By Emir Gürbüz
Will Mike Pompeo be America’s foreign policy conscience? Barely a month after his successor, Stephen Blinken, was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of State, a bold interview with a leading Middle Eastern newspaper suggests Mr. Pompeo might serve as a shadow Secretary of State for a Biden administration with muddled geopolitical priorities. More importantly, Mr. Pompeo must. America needs his candid, forward, unflinching approach.
Not least when it comes to the enormous challenges a polarized America faces in a world radically reordered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Very much like his former boss, Donald Trump, Pompeo became known and admired for his directness. The former Secretary of State was unafraid to offer straight talk on America’s most troubling foreign policy issues–to friends and foes alike, dispensing with what another former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, once called “strategic ambiguity.”
In Mr. Pompeo’s world, a spade is a spade. Or, in this case, a state sponsor of terror is a state sponsor of terror.
In a remarkable shot across the bow of the new Biden administration, Pompeo chided the 46th President’s naivete. Speaking exclusively to Arab News, the former Secretary of State warned America’s new government that “the Iranian leadership understands how to drive a truck through American weakness.”
That wasn’t just bluster.
In specific Pompeo was addressing, and criticizing, the Biden administration’s decision to undo the Trump administration’s categorization of the Yemeni Houthis as terrorists. As well he should have: Houthi militants have launched missile attacks on neighboring Saudi Arabia–an indispensable and longstanding U.S. ally–blocked food from their own citizens and deployed mines in the narrow waters off the coast of Yemen where millions of barrels of oil pass each day. What’s worse? They do not act alone.
“No one disputes that the Houthis are terrorists,” Pompeo countered, “and no one disputes that the Iranians are underwriting them.” Not only is it foolish to reward Iran for this kind of dangerous and indeed murderous behavior, but it flies in the face of security policies that long precede the Trump administration. In fact, certain elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, which developed and trained the Houthis as their proxies, have been designated a terrorist organization by the United States for nearly fifteen years.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the Biden administration will credulously pursue a resumption of the Iran Deal despite the informed protestations of some of our closest allies in the region–those who know the most about Iranian perfidy and have suffered the worst of it, too. The Biden administration would be wise to consider that Pompeo’s warnings to Arab News are not a case of an embittered former public official lashing out at those who superseded him.
They are the measured words of a consistent advocate for human rights, who did not hesitate to speak truth to power during his time in office–and is not about to stop now, either. In one of his boldest moves, Pompeo charged the Chinese Communist Party with genocide in Xinjiang, the territory formerly known as East Turkestan. Beijing’s brutal treatment of Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic groups has shocked the conscience of the world, but most of the world chose to stay silent, cowed or enticed by rising China’s economic might. It deserves to be noted that never before has the U.S. government leveled such a charge against a fellow nuclear power and fellow member of the U.N. Security Council.
Pompeo made the hard choice.
Nor is Pompeo’s boldness and forthrightness confined to U.S. nemeses. Even when dealing with occasionally truculent allies, the former Secretary of State was not afraid to speak plainly and forcefully. In this same interview with Arab News, Pompeo openly discussed one of the most difficult chapters in recent U.S.-Saudi relations; namely, the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
During his tenure in office, Pompeo and the Trump administration sanctioned those involved in the killing and made clear that such behavior would not and could not be tolerated. Subsequently, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prosecuted those involved in the tragic crime. That passionate honesty with friends extended even to key U.S. allies like Canada.
There had been much speculation during Pompeo’s time in office as Secretary of State that he was considering a run for the Presidency. Only fifty-seven years old–which is quite young by the standards of our political era–this is certainly a possibility. Pompeo may also throw himself fully into supporting a new Trump campaign for president.
In a time when Democrats offer muddled approaches to a dangerous world, characterized by a mixture of cluelessness and helplessness, and too many politicians in general are interested more in attention than in accuracy, more in being praised than in being right, Pompeo stands out. America needs that kind of leadership.
Emir Gürbüz is an independent lawyer and member of the Turkish Atlantic Council