Return of the Neo-Cons: Mike Pompeo and the Death of Diplomacy

Secretary Tillerson was far from an ideal choice, but his anointed successor at the State Department – Mike Pompeo – may ditch diplomacy all together and start a war!

We both attended West Point. That’s where the commonalities end. I’ve been a soldier opposed to (endless) war; he’ll be a statesman opposed to peace. That should give us cause for pause.

It is a sad day indeed when one finds himself pining for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But that’s where we are. I never really bought into the whole success in profit-driven business equates to success in diplomacy thing. Besides, let us not forget that Tillerson gutted the State Department, failed to fill key posts, and fought to cut his own budget. That was shocking, especially given that the sitting Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, once asserted, back when he was a marine general, that if the State budget was cut, "he’d need to buy more bullets." Nonetheless, Tillerson is out and CIA director Mike Pompeo – a far more alarming choice – is nominated to replace him.

Maybe the notoriously thin-skinned president couldn’t abide being called a "moron" by a senior cabinet secretary. Still, publicly at least, the president seemed to indicate that it was "serious policy differences" which led to the firing. Given that Secretary Tillerson regularly tempered Trump’s more extreme proposals – like tearing up the Iran deal, threatening "fire and fury" in North Korea, and backing the Saudi blockade of tiny Qatar – and that Mike Pompeo is a known Trump supplicant, that’s all the more disquieting.

The only bright spot in the move is that Trump decided not to elevate Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) – a reported frontrunner and notorious neoconservative hawk – to replace Pompeo at CIA. Nevertheless, Trump’s choice of Gina Haspel to take over the agency is potentially disturbing. Haspel served during the dark days of Bush-era torture; even notorious hawk John McCain (R-Az.) has expressed concern about her potential complicity in the torture regime, though a full accounting will no doubt come out in her confirmation hearings.

So who is Mike Pompeo? The short answer: a startlingly hawkish Tea Party Republican oilman with a penchant for combative rhetoric and a near hysterical hatred for Iran. But he’s smart – valedictorian of his West Point class and a graduate of Harvard – and that makes him even more dangerous. His primary qualification, though, is his loyalty and propensity for mind-melding with his boss, Donald Trump. For the last year, he often personally delivered Trump’s presidential daily briefing (PDB) at the White House each morning and they agree on just about everything; as Trump says of Pompeo: "we’re always on the same wavelength."

What exactly can Americans expect from a Secretary Pompeo? It’s hard to know, for sure, but his past actions and statements offer plenty of hints. A neocon ideologue, he’ll no doubt be a savvy political actor; in a Washington where no one seems to remain for long in Donald Trump’s good graces, Pompeo has consistently impressed his boss. Last year, Harvard’s Stephen Walt called him "the most politically motivated CIA director since perhaps [Reagan-appointed] William Casey."

He’s also pretty fanatical on a range of civil liberties issues. Pompeo is a staunch supporter of domestic surveillance, and even called for the death penalty for Edward Snowden. Steven Aftergood, a director at the Federation of American Scientists told reporters that "Mr. Pompeo is literally an extremist."

The bigger issue is Pompeo’s neoconservative predisposition for preventive war and expansive military intervention. He’s basically a charter member of the Iran-hysteria-club dominating the contemporary Republican (and sometimes Democratic) establishment. Pompeo wants to immediately tear up the Iran deal, which will leave the U.S. as the sole party to pull out of the seven nation accord. Back in 2014, when Pompeo was still a Kansas Congressman, he boasted that it would take only "2000 sorties to destroy [i.e. bomb] the Iranian nuclear capacity." Well, Director Pompeo, what happens the day after the US starts a war with Iran? What are the second and third-order regional effects? None of that seems important to the likes of Pompeo; he wants war with Iran, and he might just get it.

Furthermore, while CIA Director, he ordered the release of files that purportedly proved collusion between Al Qaeda and Iran. Never mind that Bin Laden and the Islamic State were longtime antagonists on opposites sides of the regional Sunni-Shia divide. Pompeo knows what he’s doing. These were the same devious tricks another neocon administration – that of George W. Bush – used to sell a deceitful invasion of Iraq. Soldiers like mine paid the price for that disaster on the streets of Baghdad. Pompeo’s a West Pointer; he should know that real American men and women will be the ones to die in the next reckless war – the one he seems to want in Iran.

It is hard to say if America has ever had a Secretary of State more pugnacious and bellicose than the Secretary of Defense, but that’s where the country will likely be in 2018, with Mike Pompeo at the helm of State. Pompeo, it appears, wants war, but it is Mattis who truly knows war; and though they’re both rather hawkish in foreign affairs, my bet is on Mattis – the Marine Corps general, no less – to exercise more caution in a crisis.

That, needless to say, is disturbing. America’s already got a Department of Defense. If Pompeo sits atop State, the US might as well ditch the veneer of diplomacy and rename the agency – call it the Department of War.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.]

Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.