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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Pompeo boosts morale but faces hurdles in Middle East

I want the State Department to get its swagger back: US Secretary of State 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his wife Susan Pompeo and US President Donald J. Trump participate in a ceremonial swearing in ceremony at the State Department in Washington, DC, USA, 02 May 2018. Secretary Pompeo succeeds Rex Tillerson as the 70th US Secretary of State. EPA/SHAWN THEW
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, his wife Susan Pompeo and US President Donald J. Trump participate in a ceremonial swearing in ceremony at the State Department in Washington, DC, USA, 02 May 2018. Secretary Pompeo succeeds Rex Tillerson as the 70th US Secretary of State. EPA/SHAWN THEW

America's new Secretary of State was only sworn in on Wednesday, but Mike Pompeo has already proven he is no Rex Tillerson.

While his predecessor was known for his solitary ways, Mr Pompeo has presented himself as the exact opposite.

Mr Tillerson - according to two US officials who worked with him - often chose to seclude himself in his office, avoid travel, phone conversations, social media and engagements with the larger staff and the media unless necessary. Instead Mr Pompeo travelled to four capitals before entering office, spoke to the travelling press during the trip, and is active on twitter.

“That’s more spirit than I’ve heard from the State Department in a long time,” President Donald Trump told the staff gathered in the Benjamin Franklin room during the swearing in ceremony.

The swearing in marked Mr Trump's first visit to the State Department’s headquarters, suggesting that his good rapport with Mr Pompeo could bring the Department out of the Tillerson-era shadows and into the light.

Politico reported on Tuesday that Mr Pompeo will be resuming the Eligible Family Member hiring programme that his predecessor froze. He is also expected to end consulting contracts, and fill in key vacancies at the Department.

“I want the State Department to get its swagger back,” Mr Pompeo told his staff.

Mr Pompeo went on to call the Iran deal a flawed deal and committed to countering Russia’s aggression, while hailing the US embassy move to Jerusalem, suggesting an outlook more similar to that of President Trump than his predecessor had. Mr Tillerson had opposed the US embassy move, and called to certify the Iran nuclear deal.

But despite his proximity to the US President, Mr Pompeo will still be wrangling with the same regional hurdles that haunted Mr Tillerson.

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Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogues programme at the Middle East Institute, told The National that Mr Pompeo will be operating under similar constraints to those of his predecessors.

“America can no longer be the peacemaker, it can be a firefighter, intervene long enough to bring the fire to a manageable level, but not eliminate it all together,” Ms Slim said citing Yemen, Syria and Qatar crises as examples of this.

During his time in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, Mr Pompeo called for a swift end to the Qatar dispute. But on the ground, the issues remain unchanged.

Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, tweeted on Tuesday, “a sincere advice to get Qatar out of its crisis: there will be no mediation outside the Gulf, no pressure will work...be wise and negotiate with your neighbours who have real concerns, to solve the outstanding grievances.”

The four Arab countries boycotting Qatar insist that Kuwait mediate, while US efforts - including dispatching envoys in August and again in March - have failed to achieve a breakthrough.

“This is partly because the US institutional understanding of the Middle East is out of sync with the current political dynamics” argued Ms Slim.

The region, she added, “has changed and the old frames of reference including levers of influence no longer work.”

The changes in regional dynamics is also a result of countries taking matters into their own hands and their belief that the US will soon withdraw.

“Middle East leaders understand that the US is not going to be around for a long time in the region” Ms Slim said, pointing out to Mr Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, his Asia pivot, and more recently Mr Trump’s pledges to leave Syria. Those realities appear likely to continue and expand Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.