Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in just a few short years, has transitioned from a rabble-rousing, Tea Party-era congressman to arguably President Donald Trump’s most visible loyalist and enabler. As he has traversed the chaotic nature of the current administration and outlasted all potential political and bureaucratic rivals, Pompeo has emerged as probably the most influential member of the president’s national security team. Those who view the administration’s policies with concern have even dubbed Pompeo “the most dangerous man in the world.”
Nevertheless, Mike Pompeo’s future as secretary of state is worth exploring. Pompeo’s desire to continue his ascent is palpable and any observer of the secretary can clearly see that he is keen on climbing the next step of the political ladder. As a man who has spent his time in Washington making timely maneuvers to advance his career, Pompeo is not expected to remain content as the nation’s top diplomat for much longer. To be sure, he is still executing his duties in that role. During the past few days, he visited Germany for the Berlin Conference on Libya, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu, and Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He also held a phone call with Iraqi President Barham Salih to try to smooth over US-Iraqi relations after a tumultuous start to 2020.
Pompeo will continue to carry out his duties as long as he occupies the role, but there is speculation that his interests have been piqued by other opportunities. He only recently opted to forego a run for the US Senate. There is reason to believe he would be interested in the vice presidency as well, if the position were to become available. Secretary Pompeo is clearly looking to remain in the good graces of a notoriously mercurial president while he seeks to burnish his credentials for a political future post-Donald Trump.
His unmitigated desire for upward advancement is cause for concern as it relates to his tiring and humbling work as the country’s top diplomat. Successful secretaries of state are sober tacticians capable of charting a diplomatic course less beholden to ideology. Indeed, Pompeo has injected his ideology directly into US foreign policy. Moving forward, if he decides to use his role of secretary of state to win points with domestic electoral audiences, it would be plausible to see him advocating more forcefully for confronting Iran (as he did with the Soleimani assassination) or for unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Just as worrisome, however, is that if Secretary Pompeo begins to covet a change of title, he could neglect the critical work expected of the nation’s top diplomat. At a time when fissures are opening between the United States and Iraq, the region faces the unpredictable fallout of US-Iranian tensions. And as multiple countries remain preoccupied with war or massive popular protests, it is crucial that Washington has an engaged secretary of state working to bring dozens of actors together to solve some of the most pressing issues.
Now that Mike Pompeo is expected not to run for an open Senate seat in Kansas, many are trying to assess what the unambiguously ambitious secretary of state sees in his political future. His eyes are certainly set on higher office, which raises questions about what he will do while he is at the State Department in pursuit of that goal.
Also Happening This Week in Washington
Direct the removal of US Armed Forces from Hostilities Against Iran. This week Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) introduced an updated version of his War Powers Resolution that aims to force the president to end hostilities against Iran. After fielding concerns from his GOP colleagues about what they considered the politicized nature of the original resolution, Kaine crafted language that was more appealing at a bipartisan level and he has since garnered enough support to pass the resolution.
2) Personnel and Correspondence
Senators Wyden and Merkley Respond to Declassified FBI Report on Saudi Arabia. After calling on the Trump Administration to investigate the matter, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both of Oregon, received a declassified document from the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the Saudi government’s involvement in helping its citizens flee the United States after run-ins with the law. The two senators introduced legislation to address Riyadh’s regular assistance to its citizens who are fleeing the US judicial system; this was after an Oregonian was killed in 2019 by a Saudi student who then fled to Saudi Arabia with its government’s help. The senators are now calling on the Trump Administration to take immediate action to stop Riyadh’s undermining of the US judicial process.
Senators Concerned about Iran’s Cyber Threats. This week, Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) sent a letter to the new administrator for the US Small Business Administration urging her to ensure that the United States’ community of small businesses has the necessary resources to protect itself from potential cyberattacks carried out by Iran or its proxies.
This letter came after Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote to Secretary of State Pompeo to express his concern that the State Department is not adequately prepared to prevent potential Iranian-sanctioned cyberattacks on its cyber infrastructure.
Senators Demand that the Trump Administration Sanction Egypt’s Government. After the death of a US citizen in an Egyptian prison, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) wrote to President Trump calling on him to use applicable sanctions authority to punish Cairo for its unjust detention and the eventual death of an American citizen. Under authorities included in two different laws—including the Global Magnitsky Act—the Trump Administration can sanction Egyptian officials for the gross violation of Mustafa Kassem’s human rights as well as the unjust detention of other US citizens.
3) Hearings and Briefings
US-Iran Tensions: Implications for Homeland Security. On January 15, the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing to explore the implications of heightened US-Iranian tensions for the security of the United States. The hearing was intended for committee members to get a better grasp of the possible threats posed by Iran and its proxies against the United States, both abroad and domestically, as well as the challenges Tehran poses to the interests of Washington and its allies more generally.
Throughout the hearing, the witnesses stated clearly that the Iranian threat against US homeland security is very real and it continues after the death of General Qassem Soleimani. Most experts agree that Iran’s limited missile attacks on US positions in Iraq did not constitute the full extent of Tehran’s retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination; to that end, the witnesses at this briefing repeatedly stated that the action that Iran would most likely take against the United States—either directly or through its proxies—is a cyberattack. As such, the expert witnesses left the committee members with a list of what could be done to help ensure that federal entities are prepared and have the resources necessary to protect the government’s cyber infrastructure. The witnesses also urged increased awareness by those in the private sector about preparing for and protecting against cyberattacks.
Mustafa Kassem’s Needless Death in Sisi’s Prison. On that same day, a group of lawmakers appeared at an event on the recent death of the US citizen in an Egyptian prison. The briefing was organized by six human rights and democracy organizations and featured remarks from six members of Congress: Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut); Kassem’s congressional representative, Rep. Peter King (R-New York); and Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Tom Suozzi (D-New York).
All of the lawmakers decried the circumstances of Kassem’s imprisonment in Egypt—he was arrested without charges and tried in a mass trial in 2018 without due process, then sentenced to 15 years in prison. Kassem’s death should serve as a wake-up call to the American people and to the Trump Administration, the lawmakers argued, because there are at least six other Americans being unlawfully held in Egyptian prisons and in need of help. They also spoke out forcefully against Egyptian authorities and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi specifically, arguing that the government is solely responsible for his death and that it must be held accountable. Most of these members also blamed President Donald Trump and his administration for failing to act on Egypt’s human rights violations and for being reluctant to speak up for the American citizens being unlawfully imprisoned there.
Moving forward, the group of senators and representatives wants to ensure that the United States is a vocal champion of human rights, even when those states that are violating human rights are ostensible US allies, like Egypt. Specifically, in the case of Egypt, lawmakers want to make an example of Cairo’s violations of US citizens’ rights by sanctioning specific government officials for their roles in these violations—or their failure to address gross violations of human rights—and by leveraging Washington’s generous annual aid package to Egypt to extract the release of unjustly detained Americans.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Moves on Nomination for Ambassador to Lebanon. On January 15, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a business meeting whose purpose, among other things, was to consider the nomination of Dorothy Shea to serve as US ambassador to Lebanon. The committee voted in favor of moving Shea’s nomination for full consideration before the Senate; in all likelihood, Shea will be confirmed to serve the United States in Beirut.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
President Trump Hosts Egyptian FM to Mediate Dam Crisis. President Trump hosted Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in the Oval Office this week in an effort to help find a solution to a disagreement between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the latter’s dam construction project. The timing was peculiar, though, as President Trump welcomed Shoukry shortly after a US citizen died in an Egyptian prison. The White House made no mention of whether the president raised the issue with the foreign minister.
White House to Determine When to Release So-called Peace Plan. This week, the White House planned to dispatch presidential advisor Jared Kushner to Israel to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger in the elections and leader of Israel’s Blue and White Party Benny Gantz. Kushner’s trip was reportedly part of a fact-finding mission in order to determine the appropriate time to release the administration’s plan for solving the long-running conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
However, Kushner, along with the White House’s new special envoy, Avi Berkowitz, canceled the trip to Israel after their stint in Davos, citing bad flying weather. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-California) led a high-level delegation of House members to the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, though. She and her colleagues met with Netanyahu and Gantz.
President Trump and Administration Officials Visit Davos. President Trump visited Switzerland this week to participate in the annual World Economic Forum. Though the Middle East did not dominate the forum’s agenda, the president held bilateral meetings with officials from Iraq’s central government and its semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
2) Department of State
Brian Hook Briefing on Iran. The Trump Administration’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, gave a press briefing this week to address the administration’s ongoing “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. Hook announced that the State Department has designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Brigadier General Hassan Shahvarpour for sanctions under US law. Shahvarpour is accused of overseeing the gross violation of human rights in relation to Tehran’s violent crackdown on largely peaceful protests that have rocked Iran for months. Under this designation, Shahvarpour will be denied entry into the United States.
Hook also recounted the administration’s efforts to sanction the Iranian regime and “stand with” the Iranian people. He offered statistics about Iran’s struggling economy and championed the overall Iran strategy the Trump Administration has adopted.