Argument

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Mike Pompeo Is Trying to Bluff His Way to a Legacy

Even insurrection didn’t interrupt a tour de force of Twitter bragging.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington on July 8, 2020. Tom Brenner/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

It’s been a wild few days—unless you’ve been getting your news from @SecPompeo, the official Twitter account for outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The republic is in crisis, but over at digital Foggy Bottom, it’s all #swagger, to use one of Pompeo’s favorite terms

Since the start of the new year, Pompeo’s Twitter account has been on a rampage, touting the accomplishments, such that they are, of his tenure at the State Department. The account has been posting between 20 and 30 tweets a day, each defending the administration’s record and invoking all the hoary hashtags of “Make America Great Again” social media: #LeadingFromTheFront, #SoMuchWinning, #StillWinning, #MaximumPressure, #AmericansFirst, #PeaceThruStrength, and, of course, #swagger. At the time I filed this column, there were about 200 such tweets.

It’s been a wild few days—unless you’ve been getting your news from @SecPompeo, the official Twitter account for outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The republic is in crisis, but over at digital Foggy Bottom, it’s all #swagger, to use one of Pompeo’s favorite terms

Since the start of the new year, Pompeo’s Twitter account has been on a rampage, touting the accomplishments, such that they are, of his tenure at the State Department. The account has been posting between 20 and 30 tweets a day, each defending the administration’s record and invoking all the hoary hashtags of “Make America Great Again” social media: #LeadingFromTheFront, #SoMuchWinning, #StillWinning, #MaximumPressure, #AmericansFirst, #PeaceThruStrength, and, of course, #swagger. At the time I filed this column, there were about 200 such tweets.

The account kept this up through the insurrection on Wednesday, when President Donald Trump incited a mob to storm the Capitol in an effort to overturn his loss in the election. Pompeo’s staff did pause long enough to issue a short, three-tweet thread condemning the violence. After what was presumably judged to be a decent interval, the account returned to business as usual.

Pompeo’s tweets are dunked on regularly on social media. But they represent something else: the administration’s first draft of the narrative that its smarter members are crafting about its legacy. Individually, the tweets aren’t much. But seeing them all together in one giant mess of hashtags makes things clearer.

The tweets are short on diplomatic accomplishments measured in the traditional fashion—there are few mentions of any agreements reached, no statistical measures of progress, nothing. To the extent that concrete actions are mentioned at all, they are largely negative actions, such as withdrawing from international agreements like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Paris agreement on climate change, and Iran nuclear deal.

But good lord, there is a hell of a lot of posturing. The recurring theme, tweet after tweet, isn’t so much about what they’ve done as how they’ve done it. When Pompeo talks about having done something, he’s mostly talking about the stance the administration took or the attitude it had more so than any concrete benefits.

In some sense, this is not surprising. At the beginning of the administration, several officials began using the phrase “on notice” to emphasize their tough new foreign policy. Over four years, the administration announced that a lot of places were “on notice” including Iran, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, and, in one case, the entire world. It didn’t mean anything, but that didn’t matter. It was about the pose.

All this has very concrete effects. Take North Korea, where Pompeo has been taking the least-deserved victory lap since his boss claimed to have won the 2020 election, both on Twitter and in interviews. Sure, he is admitting, finally, that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has not decided to give up his nuclear weapons—at least not yet. (This is progress for a man who routinely asserted that Kim had agreed to disarm, even when North Korea repeatedly said otherwise.) And still, Pompeo is declaring victory because, he says, Kim has agreed to end the testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that can strike the United States.

“But we have convinced Chairman Kim at the very least, to date, since we began these conversations,” Pompeo said an interview with Bloomberg News, “not to continue to test his longest-range ballistic missiles, the ones that threaten the United States. We have convinced him not to continue to develop his nuclear capability by testing a nuclear weapons system.”

There is just one small problem with this. Kim has renounced that moratorium. He literally gave a speech in which he said “there is no ground for us to [be] unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer, the commitment to which there is no opposite party.”

It is true, as Pompeo says, that Kim has not launched an intercontinental ballistic missile since December 2017. But since the collapse of negotiations in February 2019, North Korea has publicly resumed testing ICBM engines, a key step toward testing the massive ICBM that Kim showed off in the October 2020 parade. Kim has stated explicitly that North Korea will soon test that ICBM, as well as a number of other new nuclear weapons. Unless something changes, it is only a matter of time.

And then there is this: Kim only agreed to the moratorium after having conducted, on Trump’s watch, a test of a thermonuclear weapon that exploded with about 10 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb and an ICBM that could reach targets throughout the United States, including Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. While I believe the Biden administration should do everything it can to extend these moratoriums—what comes next will be even worse—the trick would have been to get the moratoriums before North Korea tested these capabilities.

Pompeo boasts about being strong, but North Korea agreed to the moratoriums from a position of strength—“Hey, we’ve tested a thermonuclear weapon and a missile to drop it on you. Be a shame if that messed with your reelection.” It was a shakedown, something Kim figured Trump would understand. Trump lifts sanctions, and Kim stops making trouble for him. Kim doesn’t disarm, but the problem just sort of fades out of view.

In Pompeo’s version, though, North Korea buckled under “maximum pressure” and came to the negotiating table.

Trump got to test this proposition. He refused to lift sanctions on North Korea, reasoning that if maximum pressure had forced Kim to the table, it would be force him to follow through and disarm. He was wrong. North Korea did not disarm, however much swagger the United States exhibited. Instead, the talks collapsed in Hanoi, and North Korea has resumed development of its ICBMs and other new nuclear capabilities. Trump leaves North Korea vastly better armed than he found it.

Pompeo is rewriting the history of North Korea to imply that, as he leaves office, the problem is under control and an agreement is just around the corner. When the moratoriums collapse and North Korea resumes testing, Pompeo will simply claim that they were on the verge of something great before President-elect Joe Biden’s team fouled it all up.

And the pathetic thing is, the argument will work on many people. It will work because partisan politics demands fealty to Trump. But it will also work on the part of the public, because Pompeo’s argument preys on a certain weakness in American political life. Americans love to believe that virtue can overcome structural realities—it’s the plot of every underdog movie Hollywood has ever made. When Pompeo pretends that swagger can produce diplomatic miracles, he’s firmly in the mainstream of the American self-image.

And so the defense of Trump will be this: He restored American toughness, but his chance to reap the benefits were stolen along with the election. All of Biden’s failures will be because Democrats doesn’t love America like Republicans do. And his successes will have been built on the leverage created by Republicans. A generation of aspiring Republican foreign-policy wonks will be expected to learn this catechism by heart or risk being labeled a socialist cuck.

It was, of course, inevitable that Pompeo would defend his legacy—and Trump’s. Even Richard Nixon, after resigning from the presidency in disgrace and accepting a pardon with its implication of guilt, sought to rehabilitate himself. If Pompeo’s efforts look comical in comparison, if they are a bloated mess of obsequious praise for Trump, empty sloganeering, and half-truths, well… they are also a fair reflection of the man himself.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk