The United States Senate has begun consideration of Mike Pompeo’s nomination as the next Secretary of State. Trump picked the current CIA director to replace Rex Tillerson apparently given his greater rapport with the president on key international issues. The Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Pompeo cast a light on the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration, as well as the defining political fault lines. Pompeo will probably secure the committee’s backing, but a vote of the full Senate could go either way.
In his opening statement, Pompeo zoomed in on an issue particularly important to the committee: filling key positions at the State Department. The U.S. still has not appointed nearly 40 heads of mission, including posts in Germany, South Korea, and the European Union. On Tillerson’s watch, cooperation between the Trump administration and the Senate on this issue was clearly inadequate. During his tenure as CIA director, Pompeo earned trust on the Hill, and as a former member of the House of Representatives, he can count on greater openness in cooperation with Congress. Pompeo’s written testimony offers a useful hierarchy of tasks facing U.S. diplomacy: denuclearisation of North Korea, standing up to Russia’s aggressive policies, fixing the nuclear deal with Iran, competing with China.
The GOP members of the committee highlighted the issues related to management within the State Department, especially the need for a new approach to foreign service cadres. They sought to avoid questions about the substance of U.S. foreign policy, so as not to put the nominee in a position in which he would have to contradict the statements of the president. Democrats on the committee struck a more confrontational tone. They questioned Pompeo’s assertion that the U.S. is firmly opposing Russia’s aggressive policies, asked him about the possibility of a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal should efforts to amend it fail, and demanded clarity whether it was a goal of U.S. policy to remove Kim Jong-un as the leader of North Korea.
In the hearing, Pompeo opined that the responsibility for the “historic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and now Russia” falls to Russia. Pompeo said he believes Russia constitutes a “danger” to the U.S., going even further than the new National Security Strategy of 2017, which refers to a “rivalry” with Russia and cast the threat as more remote. In his earlier statements as CIA director, Pompeo warned that Russia is likely to continue to meddle in U.S. elections, likely the key mid-term Congressional elections in November. Perhaps crucially, however, Trump himself seemed to suggest a change in tone on Russia over the past few days. What’s unclear is whether it could jeopardise the prospects for a Trump-Putin meeting at the White House. Trump has repeatedly underlined that he values his personal relationship with Putin.
Pompeo will seek to avoid any discord between himself and the president. Such moments became quite frequent during Tillerson’s time in office. However, there is little chance that the change of guard at the State Department will do away with the biggest ailment haunting the Trump administration, namely the president’s inclination to communicate U.S. intent to foreign actors without prior consultations with key members of his own cabinet. Similarly, it is unlikely that the aura of unpredictability created by Trump in his dealings with the leaders of China, North Korea, or Russia somehow will be hemmed in by new National Security Advisor John Bolton. The likelihood of internal friction over policy could grow. North Korea is a point in case. Pompeo has ruled out regime change as a goal of U.S. policy while Bolton has not.