In an expansive press conference focused mostly on China, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unequivocally came down on the side of protestors spanning the globe. His Nov. 26 press conference was unusual as it had an overarching theme, which Pompeo used to connect China, Iran and Egypt to human rights abuses in addition to targeting Cuba for evading sanctions on Venezuela. The event was also irregular as Pompeo is more known for brushing shoulders with world leaders in between the occasional five-minute sit-down with American cable news channels.
However, he delivered a press conference designed to strike chords of harmony for Republicans and Democrats alike, a move which may have been designed to boost Pompeo’s popularity ahead of a possible 2020 senatorial campaign. The press event had another effect as well – to distance himself from a sinking ship. Pompeo is a West Wing mainstay, an ardent Trump loyalist who refuses to exit the revolving door of cabinet members as countless others have done before him. Pompeo, determined to stand beside the captain of that ship – US President Donald Trump – until it either sinks or reaches port. However, by fleshing out a platform of his own, a set of ideas which he can claim to have developed, or at least spoken of, Pompeo can gain some breathing room before the impeachment hearings swallow him whole.
Human Rights: G.O.P. Edition
In July, Pompeo revealed the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Judging it solely by the name, an observer might wrongly conclude this commission would either have a role in securing the liberties of repressed groups or defending the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As with most positions Washington has assumed under Trump’s leadership, human rights have gone too far.
“…After the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just…they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights,” Pompeo said when he announced the commission.
It quickly became obvious that Pompeo’s new pet project would be more of an anti-human rights commission designed to target gender freedom groups and pro-choice advocacy networks. Several members of the commission have even spoken in favor of states who are known to have violated human rights.
Little has come from the commission so far, but it faced criticism from liberals in the US Congress. Moreover, it prompted observers to openly question why the Trump administration – or Pompeo himself – chose to focus on curtailing rights instead of applying international pressure to expand them in repressive states. Pompeo did highlight Cuba and Iran, but those nations have been Washington favorites to bully since US President Barack Obama left office.
In a bizarre event, the commission was not referenced at Pompeo’s Nov. 26 press conference. If the commission is specifically designed to protect “unalienable rights,” where was it when Pompeo shamed China, Iran, and Egypt? Is that not the mission of the commission?
One Thing Right
“We have human rights standards that we apply all across the world, and Hong Kong is no different,” Mr Pompeo said. A day later, Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights Democracy Act into law. The administration’s policy on China has been consistent from the beginning, although, ever the reality TV show host, Trump refused to publicly announce his intention to sign it until the event happened, drumming up both suspense and animosity from Beijing.
Pompeo’s words for China were easier for him to let loose after his boss made Washington’s position an official stance against the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Although the recently-signed law is focused on mainland China’s interference in Hong Kong, Pompeo also condemned Beijing’s genocide against Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, labelling them as “draconian policies that have terrorized its citizens.”
By attacking Beijing from behind the podium, Pompeo went all-in on a position that both sides of the aisle are in full agreement on: that something must be done about China. It was neither a hard nor bold decision for him, but it was refreshing for the man who created a human rights commission to defend them.
Pompeo’s criticisms of Iran and Egypt were a bit murkier. First, he took Iran to task regarding the recent protests. Pompeo claimed his office received 20,000 individual pieces of first-hand evidence of Tehran’s human rights abuses. Pompeo had tweeted in both English and translated Arabic asking for media to be sent to the State Department.
“The United States hears you, we support you, and we will continue to stand with you,” Pompeo said. “We will continue to sanction Iranian officials who are responsible for these human rights abuses.”
Pompeo’s continued focus on Iran keeps the fire stoked on what could be a platform issue for both Trump and Pompeo if he decides to run in 2020. Republicans favor increased pressure against Tehran and it is one issue that both Trump and his protege could claim to have accomplished from the 2016 campaign. When running for office, Trump vowed to roll back the Iranian nuclear deal forged by his predecessor and Pompeo joined his team fairly quickly. Pompeo’s involvement against Iran would resonate well with potential voters in his home state of Kansas, a bastion of Republican ideology.
Turning to Egypt, Pompeo asked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to release journalists arrested after authorities raided the office of news website Mada Masr. His call upon Cairo was the most interesting tenant of Pompeo’s press conference because it seemed small compared to protests in China and Iran. Egypt is also not a key an issue with US voters so Pompeo might have been sincere in his request.
However, the request signaled that Trump already asked Sisi to release the prisoners. Trump and Sisi share one of the closest relationships between any two world leaders. Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory. For his part, Trump broke with Obama in inviting Sisi to the White House. At the G7 Summit in September, Trump called for Sisi asking, “Where’s my favorite dictator?”
If Trump wanted Sisi to release prisoners, he would have asked himself and he probably did, hence Pompeo’s public appeal to the Egyptian leader.
The time for Pompeo to busy himself with actual work that both parties can agree on is now. His involvement in the Ukraine scandal has become murkier and he will undoubtedly be called as a witness in the looming impeachment hearing this month. His avoidance of mentioning the human rights commission he created a mere 5 months ago indicates a deliberate positioning of human rights – the actual support of them, not whatever his commission is doing – as a platform pillar for a senatorial run in 2020.