The nicest thing to say about Mike Pompeo’s tenure as Secretary of State is that it’s finally over.
He left with an appropriate remark and tweeted that multiculturalism “isn’t who America is” and that it makes the country “weaker”. Once he stepped down, he simply began quoting Bible verses and literally counting the days until he believed he was president and tweeted a simple “1,384,” as the number of days remaining in the Biden administration.
There is still some debate in some circles as to whether he was the worst secretary of state of all time or whether that title goes to his predecessor Rex Tillerson. Without question, Tillerson turned out to be unsuitable for the job. Unlike Pompeo, Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO, showed a nuanced understanding of the world and, above all, seemed to have a moral compass.
I’ve covered the world traveling with seven secretaries of state, Republicans and Democrats, as a member of the diplomatic press corps. Everyone – with the exception of Pompeo – understood that a free press was both a national security imperative and a pinnacle of the democratic principles it promoted abroad. I keep in touch with most of them and appreciate our ongoing discussions on US foreign policy challenges and how we can address them. I won’t call Pompeo. Since he says the US media is indebted to the Chinese, he certainly doesn’t want to hear from me.
I am judging Pompeo not only for its shameful treatment of the State Department press corps, a fairly substantial group. Though he curses journalists like he did with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly or got them reassigned for asking questions about America’s role in the world, what happened when a Voice of America reporter dared to ask him a question, he speaks to his thin skin and how low he brought the office.
Nor is my main problem with the fact that Pompeo does not have a single diplomatic achievement in his name. Some of the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions, such as the tougher approach to China, are justified, even if there is little to show. But the other files in Pompeo’s portfolio are now worse than they were at the beginning. North Korea has increasingly dangerous nuclear weapons. Iran is much closer to the bomb. Relations with European allies and most other international alliances are in a sad state. The government’s greatest foreign policy success – Israel’s normalization agreement with four Arab states – is largely thanks to Jared Kushner.
It’s not even Pompeo’s serial abuse of government resources, including fancy dinners in the State Department’s diplomatic reception rooms, to foster the favor of Republican luminaries who could fund his future political ambitions. Or his use of government planes to politicize across the country under the guise of foreign policy speeches. Or keep taxpayers on the bill while he was living in military quarters for a foreign minister.
None of this – not even all – is enough to make Pompeo the worst secretary ever. He wins this dubious award because he trampled on the one principle of US foreign policy that each of his predecessors respected, no matter how difficult it was for them at the time: politics stands still on the water.
Pompeo spat on the thought and made foreign policy another battleground for partisan blood sport. His belief that he could one day become president made every step he took as America’s top diplomat into an opportunity to fool Donald Trump and inherit his political dynasty.
It was Pompeo on a diplomatic trip from the roof of a hotel in Jerusalem to deliver an unprecedented address to the Republican National Convention to announce Trump’s achievements in the Middle East. As Secretary of State, he found an excuse to go to the battlefield state of Wisconsin in the final days of the election. After it was over, he refused to recognize Joe Biden’s legitimate election victory – and even joked about looking forward to Trump’s second term – while directly criticizing foreign dictators for similar behavior.
And there is his cynical approach to human rights in which his so-called Inalienable Rights Commission called for a return to America’s “founding principles” to uphold religious freedom as the most fundamental right of all. As a sop for evangelicals, the commission was an excuse to brush aside “ad hoc rights granted by governments” in the name of religious freedom. Human rights groups everywhere saw this as a threat to reproductive rights.
In addition, he is renouncing his role as head of the Foreign Ministry and its around 75,000 employees worldwide. He promised to bring #swagger back to the agency but laughed when Trump called it the “deep state”. When Marie Yovanovitch, a 33-year-old diplomat who was then serving as the US ambassador to Ukraine, came under the crosshairs of Trump henchmen like Rudy Giuliani, Pompeo threw her under the bus. At first he ignored the smear campaign against her, and then he reminded her – on Trump’s orders – to Washington just because she was strongly against the president’s (it turned out) campaign to pollute the Bidens.
Rather than ending the harassment of public and foreign service officials by political officers in his department, Pompeo doubled down with a patronizing “ethos” statement in the lobby of Foggy Bottom over a wall dedicated to fallen State Department officials who were killed in the division service line, a sacred place in the building. It was such an offensive breach of employee integrity that it was eliminated in Biden’s early hours in office.
Despite political differences, every Secretary of State before Pompeo had the same goal: a safe, prosperous nation at home and abroad. They respected the unspoken golden rule that America’s top diplomat represented an America. Even political beasts like John Kerry, a 28-year-old Senate veteran who ran for president, and Hillary Clinton, who also ran for president and admits that politics is in their DNA, avoided partisan attacks when it came to foreign policy.
Yet it was Pompeo who traveled to Cairo, where Barack Obama’s 2009 speech to the Muslim world, to deliver a devastating personal attack on the former president and to blame his policies as a dangerous misjudgment that is responsible for the evils of the region.
And then, after an attempted coup in Washington, Pompeo merrily instituted a series of policy measures at the eleventh hour, lifted restrictions on official contacts with Taiwan, named Houthi rebels in Yemen a terrorist, and named Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism . I totally agree with the move in Taiwan, but this has yet to be called for what it is: a cynical attempt to neutralize the foreign policy of the new Biden government while puking the water on its political future.
If there is one. Pompeo didn’t even rate the top candidates for the Republican nomination in 2024 in a recent Morning Consult poll.
And during the confirmation hearing for his successor, Antony Blinken, several Republican senators, along with their Democratic counterparts, called for an end to the combat readiness that Pompeo had shown Congress during his tenure. The senators were surprised that instead of the arrogance they usually received from Pompeo, Blinken respectfully answered all of their questions and recognized the lessons of his decades-long career. Blinken even nodded to some guidelines put in place by the Trump administration that he believed would benefit the United States and that the Biden administration could build on.
Above all, he promised to make the State Department again a non-partisan institution that only wants to represent the interests of the United States. If Blinken did nothing but keep that one promise, it would already clear the very low bar Pompeo set. And no attempts to brag can document this sad legacy.