It’s an open question whether Donald Trump will go down as the worst president in American history (James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson remain formidable contenders), but there’s no question that Mike Pompeo, his most fervid lapdog, is the worst secretary of state.
Through his two years and nine months as the nation’s top diplomat, Pompeo has said or done nothing that’s enhanced our security, our values, or even—right or wrong—his administration’s own policies.
His tenure is ending with crushing humiliation—a snub from our European allies, who are fed up with the trashing he and Trump had dealt them these past four years. On Jan. 4, Pompeo announced that he would travel to Europe and meet with leaders of the European Union. Two days later, in the wake of the Trump-incited riots on Capitol Hill, EU officials said they wouldn’t meet with him—tiny Luxembourg’s foreign minister publicly denounced Trump as a “criminal” and “political pyromaniac,” for good measure—so Pompeo canceled his last chance of a taxpayer-funded trip overseas.
It has been a long season of humiliations for Pompeo. In August, he pressured the U.N. Security Council to pass a ban on conventional arms sales to Iran. Only one of the council’s members, the Dominican Republic, joined the U.S. in supporting the ban; Russia and China opposed it; the others—all U.S. allies—abstained.
The episode typified, in extreme form, two of Pompeo’s most distinct traits—an obsession with fomenting regime change in Iran and an utter incompetence at making that or any other goal happen.
Like Trump, Pompeo ceaselessly inveighed against the Iran nuclear deal; it is no coincidence that Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions against the Islamic Republic on May 8, 2018, just 12 days after Pompeo was sworn in as secretary. (His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, had advised Trump to stay in the deal.) Pompeo claimed, with swaggering confidence, that the sanctions would compel Tehran back to negotiate a “better” nuclear deal—or possibly force a collapse of the regime. Fast forward to today: Iran’s economy is a wreck, but the regime survives, its hard-line factions are stronger than before, and its reactors are closer than ever to churning out an atomic bomb. (President-elect Joe Biden wants to restart the nuclear deal, but Iran’s technological progress and the stiffening of its politics will make this harder to accomplish.)
This week, perhaps realizing that his “maximum pressure” campaign had been a total failure, Pompeo changed course and claimed, in a speech at the National Press Club, that Iran is the new “home base” of al-Qaida—the terrorist movement’s “operational headquarters”—and declared, “The time is now for America and all free nations to crush the Iran-al-Qaida axis.” U.S. intelligence officials say there is no evidence whatever for this claim.
Pompeo’s other big bugaboo has been China, and he has called for regime change in Beijing as well—despite the clear preposterousness of the goal. The Chinese Communist Party is a mischievous force in the world, but Pompeo is simply wrong in claiming that it is “totally separate from the Chinese people” or that it’s a “regime” imbued with “a Marxist-Leninist core”—or that the “challenge of resisting the CCP threat is in some ways much more difficult” than resisting the Soviet Union’s Communist empire during the Cold War. In fact, though it enslaves minorities and imprisons democratic activists, much, perhaps most, of the Chinese population supports the CCP, which lifted over 850 million people out of poverty in astonishingly fast time. In any case, there is nothing “Marxist-Leninist” about President Xi Jinping’s philosophy, which seeks expansion through mercantilist techniques, not ideological conformity. And while it’s important to contain China’s military aggression in the South China Sea (something the U.S. military has been doing for some time), it’s a huge stretch to compare its scope or ambition to that of the Soviet Union, which once enjoyed a truly global presence. Pompeo misunderstands the nature of China’s challenge—and, as a result, comes up with half-baked notions of how to deal with it.
His overheated rhetoric has further isolated the United States from the rest of the world—a shame since real challenges, including China and Iran, require a concerted response along with allies. As an example of his insensitivity to allies’ concerns, Pompeo made his distorted case against the CCP in a speech to the Czech Parliament in August. The speech contained just one sentence about Russia and nothing about ongoing threats to Ukraine, the recent rigged election in Belarus, the rise of illiberalism in Hungary and Poland, or the dangers of a splintered European Union. He even, at one point, suggested the possibility of a Russia-West alliance against China—this to an audience, in the heart of Europe, whose members viscerally recall the 1968 Soviet coup that left their country occupied by five Red Army divisions and a harsh Moscow-installed dictatorship for the subsequent 22 years.
Then there are Pompeo’s wincing lies. He has claimed that he and Trump have made NATO “stronger” than before—when, in fact, trans-Atlantic ties have rarely been more strained, owing to Trump’s constant dissing of alliances in general and of the EU in particular.
Last Sunday, Pompeo praised Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, tweeting, “Our previous President unilaterally disarmed under the INF Treaty. We said ‘enough’ and left the one-sided deal that made America defenseless.” In fact, it was President Ronald Reagan who signed that treaty with then–Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and it required far deeper nuclear-arms cuts from Moscow than from Washington.
Pompeo has also been a blatantly corrupt secretary of state. By taping a speech in Jerusalem to be aired at the 2020 Republican National Convention, he violated not only the Hatch Act but also a policy that he’d earlier promulgated, forbidding department employees from so much as attending political conventions. He used security officials to run errands for himself, his wife, and his wife’s mother. He had Trump fire the inspector general who was investigating this misuse of government resources. He threw lavish dinner parties inside the State Department, inviting donors who might contribute to some future political campaign. He turned the Voice of America, which in recent decades had turned itself into a fairly objective global news service, into a propaganda organ for Trump. He demoralized the foreign service even more thoroughly than Tillerson had done (a feat that few imagined possible), leaving a record number of vacancies, and hanging ambassadors out to dry when they provoked Trump’s ire (cf. Marie Yovanovitch).
Two more examples of his failings. First, he did nothing to veer Trump away from a North Korea policy that was, at once, comically naïve (“we fell in love,” Trump once said of his relationship with Kim Jong-un, the world’s most brutal dictator), hopelessly undiplomatic (demanding total disarmament from Pyongyang instead of step-by-step measures), and alarming to our Asian allies (for instance, giving in to Kim’s demands that we suspend joint military exercises with South Korea). Second, he loudly touted a policy to push Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from power—a notion premised in part on rashly underestimating Maduro’s control over the military—and did nothing to support the country’s democratic factions when the plan fell apart.
Pompeo shimmied his way into power by gearing his every twist and utterance to the pleasuring of the boss, beginning when he was CIA director (where he often omitted or distorted intelligence that went against Trump’s gut feelings) and intensifying when he advanced to Foggy Bottom. He was a dishonest broker, disinclined to speak truth to power, out of fear that he might lose power in the course of doing so.
To cap it all off, in his final days, Pompeo issued orders—overturning existing policy, after no discussion—lifting restrictions on official contact with Taiwan, designating Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” and declaring the Iran-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization.” These moves will have no long-term effect; the presumptive incoming secretary, Anthony Blinken, can reverse these dictums, though it will be awkward to do so. It’s an act of sheer mischief, like a teenager pelting the new neighbor’s front door with rotten eggs on Halloween.
Is Pompeo the worst secretary of state ever? In modern times, John Foster Dulles might be a rival for the crown, but, thankfully, President Dwight Eisenhower didn’t pay attention to Dulles’ most dreadful advice. The stiffly fanatical Dulles pushed for the “rollback” of Soviet communism, but Eisenhower, despite paying some lip service to the notion, stuck in practice to his predecessor Harry Truman’s policy of “containment.” Dulles also offered his French counterpart two tactical nuclear weapons to stave off the Viet Cong’s siege at Dien Bien Phu; Eisenhower had no interest in going there.
There may also have been miscreants in the 19th century, but the job back then was treated mainly as a holding place for a president’s friends or donors. Whatever some secretary might have done, it had slighter consequences: The job had less power in the government; the nation had less power in the world.
So Mike Pompeo wins the crown of thorns. Next week, he will fly back to Kansas, where he was once a congressman and where he hopes to run for Senate, having left the diplomatic corps in a hollow rut (which could take a decade to rebuild), the nation less secure, and our network of alliances—which has sustained our security and influence for many decades—frazzled at its core.
Pompeo may find, as many of Trump’s aides are discovering in their fruitless Biden-era job hunts, that his iron loyalty to the twice-impeached president will dim—not, as he once hoped, brighten—his prospects for higher office. The Kansas City Star editorialized about Pompeo this week, “America will be better when he leaves office. Kansas will be better if he decides to stay away from his adopted home state forever.”