When President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on March 13 via an unceremonious tweet, the mood at the Department of State was probably half-escatic, half-petrified. Escatic because the Foreign Service and career staffers in the building were now free from the chains of a man who was generally castigated for eviscerating America’s diplomatic power and actively working to undermine the Department of State’s power in the national security bureaucracy. Petrified, however, because CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to replace Tillerson as the next Secretary of State, was an unknown quantity and a pro-Trump acolyte who holds a far more hawkish, dog-eat-dog view of the world.
Pompeo, a former three-term congressman from deep-red Kansas who has risen in stature over the last 13 months as America’s most distinguished spy, will be entering the Department of State with a long and tiresome list of goals that he may or may not be able to achieve. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Trump’s nomination, the fact remains that Pompeo will be transitioning into a role at a highly combustible time in US diplomatic history. Managing the US foreign and civil services on an ordinary day is an exhausting responsibility; but to oversee 75,000 employees, restrain an inexperienced and oftentimes erratic president who values instinct over information, and, at the same time, tackle the big foreign policy priorities of the day seems practically impossible. As one former congressional staffer commented to Vanity Fair after Tillerson’s firing, “It seems unlikely that Pompeo’s honeymoon is going to be all that long.”
The issues facing Pompeo start within the Department of State – Grievances about Tillerson’s political ineptitude and bureaucratic mismanagement have roiled the Foreign Service and marginalised the Department of State within the interagency decision-making process. Despite Tillerson’s protestations to the contrary, he left the Department of State in worse shape than when he arrived. His noble attempt at reorganising the department’s structure and operations bogged down from the very beginning, perceived by employees and former career officials as haphazard, imperialistic, and corporatist. The official supervising the reorganisation effort resigned herself after a month on the job, one of the many examples of senior employees choosing retirement or resignation over continued service for an administration typically regarded as derisive of diplomacy.
Eight out of the top 10 positions in the Department of State remain vacant, not to mention the important ambassadorships – Egypt, the European Union, South Korea, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – that are unfilled to this day. Pompeo will be forced to deal with a significant staffing shortfall on his very first day – a deficiency in foreign policy knowledge and experience that he will have to remedy if he hopes to be more successful than his predecessor.
In addition to breaking the walls between the Secretary of State’s office and the department’s rank-and-file, one of the hardest tasks on Pompeo’s plate is deftly managing the expectations of a wily commander-in-chief. After his first few months, Tillerson failed to perform this high-wire act. The personality and policy differences between Trump and Tillerson were simply too much for there to be a comfortable working relationship. The divergence between the two was most apparent on the blockade of Qatar, diplomacy with North Korea, and the Iranian nuclear agreement – three issues in which Trump advocated for a more stringent and hardline approach over Tillerson’s more cautious pragmatism. Reports that Tillerson called Trump “a moron” behind his back certainly did not help the personal relationship either.
Pompeo is in many ways the anti-Tillerson. He has proven himself to be a much shrewder political operator than Tillerson ever was. Tillerson was not a creature of Washington; one cannot say the same thing about Pompeo, who understands how valuable politicking and loyalty can be to one’s success. Trump has demonstrated in word and deed that he trusts Pompeo and considers the Kansas Republican to be a loyal surrogate who can be counted on to lobby on behalf of the administration on national television. The challenge for Pompeo, however, is maintaining the president’s confidence and the access that goes with that confidence while delivering policy options that Trump may not like to hear.
It is the international environment, however, that will pose the biggest obstacle to the new secretary. As this piece is posted, the Trump administration is in the midst of discussions with European allies about salvaging an Iranian nuclear deal that Trump would much rather walk away from. On North Korea, the biggest action item on the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda, Department of State officials are in the process of scrambling together a choreographed summit this May between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Whether or not the historic get-together actually occurs, Pompeo will need to ensure that Trump and the White House national security staff are briefed to the fullest extent possible on Pyongyang’s goals for the summit; North Korea’s negotiating tactics over the past 25 years; and what script the president should follow when talking with the head of a regime that has broken every agreement it has signed. Keeping Trump on message in and of itself will be a tall order for any secretary of state.
Will Mike Pompeo be remembered as an effective and influential stewardship of American diplomacy? Or will he go down in history as a placeholder, yet one more cabinet level officer who tried his best playing the difficult hand he was dealt? No television pundit or commentator in Washington will be able to even begin answering these questions until Pompeo is forced to confront a national security crisis. What can be said at this point, though, is that it would be prudent for the former House of Representatives backbencher to expect many sleepless nights in his office.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.