Terry H. Schwadron
April 18, 2018
This was supposed to be a column about frustrations about the Trump administration seemingly forgetting how to pursue Diplomacy, insisting instead on sloganeering and impulsive moves like the newly announced Russian sanctions that President Trump just decided to dump.
Then last night came news that CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the nominee for Secretary of State whose candidacy is facing increasing problems in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee is already practicing Diplomacy with the North Koreans without his new license. The Washington Postreported that from his CIA office, Pompeo has been met with highly placed North Koreans, including leader Kim Jong-Un.
“The White House has used intelligence, rather than diplomatic channels, to communicate with North Korea, ever since last month, when Mr. Trump unexpectedly accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation to meet,” The New York Timesreported. Pompeo has been working through the North Korean intelligence equivalent of the CIA — the Reconnaissance General Bureau.
Rather remarkably, we may have suddenly switched from instantly possible war in Asia to Turmp “blessing” any negotiation to formally end the Korean War and denuclearization in the region. Surprise, personal contact and swiftness all sound like Trump qualities.
And there were other incidents of baffling and contradictory Diplomacy at work. So, you can see why I’m even more confused about the role that Diplomacy is supposed to take in this administration, which has gone out of its way to eliminate career diplomats, which has skipped over naming important ambassadorial posts, and which has stepped on those people whenever the Trump impulse to do so shows up.
We see President Trump meeting today with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago mostly to assuage Japanese hard feelings about being left out on recent U.S. moves on North Korea and the United States’ unilateral adoption of trade rules that will punish Japan. It seems a failed chance to use Diplomacy to set up proper communications with an important ally and, um, trade partner. By the end of the week, look for agreements that exclude Japan after all from the newly imposed steel and aluminum tariffs, and hype Japanese include in any approvals of progress in North Korea, in other words, reversing what’s been done.
We also have seen this week that Trump declined to move ahead with those already announced economic sanctions against Russia, to further warn Russia about helping Bashar al-Assad in Syria to kill his own people. Among other things, the withheld sanctions left Trump’s own UN Ambassador Nikki R. Haley — and the rest of us — hanging awkwardly in the world’s den of diplomats. Worse, Trump dispatched Larry Kudlow, the chief economic adviser, to use his silver tongue to say that Haley must have gotten confused about the sanctions — only to draw a nasty Haley response that she doesn’t get confused. Hmmm, doesn’t exactly sound like the tact part of Diplomacy is getting through even on the home front.
To pursue a ban on Syrian use of chemical weapons, we have Congress moving to pass a bill to renew war powers without knowing the objective, the time limits, the involvement of Russia, Iran or even Turkey. We lack a strategy, a plan for what we are trying to achieve, or not, in Syria and the Middle East. In short, we have force that does not know the target. A briefingfor senators apparently left the lawmakers uneasy because of how little strategy was involved as opposed to striking a military target.
By yesterday, it seemed that Pompeo’s nomination as Secretary of State is in jeopardy of not making it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as several Democrats and Republican Rand Paul announced that they will oppose him. While Pompeo may have votes in the full Senate, he needs to pass out of the Judiciary Committee first.
The United States is having a quiet problem with its proper place in the whole world, it seems, and we’re trying to solve each problem by brazenness and slogans, not Diplomacy.
The problems are real, of course, from Syria to the rest of the Middle East, to nuclear showdowns in North Korea and Iran, to geopolitical standoffs with China and Russia. The Islamic world is growing increasingly violent, the special problems of isolated Israel, the pressures on a breaking European Union and the threats to independence in Eastern Europe all are begging for leadership. The question in almost every part of the world we see is: Where is the United States?
We’re seeing China’s growing influence not only in Asia, but across Africa. We’re seeing concerns about environment and climate change everywhere. We’re seeing outbreaks of tribal and religious conflicts growing across India and Southeast Asia. Are there American interests in all this or not? You can’t tell from the depletion of the State Department or from the brusque assertions of power from the White House, pushing diplomacy aside.
In the case of Russia sanctions, White House sources told reporters that Trump had decided not to go forward with the sanctions because Trump felt them unnecessary because Moscow’s response to the air strikes in Syria was mainly bluster. Or maybe he just saw something on Fox TV. The New York Times said Russia analysts said the whipsaw policy shift once again highlighted an administration struggling to find a coherent and consistent voice in dealing with Russia.
Pompeo, CIA director and a former conservative congressman from Kansas, comes complete with a history of support for the use of torture, with a history of anti-gay and anti-immigrant public remarks and positions. Pompeo has testified that he owns the history, but has moved beyond them in his newer roles.
Now, Pompeo may not be my favorite candidate for the job, but he is talking about rebuilding the department that Rex Tillerson was busy de-constructing, apparently with Trump’s approval, before Tillerson was summarily shown the door (via Twitter). He has shown that he can run an organization, and he does seem to be able to present complexities to Trump without abridging the amazingly short presidential attention span.
According to Politico, there is no recent precedent for a nominee who receives an unfavorable vote in committee getting confirmed by the full Senate. John Tower, who was nominated as defense secretary by then President George H.W. Bush, failed to clear the full Senate in 1989, and John Bolton — President Donald Trump’s current national security adviser — also got rejected by the full Senate after his nomination as ambassador to the United Nations was dispatched from the committee with no recommendation in 2005, though he served as a recess appointee of former President George W. Bush.
In this case, Pompeo make squeak through the full Senate because of the pressure on the small group of Democratic senators who are seeking reelection in conservative-leaning states. Senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota are facing enormous pressure from Republicans on the question, and all are holding back on their Pompeo vote.
In any case, it seems even without the title, Pompeo is trying out the job with an early hard case in North Korea.
None of this is cause for calm.