Mar 13, 2018 | 22:34 GMT

7 mins read

Pompeo and Circumstance: A 'Rexit' State of Affairs

VP of Global Analysis, Stratfor
Reva Goujon
VP of Global Analysis, Stratfor
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves the podium after a news conference at the State Department in Washington on March 13, 2018.
(ALEX WONG/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
  • The rise of loyalists in the White House risks weakening a critical check on President Donald Trump's foreign policy agenda.
  • CIA Director Mike Pompeo, tapped to be the next U.S. secretary of state, has backed a last-ditch diplomatic effort with North Korea as a long-term containment strategy against China.
  • Though the risk of failure in the dialogue with North Korea is high, Pompeo's push for denuclearization stems in part from the proliferation threat between North Korea and Iran.
  • As the Iran nuclear deal weakens and as sanctions pressure climbs again, Tehran will expend more energy on defending a regional sphere of influence.

The long-rumored "Rexit" has finally transpired and CIA Director Mike Pompeo has been tapped to replace Rex Tillerson as U.S. secretary of state. With a high-stakes diplomatic gamble with North Korea looming, an economic assault against China underway and an Iran nuclear deal on life support, U.S. President Donald Trump has switched out a cautious corporate outsider with a hard-line Washington insider to head up the diplomatic arm of the United States at a particularly frenetic time for U.S. foreign policy. So, what now?

The Big Picture

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has seen rapid turnover in a number of portfolios, but the foreign policy sphere remains the most critical space to watch should a camp of risk-averse pragmatists lose ground to more hawkish loyalists at a time when major decisions will need to be made on how to manage the North Korean and Iran nuclear conundrum.

Go for the Gold on North Korea

As CIA director, Pompeo has developed a deep understanding of North Korea's nuclear progression and understands better than most the tyranny of the timeline in trying to find a viable nonmilitary route that would prevent North Korea from threatening the United States with nuclear weapons. With no better options at hand, and with the clock ticking, Pompeo has firmly backed Trump's gamble to negotiate directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a last-ditch effort to find some semblance of a resolution. There are, of course, massive constraints wrapped around this diplomatic venture. For North Korea, a deal on denuclearization would have to encompass the United States' troop presence on the Korean Peninsula and perhaps even its own nuclear umbrella in the region. And, judging by the fate of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the White House's current assault on the Iran nuclear deal, Pyongyang is rightfully skeptical of the White House's keeping its word in any big bargain and thus will be leery of making a big sacrifice on a nuclear deterrent this late in the game.

At the same time, Pompeo is part of a broader camp in Washington that believes that the United States needs to focus on its peer-to-peer competition with China. Pompeo has supported the White House's pushback against China in the economic realm, arguing that this kind of pressure is needed to ultimately create a more stable relationship with Beijing. Normalization of ties with North Korea and the potential for Korean reunification under a U.S. umbrella is a key ingredient to a long-term containment strategy against China. Nonetheless, that outcome is far from assured. Should the attempt at dialogue fail, it is unclear whether Pompeo would advocate a costly preventive strike against North Korea in the name of denuclearization or favor a shift toward a containment policy against a nuclear North Korea. And while much attention has been paid to Pompeo's comments about separating the regime from the weapons program in North Korea, any desire for regime change by Washington will be fraught with risk, especially considering the visible decline of Chinese leverage in Pyongyang.

The 'Pernicious Empire' of Iran

While Tillerson worked to prevent Trump from ripping up the Iran nuclear deal outright, Pompeo's hawkish views on Iran are much more in sync with the president's. Pompeo believes that if the United States has a North Korea nuclear problem, it also has a big Iran problem. During his time at the CIA, Pompeo focused on the proliferation threat from North Korea, noting that it was a "Wild, Wild West exercise" in tracking dollars, expertise and technology exchanged between the two countries. The linkage between the North Korean and Iran nuclear threats has, in part, framed the White House's urgency to double down on pressure on Iran. Pompeo views Iran as a holistic threat in the Middle East. As he colorfully described, "Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are the cudgels of a despotic theocracy, with the IRGC accountable only to a Supreme Leader. ... They're the vanguard of a pernicious empire that is expanding its power and influence across the Middle East."

Pompeo believes that if the United States has a North Korea nuclear problem, it also has a big Iran problem.

The question outstanding is how Pompeo advises Trump to manage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in particular and the Iran threat in general. Pompeo has echoed Trump's comments on Iran violating the "spirit" of the JCPOA, likening Iran to a "bad tenant" who doesn't pay the rent until the landlord demands it and whose checks then bounce. With that view, the Trump administration has blurred the terms of the nuclear deal with other complaints against Iran that fall outside the scope of the agreement, including Iran's ballistic missile program. The European parties to the deal were trying to work through Tillerson to ensure that the White House avoids rupturing the JCPOA directly, even as it layers sanctions on issues that were not addressed in the deal. Even if the nuclear deal survives on European life support, Iran can clearly see that the pragmatists in the administration advocating a more balanced approach to the JCPOA are on the decline while hawks like Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley are on the rise. That rise in U.S. pressure on Iran is not going to fundamentally shift Iran's behavior in the region. On the contrary, as Iran's vulnerabilities grow, it will expend more energy on defending a sphere of influence across the region via its militant proxies, political agents of influence and economic linkages.

Keeping Russia on the Radar

Pompeo is unlikely to represent a shift on Russia policy. While he has defended the president against allegations of collusion with Moscow (comments that no doubt inspired the president's trust in Pompeo), he still belongs to the traditional national security camp in Washington that views Russia as a revisionist power "bent on returning the former Soviet Union to its greatness and glory." To that end, like Tillerson, Pompeo will advocate the maintenance of a strong containment policy against Russia that defends U.S. allies and reinforces the U.S. role in NATO.

Restoring Order at State

Ironically, Trump complained that Tillerson was "too establishment" when he described his reasons for removing him — a corporate outsider who had ambitious plans to apply his experience running a global energy supermajor to wholly restructuring the State Department. Though Tillerson didn't get very far in that goal, his aversion to delegation and apparent distrust toward the department resulted in a drop in morale and a hollowing out of the department. Judging by Pompeo's experience at the CIA, he could play a big role in restoring structure and order in the United States' foreign policy arm. Pompeo drew from his own private sector experience in running the CIA by focusing on delegation at all levels to create more agility within the agency. As he put it, "we need to have a bias towards being as nimble as our adversaries. If we don't, we will serve America poorly." Unlike Tillerson's strained relationship with Trump, Pompeo's close personal relationship with the president and his experience in briefing Trump in person every day is likely to bring the positions of the State Department more closely in sync with the White House.

At the same time, Pompeo's placement in a top policymaking role, the latest in a series of White House turnovers, illustrates the president's frustration with those who disagree with him and a seemingly growing penchant for surrounding himself with loyalists. The rise of protectionist trade hawk Peter Navarro and the parallel ousting of Gary Cohn as the president's chief economic adviser when the time came to make a decision on steel and aluminum tariffs is a case in point. Moreover, rumors persist over the fate of national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who have played a critical role in buffering the president's foreign policy agenda. As Trump seeks out policymakers who conform to his worldview, the constraints within the administration to his more contentious policies could weaken, putting more of the onus on Congress to keep a check on the president on certain issues while further unnerving U.S. allies and adversaries trying to navigate the global collateral damage from White House policy.

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