No Amount of Swagger Can Dress Up Pompeo’s Legacy

The outgoing secretary of state prioritized his political ambitions over America’s interests.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Press Club in Washington on Jan. 12.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Press Club in Washington on Jan. 12. Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The most gracious thing one can say about Mike Pompeo’s term as U.S. secretary of state is that it’s finally over.

He left on a fitting note, tweeting that multiculturalism is “not who America is” and that it makes the country “weaker.” Once out of office, he simply began citing Bible verses and literally counting the days until he thinks he will be president, tweeting out a simple “1,384,” as in the number of days left in the Biden administration.

In some circles, there is still debate over whether he was the worst secretary of state ever or if that title goes to his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. Without question, Tillerson proved ill-suited for the job. Unlike Pompeo, however, Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO, demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the world and, more importantly, seemed to have a moral compass.

I have covered the world while traveling with seven secretaries of state, Republican and Democrat, as a member of the diplomatic press corps. All of them—except Pompeo—understood that a free press was both a national security imperative and a pinnacle of the democratic principles they promoted abroad. I keep in touch with most of them and value our ongoing conversations about U.S. foreign-policy challenges and how we can address them. I won’t be calling Pompeo; since he says the U.S. media is beholden to the Chinese, I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear from me.

I don’t judge Pompeo just on the basis of his shameful treatment of the State Department press corps, a pretty substantive bunch. Though cursing out journalists, as he did with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, or having them reassigned for asking questions about America’s role in the world, which happened when a Voice of America reporter dared ask him a question, does speak to his thin skin and how low he brought the office.

In some circles, there is still debate over whether Pompeo was the worst secretary of state ever.Nor is my main beef the fact that Pompeo doesn’t have a single diplomatic achievement to his name. Some Trump administration foreign-policy decisions, such as the tougher approach to China, have merit, even if there is little to show for it. But the other files in Pompeo’s portfolio are worse now than when he started. North Korea has more, and more dangerous, nuclear weapons. Iran is a lot closer to the bomb. Relations with European allies and most other international alliances are in a sorry state. The administration’s biggest foreign-policy success—Israel’s normalization agreement with four Arab states—is mostly due to Jared Kushner.

It’s not even Pompeo’s serial abuse of government resources, including fancy dinners in the State Department diplomatic reception rooms to cultivate favor with Republican luminaries who could bankroll his future political ambitions. Or his use of government planes to go politicking around the country under the guise of giving foreign-policy speeches. Or sticking taxpayers with the bill while he lived, exceptionally for a secretary of state, in military housing.

None of that—not even all of that—is enough to make Pompeo the worst secretary ever. He wins that dubious distinction because he trampled on the one tenet of U.S. foreign policy that each of his predecessors respected, however hard it was for them at the time: Politics stops at the water’s edge.

Pompeo spit on this notion, turning foreign policy into just another battleground for partisan blood sport. His belief that he could one day become president turned every move he made as America’s top diplomat into an opportunity to suck up to Donald Trump and inherit his political dynasty.

It was Pompeo who delivered an unprecedented address to the Republican National Convention from the rooftop of a Jerusalem hotel—while on diplomatic travel—to tout Trump’s accomplishments in the Middle East. He found an excuse, as secretary of state, to go to the battleground state of Wisconsin, in the waning days of the election. After it was over, he refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s legitimate election victory—even joking about looking forward to Trump’s second term—all while straight-facedly criticizing dictators abroad for similar behavior.

Pompeo turned foreign policy into just another battleground for partisan blood sport.And there’s his cynical approach to human rights, where his so-called Commission on Unalienable Rights called for a return to America’s “founding principles” to uphold religious liberty as the most fundamental right of all. A sop to evangelicals, the commission was an excuse to brush aside “ad hoc rights granted by governments” in the name of religious freedom. Human rights groups everywhere saw that as a threat to reproductive rights.

Then there is the abdication of his role as head of the State Department and its 75,000-odd employees worldwide. He promised to bring #swagger back to the agency but laughed when Trump called it the “deep state.” When Marie Yovanovitch, a decorated 33-year career diplomat then serving as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, came into the crosshairs of Trump henchmen like Rudy Giuliani, Pompeo threw her under the bus. First, he ignored the smear campaign against her and then he recalled her to Washington—on Trump’s orders—simply for standing strong against the president’s (impeachable, as it turned out) campaign to get dirt on the Bidens.

Instead of putting an end to the harassment of career civil and foreign service officers by political appointees in his department, Pompeo doubled down with a patronizing “ethos” statement in the lobby of Foggy Bottom above a wall dedicated to fallen State Department employees killed in the line of duty, a sacred spot in the building. It was such an offensive affront to employees’ integrity that it was taken down in Biden’s very first hours in office.

Despite differences over policy, every secretary of state before Pompeo shared the same goal: a safe, prosperous nation, at home and abroad. They respected the unspoken golden rule that America’s top diplomat represented one America. Even political animals like John Kerry, a 28-year Senate veteran who ran for president, and Hillary Clinton, who also ran for president and admits that politics is in her DNA, eschewed partisan attacks when it came to foreign policy.

Yet it was Pompeo who traveled to Cairo, the site of Barack Obama’s 2009 speech to the Muslim world, to deliver a scathing personal attack of the former president and rebuke his policy as a dangerous misjudgment responsible for the region’s ills.

Despite differences over policy, every secretary of state before Pompeo shared the same goal.And then, after what amounted to an attempted coup in Washington, Pompeo blithely rolled out a series of eleventh-hour policy measures, lifting restrictions on official contacts with Taiwan, designating Houthi rebels in Yemen as terrorists, and redesignating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. I fully agree with the Taiwan move, but this still needs to be called out for what it is: a cynical attempt to neutralize the incoming Biden administration’s foreign policy while chumming the water for his political future.

If there is one. Pompeo didn’t even rate in a recent Morning Consult poll of the top contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination.

And during the confirmation hearing for his successor, Antony Blinken, several Republican senators joined their Democratic counterparts in calling for an end to the combativeness Pompeo showed to Congress while in office. The senators were surprised that, instead of the high-handedness they usually got from Pompeo, Blinken respectfully answered all of their questions and acknowledged the lessons he learned over his decades-long career. Blinken even gave a nod to some policies put in place by the Trump administration that he believed benefited the United States and which he felt the Biden administration could build on.

Most importantly, he promised to once again make the State Department a nonpartisan institution seeking only to advance U.S. interests. If Blinken does nothing else but make good on that one pledge, he would already clear the very low bar Pompeo set. And no attempts at swagger can paper over that sad legacy.

Elise Labott is a Foreign Policy columnist and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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