In Global Leadership Void on Pandemic, Critics Ask: Where’s Pompeo?

The U.S. secretary of state is late to finding his voice on the pandemic, as the State Department scrambles to repatriate tens of thousands of American citizens stranded abroad.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump at the White House.
U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on during a news briefing on the coronavirus at the White House on March 20. Alex Wong/Getty Images

As world leaders grapple with a pandemic that is forcing them to reshuffle their priorities, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stuck largely to his pre-crisis script, doubling down on the administration’s hard-line Iran stance and unveiling a new effort to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro from power.

As world leaders grapple with a pandemic that is forcing them to reshuffle their priorities, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stuck largely to his pre-crisis script, doubling down on the administration’s hard-line Iran stance and unveiling a new effort to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro from power.

His continued focus on these issues leaves some experts and former diplomats worried that Pompeo, and by extension the Trump administration, is too narrowly fixated on a select few foreign-policy objectives—instead of rallying the world around a unified response to the coronavirus pandemic. All the while, critics worry that China is happily stepping in to fill the void as it edges closer to global superpower status.

“I’m hugely disappointed in the administration for its lack of international leadership,” vented one senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s all been about the U.S. here, not really coordinating at all with allies.”

“Why Pompeo is still back pushing a pre-coronavirus agenda when the Chinese are stepping up with ill-founded pretensions toward international leadership … is beyond me,” said Daniel Fried, the former longest-serving U.S. diplomat at the State Department until his retirement in 2017. “There’s a crying need for American leadership. The world has almost given up waiting for us, but if we step into this space, it would be welcome.”

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Foreign-policy critics point to missed opportunities for the United States to organize a global strategy to address the pandemic at the United Nations Security Council or recent meetings of the G-7 and G-20 international forums of top world economies that Pompeo participated in. 

Michael Fuchs, a foreign-policy expert at the Center for American Progress, lays the blame squarely at the feet of Pompeo. “In a crisis of this magnitude, the secretary of state is going to be the international ringleader for organizing countries to fight the pandemic together as the president focuses on the domestic response,” said Fuchs, a veteran State Department official under the Obama administration. “Unfortunately, Pompeo has been missing in action since day one on this.”

“The secretary of state spends a fair amount of time playing the blame game with China and a lot less time focused on the kind of international coordination that is going to be needed to lead to results on the ground,” said Hardin Lang, the vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

Both the recent G-7 and G-20 meetings ended without new concrete steps to coordinate a global response to the coronavirus pandemic. The G-7 reportedly couldn’t agree on a joint statement on the virus because Pompeo insisted on referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus”—referring to the Chinese city where the virus originated—resulting in separate statements and frustration among European diplomats. 

“The signal you send when the G-20 or G-7 or U.N. [Security Council] comes together on a statement with everybody, despite all their differences, saying, ‘We’re all in this together. Here’s what we’re going to do’—we haven’t had that,” the senior State Department official said. “That’s something that America should be doing.”

Pompeo, in a phone briefing with reporters on Monday, batted down those reports. “Unfortunately, that was some pretty bad reporting,” he said. “The truth of the matter is we had an enormously successful G-7 gathering, where there was a collective belief that we had a responsibility as the G-7 to respond to this COVID-19 outbreak.”

Pompeo’s advocates say he is busy grappling with an unprecedented crisis behind the scenes—and others say talk of waning U.S. global leadership is greatly exaggerated

“It would seem unseemly to me if the secretary of state had to be out there on the pandemic … in the public so much just to show he was relevant,” said James Carafano of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. Pompeo is “incredibly busy, even though [he’s] not in the limelight,” he said. “He’s just focused on quietly doing his job.”

Pompeo remains one of President Donald Trump’s most influential cabinet members and closest confidants, senior officials and sources close to the administration told Foreign Policy. From his perch in Foggy Bottom, he has renewed the administration’s pre-pandemic agenda of cracking down on Iran and trying to oust Venezuela’s Maduro from power. Even as a growing chorus of lawmakers call for a slowdown in issuing new sanctions—and temporary sanctions relief—for Tehran as it grapples with the pandemic, the administration hasn’t let up, announcing new sanctions designations and hammering the Iranian government for its pandemic response. On Venezuela, Pompeo this week unveiled a new proposal to oust Maduro from power, a year after the United States and dozens of other countries ceased to recognize the leftist ruler’s government as legitimate.

With few exceptions, Pompeo has largely been invisible at the administration’s most important public events on the coronavirus, including the daily White House briefings led by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Those briefings have focused primarily on the impact the virus is having on hot spots in New York City, Miami, and West Coast capitals but touched on the global impact of the pandemic. Other key cabinet officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William Barr, have made regular appearances, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has taken the lead in responding to the economic fallout. 

In the past week, Pompeo has begun speaking out more frequently about how the State Department is responding to the global pandemic, including repatriating tens of thousands of American citizens stranded abroad. But before that, even as the virus spread across Europe and the United States, most of his public posturing on the coronavirus centered on a tit-for-tat fight with Chinese officials about what to call the virus. In recent days, Pompeo has backed off the attack posture as Trump struck a softer tone on China, lauding Chinese President Xi Jinping and China’s coronavirus response.

Critics say that as the administration carries out its pre-crisis agenda, it is shirking its traditional duty of being a global first responder to a major crisis. 

Even U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has lamented the fact that there’s no unified international response to the crisis—though he didn’t call out the United States by name. “We still do not have a coordinated action of all countries to suppress the virus. … There was a tendency for each one to go its own way. We absolutely need an articulated action in which all countries join the same efforts in order to commonly suppress the transmission following the guidance of the World Health Organization.

“This is, indeed, the most challenging crisis we have faced since the Second World War and the one that needs a stronger and more effective response that is only possible in solidarity if everybody comes together and if we forget political games and understand that it is humankind that is at stake,” Guterres said.

In contrast with Pompeo, America’s past diplomats have played a critical role in rallying international support for responses to global health crises. Richard Holbrooke, the late U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, organized the first U.N. Security Council meeting on a health crisis, the AIDS pandemic, and prodded the U.N. into handing out condoms to U.N. peacekeepers in an effort to stem the spread.

In 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry routinely browbeat foreign governments into providing money, flatbed trucks, helicopters, and medical treatment facilities to address the Ebola virus outbreak. “If we don’t adequately address this current outbreak now, then Ebola has the potential to become a scourge like HIV or polio that we will end up fighting, all of us, for decades. … Winning this fight is going to be costly, it is going to take all of our efforts, and it is not risk-free,” Kerry said

But Pompeo has been thrust into a crisis for the State Department that no prior secretary of state has ever had to face. Amid his normal duties, Pompeo is also busy overseeing one of the most unprecedented and complex crises in the State Department’s history: bringing home tens of thousands of Americans stuck abroad at a time when foreign countries are issuing blanket travel bans and commercial airline traffic has virtually ground to a halt. “Never in the department’s 230-year history have we led a worldwide evacuation of such enormous geographic complexity and such geographic scale. We have no higher duty to the American people than to pull this off,” Pompeo told reporters this week.

As of Wednesday, the State Department had repatriated over 30,000 U.S. citizens from over 60 countries on over 350 flights, according to Ian Brownlee, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.

Even here, the State Department has faced criticism from both powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill and Americans stranded abroad for responding too slowly to the crisis—though even Democratic lawmakers critical of the administration concede it is an unprecedented challenge for the department. It comes as a small but growing number of State Department employees, based in the United States and abroad, have contracted the virus. So far two locally employed embassy staff in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Jakarta, Indonesia, have died from the virus. 

Many U.S. officials and experts have raised alarm bells in recent weeks about China ramping up its propaganda efforts to stave off criticism that it caused the pandemic by mishandling the virus when it first spread in Wuhan. China has sent shipments of medical supplies and doctors to hard-hit countries including Iran and Italy, brandishing the efforts as signs that Beijing is leading the global response to the crisis. However, some of the equipment it sent abroad has proved to be faulty, and it has falsely portrayed some of the supplies as donations when in fact foreign countries had to pay for the shipments.

U.S. officials insist that the United States remains the leader in global public health, pointing to its significant investments in the World Health Organization and other international institutions. 

But it comes as the United States—and in particular the State Department—is scrambling to secure foreign medical supplies for the country’s own needs, including from countries that receive U.S. foreign aid, further undercutting the perception that Washington is leading the world out of the crisis.

On Wednesday, Russia scored a public relations victory by shipping a planeload of medical supplies to the United States, even as Pompeo and other senior U.S. officials condemned Russia for spreading dangerous disinformation on the coronavirus. 

“We are a generous and reliable contributor to crisis response and humanitarian action across the world, but we cannot do it alone,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement on accepting Russian medical supplies. “Both countries have provided humanitarian assistance to each other in times of crisis in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future. This is a time to work together to overcome a common enemy that threatens the lives of all of us.”

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

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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