Foreign policy has traditionally been determining whether or not a president’s tenure can be considered successful. Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been in the spotlight since he won the presidency but has moved even more into focus with the current Iran crisis. While the president will ultimately make the final decision, the vision, the grand strategies, are often shaped by people close to the president. Quincy Adams or George Shultz, only to name a few, were more than just Secretary of State. They were architects of foreign policy doctrines. The same applies to Mike Pompeo, who has become the main driver behind Trump’s foreign policy.
Pompeo, who succeeded Rex Tillerson in March 2018 indicated his political vision for America abroad immediately, yet very few people expected him to reach the influence he now has. Most importantly, European diplomats in Washington knew that Pompeo’s arrival would not only result in an end of the Iran nuclear deal but a significantly different stance on Teheran.
Already during his first speech as the new Secretary of State, Pompeo made it very clear that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and also laid down his doctrine for future dealings with Tehran.
The deal that Obama signed with Iran was weak, he criticized, and while it might have delayed Iran’s nuclear program for a few years at most, it did not permanently prevent Tehran from building an atomic bomb. Above all, according to Pompeo, the lifting of economic sanctions associated with the agreement brought “new wealth” to the Iranian regime, which immediately invested the money in the financing of various Shiite militias working in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq for Tehran Waged war. During his first speech, Pompeo also mentioned the name of the man who was responsible for the militia activities: Qassim Soleimani.
Pompeo is cognizant that Tehran is the driving force behind the chaos in the region. Thus, the appeasement politics under the Obama administration was substituted for maximum pressure on the regime to protect the US, its allies, and geopolitical interests in the region. The killing of Soleimani was thus not only imperative from Pompeo’s point of view but in the planning for a more extended period, as the Washington Post had recently reported.
However, it is not merely Pompeo’s stance on Iran that has made him Trump’s most trusted cabinet member. After three years of leaks within the White House, Trump has displayed a reluctance to trust many of his advisors – and often rightfully so. With Pompeo, however, he found a loyal individual, with whom he also appears to connect on a human level. A mix that cannot be overestimated in the current position.
This relationship was cultivated even before Pompeo became a cabinet member. When he had still been the head of the CIA, Pompeo would brief the president personally on all relevant security matters. Usually, a CIA representative would conduct these briefings. However, Pompeo appears to have been cognizant of how beneficial an amicable relationship with this president can be. Moreover, it was CIA Director Pompeo who meeting with the North Koreans first and establishing a line of communication.
Now, as the Secretary of State, Pompeo has continued to build on the foundation the two men had established. Thus one can regularly witness Pompeo’s TV appearances, in which he displays his loyalty by not merely repeating the president’s agenda, but by reaffirming that the president’s agenda is indeed the correct one. In return, Pompeo has been granted the leeway to create the administration’s foreign policy.
With this leeway and power, Pompeo has become more than just Trump’s Secretary of State. It is apparent that Pompeo is significantly more present inside and outside the government than Secretary of Defense Esper, a role that used to carry significantly more responsibility. John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor, was not sharing the same visions as Pompeo and was let go as a result – though the official reason given were differences of opinion with Trump himself. Since Bolton was replaced, however, another formerly highly influential and essential position was filled by a comparable profile-less Robert O’Brien in September 2019 – which will have only increased Pompeo’s influence further.
However, the most critical element that connects Pompeo and Trump is that he shares the President’s America First doctrine. Similar to Bolton, Pompeo has always been hawkish on foreign and security issues with a hardliner stance on Iran. This stance is not an opportunist move by Pompeo, however, but a continuation of a policy he has been conducting dating back to his CIA days. After all, Pompeo, in one of his first acts as CIA Director, was to increase operations against Iran massively.
Further attempts to bring Iran to its knees are thus not only conceivable but almost a certainty.