Elephants in the Room

Mike Pompeo Earned His Promotion

He had a strong record at the CIA. But will Trump let him succeed at the State Department?

Mike Pompeo at The Center for Strategic and International Studies April 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mike Pompeo at The Center for Strategic and International Studies April 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The first thing to say about today’s extraordinary news that U.S. President Donald Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and moved to replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo is that every American owes Tillerson gratitude and appreciation. He served with honor in a position he did not seek and did not need. He served as a principled advocate for responsible policies, all while enduring undeserved public ridicule from Trump. And he served at considerable cost to himself, consistent with the Boy Scout creed of placing duty above personal comforts and preferences.

This is not to say that Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department was without fault. His own management missteps have been well documented and are evidenced by the department’s largely vacant sixth floor (where regional assistant secretaries reside), demoralized ranks, and ongoing exodus of senior foreign service officers. He was sometimes too dismissive of the central role of values in American foreign policy. He was often inattentive to the public communications dimension of diplomacy. But those should not eclipse the central facts that he is a good man who loves his country, who devoted his best to a job that is trying in any time and almost impossible under the present circumstances. He deserved much better than the disgraceful manner of his dismissal.

Meanwhile, secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo, if confirmed, will inherit a profound set of policy and management challenges. Trump’s incessant undercutting of Tillerson on personnel, budget, and policies all bedeviled the secretary of state from the outset and only worsened as the months went by. Pompeo will not be able to do the job if he is subject to the same type of abuse from the White House.

If there is any reason for cautious optimism, it comes from Pompeo’s largely successful track record running the CIA. Much media commentary, and Trump’s own words this morning, have focused on Pompeo’s close relationship with the president — the “First Customer” in CIA parlance. Less appreciated has been just how remarkable it is that Pompeo built this relationship.

It bears remembering that when Pompeo took the helm at the CIA, Trump was engaged in open hostilities with the intelligence community, even invoking a comparison with Nazi Germany. At Langley, Pompeo stepped into the dual challenge of a demoralized and fearful CIA workforce under him and a deeply distrustful president over him. Over the past 14 months, Pompeo deftly managed both problems. As has been widely reported, through countless hours at the White House Pompeo built a rapport with Trump and developed the trust of the famously distrustful president. Less reported has been how Pompeo similarly built trust with the CIA workforce and not only shielded them from Trump’s wrath but also convinced the president that the CIA is not an adversary but rather an asset. (Deputy Director Gina Haspel was especially helpful in this respect, which helped in Trump’s nomination of her to succeed Pompeo.)

Pompeo will face a similar set of institutional challenges at the State Department: rebuilding the trust and confidence of a demoralized foreign service while convincing Trump of the value of diplomacy in general and the State Department in particular. After all, the president is not only the commander in chief of the armed forces, he is also the nation’s diplomat in chief.

Several questions will determine the success or failure of Pompeo’s tenure as secretary of state. First, will the White House permit him to choose his own team, particularly his appointments for the many vacant senior positions at State? Second, will he be given the financial resources needed to restore the State Department, as opposed to the extreme budget cuts imposed by the White House’s budget requests? Third, will he play a central role in the actual crafting of foreign policy, or will he only find out about major decisions by presidential tweet or media leaks? Fourth, will he be the primary implementer of foreign policy, as opposed to a mere sideshow? Fifth, will he maintain the confidence of the White House and be perceived by foreign leaders as speaking for the president and the United States? These questions all stem from this central one: Will President Trump let his new secretary of state succeed in the role?

No one knows the answers to these questions, perhaps not even the famously mercurial Trump himself. Yet given Pompeo’s largely successful sojourn at the CIA, hope springs eternal, albeit cautiously, for the State Department.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.