With Rex Tillerson’s abrupt firing as U.S. secretary of state Tuesday, the focus is now on President Donald Trump’s choice to take his place, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and what this change would mean for U.S. foreign policy.
“He had a lot of ‘face time’ with President Trump. He impressed Trump, is a loyalist. So you’ll have a loyal foreign policy out of the State Department,” Ariel Cohen of the Atlantic Council said. “You also have somebody with an intelligence and military background.”
Congressional confirmation hearings for the secretary of state nominee will be held next month, with Pompeo possibly taking the helm of the State Department just weeks after the Trump administration agreed to enter into talks with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Days ago, in an emotional farewell at the State Department briefing room, Tillerson cited what he views as one of the achievements of his tenure, the success of the U.S.-led maximum pressure campaign of sanctions on North Korea.
“First, working with allies, we exceeded the expectations of almost everyone with the DPRK maximum pressure campaign,” Tillerson said Tuesday, just hours after his reported firing.
Pompeo and Pyongyang
Tillerson’s designated replacement, Pompeo, has often taken a hardline approach to North Korea, emphasizing the existential threat Pyongyang’s nuclear missiles pose to cities on the U.S mainland.
“We have a threat from flash points that something could spark and have a conventional war, right, wholly apart from the issues we talk about with ICBMs and nuclear,” Pompeo told the Senate Intelligence Committee last May.
The CIA director has been loyal to the president, and after Trump’s surprise announcement last week that he is willing to meet with North Korea’s Kim, he went on several news shows to voice his support for the decision.
“President Trump isn’t doing this for theater. He’s going to solve a problem,” Pompeo told Fox News Sunday.
“Kim Jong Un now has committed to stopping nuclear testing, stopping missile tests, allowing exercises to go forward, something that has been incredibly contentious in the past,” he said, calling Pyongyang’s commitments “real achievements.”
Hardline on Iran
The former Republican congressman has been a vocal critic of the landmark Iran nuclear deal ever since it was signed in 2015.
“The (deal) can perhaps delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program for a few years. … Conversely, it has virtually guaranteed that Iran will have the freedom to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons at the end of the commitment,” Pompeo wrote in opposition to the deal while serving as a U.S. representative.
In 2016 he tweeted, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” His personal Twitter account has since been deactivated.
Based on his past tough statements on North Korea, China and Iran, many analysts say Pompeo, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, will likely rely more on U.S. military strength, and be less supportive of international agreements than Tillerson.
Pompeo has made statements advocating “regime change” in Iran and North Korea.
“I think Pompeo is more of a hawk, more of a Trumpian, more of this sort of new wave of what I would call American nationalism, and we see countries becoming more nationalistic all over the world,” Atlantic Council’s Cohen said.
And some worry that Pompeo’s confirmation makes it more likely the United States will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, and subsequently jeopardize any diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang.
“There is no way in the world that throwing out a valid agreement (the Iran nuclear deal) that is working would increase your negotiating leverage with North Korea,” said Thomas Countryman, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. “Rather, it should cause the North Korean leader to ask himself, How can I sign any agreement with the president who’s prepared to break every previous agreement?’”
Countryman told Voice of America he is concerned about the shake-up at the State Department because he believes Tillerson has good instincts on foreign policy and was a moderating influence on Trump.
Pompeo on Russian meddling
When it comes to Russia, Pompeo has gone further than Trump in calling out Moscow for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“It’s pretty clear about what took place here about Russian involvements in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy,” Pompeo told a Senate panel at his confirmation hearing to become the CIA director in January 2017.
But he also met with the heads of Russia’s three intelligence services during their unprecedented visit to Washington earlier this year.
Pompeo has said Russian interference had no impact on the outcome of the 2016 race for the White House, which is not something U.S. intelligence agencies say they are even qualified to assess.