Mike Pompeo Is Flying Solo in the Middle East

The Trump administration still lacks key ambassadors and senior diplomats to help tackle its biggest foreign-policy challenges.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waits to board a helicopter at the Baghdad International Airport during his visit to Iraq on Jan. 9 in the Iraqi capital. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waits to board a helicopter at the Baghdad International Airport during his visit to Iraq on Jan. 9 in the Iraqi capital. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the Middle East this month to soothe nervous allies highlights a problem that has dogged the U.S. State Department since President Donald Trump took office two years ago: empty posts and depleted ranks.

Of the nine countries Pompeo is visiting, five are without ambassadors. The top Middle East diplomat position also remains vacant, filled in an acting capacity by career diplomat David Satterfield.

The vacancies, current and former officials say, hamper U.S. engagement in the region as Trump and his top deputies grapple with some of the toughest foreign-policy challenges Washington faces: extricating U.S. troops from the war in Syria, countering Iran, dealing with a devastating civil war in Yemen, continuing counterterrorism operations, and patching up a long-simmering rift between Persian Gulf states.

The vacancies are especially problematic as the Trump administration continues to send contradictory messages about its policies toward friends and foes in the region. And many of the lower-level diplomats and embassy staff shuttling the secretary around on his trip are unpaid, as Bloomberg News reports, due to the government shutdown in Washington, further underscoring the dysfunction in U.S. policymaking.

Pompeo is traveling from Jan. 7 to 15 to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait. Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia still have no U.S. ambassador.

Empty ambassador posts are filled in an interim capacity by career diplomats, who don’t have the same clout or influence in their host country as a presidentially nominated and Senate-confirmed ambassador.

“In many cases diplomats at that level will not be as assertive as an ambassador in offering policy recommendations to a secretary of state, and the recommendations they do offer might not be taken as seriously,” said Michele Dunne, a former State Department official and the director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faced fierce criticism from lawmakers and diplomats for leaving scores of top State Department posts and ambassador positions empty, sinking morale in Foggy Bottom. When he took the helm of the State Department in April 2018, Pompeo said he would reverse his predecessor’s policies and work to quickly refill the department’s depleted ranks. The absence of top diplomats in some of the Middle Eastern countries he’s visiting makes clear his plans have fallen short, say officials who spoke to Foreign Policy.

According to the American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents U.S. diplomats and tracks ambassador appointments, over 40 ambassador posts of a total of 188 remain empty.

The dozens of remaining vacancies stem from both political fights on Capitol Hill and Trump’s apparent lack of urgency in putting forward nominees. Pompeo has sparred with top Democratic lawmakers over delays of some nominations in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, for example, has held up the nomination of the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, David Schenker, over the administration’s failure to get congressional approval for airstrikes in Syria in 2017.

“We’ve done our part at the State Department by putting forward a slate of candidates,” Pompeo said in a statement last October, accusing Senate Democrats of using State Department nominees as “political football[s].”

But Senate Democrats have said many nominees Trump puts forward are wholly unqualified to be ambassadors, or have backgrounds that should preclude them from confirmation—such as Christine Toretti, the ambassador nominee for Malta, who had a restraining order filed against her for “placing a bullet-riddled target sheet” in the office of her ex-husband’s doctor. Other nominees have faced sexual harassment lawsuits or been embroiled in federal investigations. For other ambassador posts, Trump simply never bothered to nominate anyone.

“It’s a bipartisan failure,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington-based think tank. “It’s essential that any administration has the people in place both in Washington and abroad to implement their policies,” he said. “It’s a crying shame that this is the new normal.”

Pompeo jetted off to reassure Middle Eastern allies rattled by Trump’s sudden announcement in December that the Islamic State was defeated and that he would withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria in 30 days. The announcement showcased a chaotic policymaking process in Washington, where top officials were left scrambling to reverse-engineer a coherent Syria policy. It also sparked the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and of Brett McGurk, the diplomatic point person in the campaign against the Islamic State.

In a Jan. 3 White House meeting, Trump further rattled his supporters who saw the U.S. military footprint in Syria as an important counterweight against Iran’s influence in the war-wracked country. Iranian officials, Trump said, “can do what they want” in Syria.

During a visit to the Middle East earlier this week, National Security Advisor John Bolton appeared to walk back Trump’s assertions. He insisted U.S. troops would only be withdrawn after the Islamic State was fully defeated and after Turkey committed to not attacking Kurdish forces that are fighting the Islamic State alongside U.S. troops.

Both Bolton and Pompeo have pushed back against reports of policy chaos and dysfunction, insisting that they are on the same page with the president and his Syria policy is consistent and coherent.

“There’s no change in our commitment to the defeat of the caliphate or of ISIS globally. There’s no change in our counter-Iran strategy,” Pompeo said in an interview on Monday with CNBC. “We’re going to withdraw our 2,000 soldiers from Syria—but the mission, the purpose for which we have been involved for the 24 months in the administration, remains in full.”

But Pompeo’s effort at damage control was in part overshadowed by Bolton’s rocky visit to Turkey, where he angered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by walking back Trump’s off-the-cuff Syria policy. Erdogan refused to meet Bolton and called the national security advisor’s comments a “serious mistake.”

The United States currently has no ambassador to Turkey.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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