tenure, the record is mixed.
At least on the surface, it appears that the State Department has indeed gotten some of its swagger back. Pompeo has something Tillerson never did: a productive relationship with a president who is as obsessed with loyalty from his staff as Richard Nixon was five decades prior. Tillerson and Trump never truly connected, which meant the State Department never truly connected with the White House. Indeed, there is a case to be made that Foggy Bottom’s influence within the interagency national security decision-making process suffered as a result of Tillerson’s frostiness towards his boss. Pompeo, by contrast, has as warm a relationship (some would even call it a friendship) with Trump as anyone can have. In terms of increasing the State Department’s power as an institution, Pompeo has been a godsend.
His record as a diplomat and a communicator of U.S. foreign policy, however, is not so solid. Pompeo deserves enormous credit for taking personal ownership of the Trump administration’s diplomacy with North Korea. Whereas a secretary of state traveling to Pyongyang would once have been seen as a history-making moment, Pompeo has flown there so many times—the most recent being last weekend—that it barely bats an eye anymore.
Yet one finds it difficult to escape the feeling that politics is never far from Pompeo’s mind. He is a political animal at heart, and it shows in his combative and at times dismissive attitude during hearings before the foreign affairs committees, where he has a habit of castigating Democratic lawmakers as partisan attack dogs who only care about one thing: removing President Trump from office. Just as ingrained in his mind is Iran, a regional power in the Middle East that certainly causes trouble, but is overall a speck of dust on America’s giant shoe. After hearing Pompeo speak, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Ayatollah Khamenei is huddled somewhere in Tehran drawing up plans to take over the world. The facts are that Iran is largely a pariah state, corruption is endemic in its political system, and the rial is depreciating rapidly. Yet all this has gotten clouded by the extreme rhetoric coming out of the administration.
The one question that will determine the success or failure of Mike Pompeo’s tenure at the State Department will be whether he can keep his relationship with Donald Trump on an even keel. And on this, we still don’t know the answer.