The gulf between a coherent foreign policy and President Donald Trump’s narcissistic nihilism is captured by the distance between departed Secretary of Defense James Mattis and ascendant Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ― and their reactions to Trump’s precipitous withdrawal from Syria.
The Syria decision was quintessential Trump: abrupt, peremptory, unmoored from strategy, contemptuous of advisers and allies, and rooted in a lie ― that America had won a final victory over the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State. In response, Mattis submitted a stinging resignation letter to Trump, telling the president he should “have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
Though he, too, objected to the decision, Pompeo issued a feeble defense of the Syria withdrawal, cementing his role as the State Department’s Paul Ryan. Indeed, Trump assigned Pompeo the exquisitely demeaning task of telling Mattis to leave the Pentagon prior to his stated resignation date.
The episode confirms that one cannot serve Trump with integrity, or even competence. Only courtiers remain. Mattis worked to constrain Trump’s whims; Pompeo catered to them, eventually eclipsing Mattis in Trump’s favor ― and survived.
“Mike Pompeo is doing a great job,” Trump declared in a tweet last month, calling Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, “dumb as a rock.” Under Pompeo, the president wrote, “it is a whole new ballgame, great spirit at State!”
Hardly. Eight months after Pompeo’s announcement that State would “get back our swagger,” morale still suffers. Nearly half of key posts remain empty, and Trump ordered the Syria withdrawal without consulting the officials charged with policy in the region, prompting the resignation of Brett McGurk, the department’s envoy to the allied coalition fighting ISIS. Only Pompeo is swaggering ― which, it turns out, is his principal talent.
No surprise. Prior to becoming Trump’s CIA director, Pompeo was a tea party congressman, a fundamentalist climate change denier who trafficked in Islamophobic hysteria. He ingratiated himself with Trump by parroting his empty and erratic foreign policy pronouncements as they oscillated between mindless bellicosity and nominating himself for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Take Pompeo’s arrogant and self-contradictory speech to NATO ministers in December. Serially, he claimed that Trump was building “a new liberal order”; emphasized “America First” over global cooperation; and disparaged the World Bank, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and, amazingly, the European Union. Missing was any coherent vision for our allies ― Pompeo was aping his solipsistic audience of one.
As Trump’s global eunuch, Pompeo fronts for a phony peace process that is ratifying North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Formerly a fervent advocate of regime change in North Korea, Pompeo fluttered helplessly in Trump’s slipstream over the last year as the president careened from imposing sanctions and threatening “fire and fury” to granting the murderous Kim Jong Un the unprecedented honor of a summit and then proclaiming, after a couple hours of kabuki summitry during which they “fell in love,” that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea” ― leaving Pompeo to play Kim’s fool in Trump’s narcissistic fantasy of peace.
Shortly thereafter, our intelligence agencies concluded that Kim was deceiving Trump by developing more nuclear materials and ICBMs. When Pompeo visited North Korea to flesh out “denuclearization,” the regime castigated his “gangster-like demands.” A second visit yielded only an as-yet-unfulfilled promise to allow international inspection of a supposedly destroyed test site and the prospect of another summit, undercutting Pompeo’s role as intermediary.
The North Koreans, Korea expert Sue Mi Terry says, “just want to deal with Trump.” Who wouldn’t? Now Kim has issued a New Year’s statement insisting that North Korea won’t denuclearize until the U.S. drops sanctions, withdraws its nuclear and military capabilities from South Korea and formally ends the Korean War. This confirms the point of Kim’s charade: North Korea will never yield its nuclear weapons. As his fig leaves wither, Pompeo has labeled Kim’s contemptuous treatment as “bumps in the road” in “a great process.”
Only in Trump’s mind. In the real world, North Korea will become a nuclear power on Trump’s watch ― as Pompeo looks on.
Still, nothing captures Pompeo’s feckless tenure better than Trump’s self-canceling policies toward Iran. Imagining Iran as a colossus astride the Middle East, Trump and Pompeo, despite Mattis’ advice, favored abrogating the Iran nuclear deal negotiated in cooperation with five international partners, substituting a fanciful policy of “maximum pressure” that demanded an end to Iran’s internal repression and support of militias in Syria and Lebanon ― essentially, regime change.
No doubt Iran helps roil the region. But its military resources are dwarfed by its Sunni Arab neighbors. While imperfect, the Iran deal postponed Iran’s nuclear development while subjecting it to stringent inspections and verification. Alienated by Trump’s unilateral decision, our fellow signatories are cooperating with Iran to preserve the deal and evade American sanctions against the regime. Trump’s alternative, they sensibly believe, enhances the risk of war.
Concurrently, Trump’s uncritical support for Saudi Arabia as a regional counterweight to Iran licenses the reckless behavior of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: blockading Qatar, kidnapping Lebanon’s prime minister, conducting a brutal military campaign against Shia insurgents in Yemen and repressing or murdering dissenters like Jamaal Khashoggi. Overall, what Pompeo calls the “disruptive boldness” of Trump’s Iran policy has further destabilized the Middle East.
Here Pompeo’s linguistic and geopolitical crudity mirrors Trump’s. He criticized Congressional “caterwauling” over Khashoggi’s murder; misrepresented the CIA’s finding that MBS directed it; called the Saudis “a powerful force for stability in the Middle East”; and defended America’s support for Saudi barbarism that has massacred Yemeni civilians while causing mass famine ― a humanitarian disaster that enhances Iranian influence.
In that regard, Syria highlights Trump’s strategic vacuity ― and Pompeo’s impotence. In October, Pompeo said that American troops served “two other mutually reinforcing objectives” beyond defeating ISIS: “a peaceful resolution in Syria” and “the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces.” Further, Mattis argued, our military presence was critical to maintaining internal stability, containing Russia and preventing Turkey from slaughtering our chief allies against ISIS, the Kurds.
What changed? Simply this: Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Trump what he wanted to hear ― that Turkey could mop up ISIS in Syria, and that America could decamp. “It’s all yours,” Trump reportedly replied. “We are done.”
So he did. Without consultation, Trump unilaterally reversed America’s stated position ― including Pompeo’s blustery pledge that American troops would remain until Iran withdrew “all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria.”
Just that week, the State Department’s Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, had stated that the U.S. would remain until ISIS was defeated, Iranian influence was curbed and America helped achieve a political solution to Syria’s catastrophic civil war ― defusing a potentially incendiary “great-power conflict” involving Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel. In his exit statement, McGurk wrote that the “complete reversal of policy” had “left our fighting partners bewildered.” Not to worry: “Donald’s right,” Russian President Vladimir Putin assured us.
In short, Trump’s unmediated impulsiveness eviscerated our Middle East policy, benefiting Syria’s most malign actors. His stark betrayal of the Kurds left them in a killing zone between Erdogan ― who blames them for Kurdish insurgents in Turkey ― and a genocidal Assad regime they must now embrace. ISIS, which still controls territory in southeastern Syria and has an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters prepared to carry out attacks, is far from defeated.
Russia can now consolidate control over Syria and its government, securing the naval base it has long wanted. Similarly Trump has empowered Iran, through Hezbollah, to dominate eastern Syria, secure oil fields that will help it ameliorate U.S. sanctions, and more effectively menace Israel ― which Trump left to fend for itself.
But the biggest geopolitical loser is America. By abruptly shredding his strategy for Syria and Iran while ceding U.S. influence in the region, Trump “implements Russia’s negative agenda by default, undermining the U.S.-led world order, U.S. alliances, U.S. credibility as a partner and ally,” Russian columnist and foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov told The New York Times.
The resulting diplomatic vacuum leaves America without negotiating leverage to effect a settlement that constrains ISIS, protects the Kurds, buffers Israel ― or, tragically, prevents Syrian President Bashar Assad from slaughtering thousands more civilians.
And what of Pompeo, that swaggering secretary who warned that “emboldening Iran would spread even more death and destruction in the Middle East”? He tried dissembling: His assertion that “we’ve made the caliphate in Syria go away” confuses territory with fighters. As to the obvious fact that Trump left the Kurds at risk of slaughter, Pompeo says ― pathetically ― that “we’re counting” on the Russians and Turks “to honor their commitment” to comply with international law. Invertebrates can’t swagger, but they fold with impressive facility.
Not Mattis. Resigning, he wrote Trump that “my views on treating allies with respect and... being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held”; that “China and Russia... want to shape a world consistent with her authoritarian model”; and that America “must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values.”
Such views, and the integrity to express them, have become disqualifying for service in the Trump administration. In foreign policy Trump is now ungovernable: America First is Trump Alone ― another expression of the dangerous ignorance and mercurial vainglory of a pathological narcissist who prefers playing soldier on the Mexican border to strategizing with advisers and allies about a cohesive strategy to minimize global risks. He has but one trajectory: bad to worse.
So, inescapably, does Mike Pompeo.
Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.