President Donald Trump has nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and lead America’s foremost foreign policy organization. In contrast to Tillerson, who at least occasionally raised concerns about democratic development, human rights violations, and restrictions on civil society with Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, Pompeo appears to have other priorities—such as a focus on counterterrorism, which will likely place these other issues on the back burner.
If this expectation materializes, Washington runs the risk of alienating large segments of Arab society in countries deemed friendly to the United States. History has shown that when strategic issues far outweigh other concerns, US foreign policy suffers not only by losing its moral compass, but also by fostering anti-Americanism among much of the educated strata in foreign societies, and that can redound against US interests.
There is broad expectation, based on his performance at the CIA, that Pompeo would be more in tune with the bureaucracy of the State Department, and he is reportedly a good manager. This means, in part, that he may let professionals under him in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to have a say in the formulation of policy toward various states. But this is a long shot, and with Pompeo reportedly on the “same wavelength” as President Donald Trump—who has not expressed much interest in human rights except to use it as a cudgel against US adversaries, like Iran and Venezuela—the chances for a values-based foreign policy appear slim indeed.
Trump and the General Absence of Human Rights and Democracy
While on the campaign trail in 2015-2016, Trump often criticized past US efforts to try to make the Middle East more democratic. When he linked this effort to the ill-fated 2003 Iraq war, he gained a good deal of traction with a large segment of the American electorate because by that point, most Americans had come to view that war as a grave mistake. But Trump’s criticism of the approach toward democracy went beyond that specific conflict. He expressed disdain for the effort of trying to change foreign governments to make them less repressive, not only because he seemed to believe it was a waste of time but because he seemed only to care about two overarching policies: to defeat terrorists like the so-called Islamic State (IS) overseas so they would not pose a threat to the US homeland, and to engage with countries in a way that would either lessen US expenses abroad or would help US businesses. He was especially interested in seeing US defense contractors sell goods and services overseas that would also have the added benefit of creating jobs in the United States.
The latter motive explains Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia, for example. He seems to treat US-Saudi relations as a business venture, and he embarrassed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the latter’s visit to the White House in late March by pulling out a chart depicting billions of dollars of Saudi purchases of US military hardware, which Trump jokingly referred to as costing “peanuts” for the Saudis. In private, however, Trump reportedly did raise with the crown prince the subject of the war in Yemen, which has been a humanitarian disaster in large part because of Saudi blockades of Yemeni ports and Saudi air strikes that have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. There is no evidence that Trump pressed his Saudi guest on human rights issues within the kingdom itself.
One notable example where Trump raised the issue of human rights with a friendly Middle Eastern state was during Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to Washington in 2017. Trump focused on a particular case, the imprisonment of a dual Egyptian-American citizen, Aya Hijazi, and her husband, who were incarcerated for several years on spurious charges. After succumbing to pressure not only from Trump but also from members of Congress, American and foreign NGOs, and human rights groups, Sisi released Hijazi and her husband from prison and allowed them to leave the country. Soon after, Trump received them in the White House and his aides touted their release as a victory for his foreign policy. However, as many analysts have noted, this seemed to have been a one-time measure by Trump and a way for Sisi to curry favor with the new US president. Sisi did not release any of the other political prisoners (reportedly in the thousands) languishing in Egyptian prisons, and Trump apparently did not press him on this larger issue.
The only Middle Eastern country that Trump has pressed seriously for its human rights and democracy policies is Iran, especially during the period of the protests against the regime in late 2017. In his State of the Union address in January 2018, Trump said: “When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent. America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.” It was noteworthy that Trump did not make similar comments of standing with Arab dissidents against repressive pro-US Arab regimes.
Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came to his administration position from a business and not a political career, having served as the CEO of ExxonMobil. There was no public record regarding his views on democracy and human rights issues.
On the one hand, Tillerson had to operate within the parameters set by Trump, which included not only to follow a more transactional foreign policy to help Trump’s “America First” agenda but also to make deep cuts in the State Department bureaucracy, which Trump believed was over-bloated. Tillerson failed to secure White House approval for many of his choices for subordinate level positions, such as assistant secretaries of state and ambassadors. For his part, Trump did not mind that these positions were left vacant, saying that only his opinion matters in foreign policy. These cuts and failures on the personnel front made Tillerson look like a weak manager in the eyes of many State Department professionals, which was ironic for a person of Tillerson’s background because he once managed one of the largest corporations in the world.
On the other hand, Tillerson did push the envelope a bit on the democracy and human rights front, particularly with regards to Egypt. Answering a question after congressional testimony on June 14, 2017, for example, Tillerson said that “there was a lot of work to do with Egypt on improving the human rights situation,” and he went on to say that Sisi’s signing of the very restrictive NGO law was “harmful to the way forward.”
Tillerson’s February 2018 trip to Cairo was also revealing in that he called on Egypt publicly to hold free and fair elections and privately pushed Egyptian officials regarding concerns over democracy and human rights. Although some critics complained he did not go far enough, Tillerson’s approach was stronger than that of Trump.
Interestingly, given Trump’s embrace of the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies, Tillerson also weighed in publicly on the discriminatory practices against the Shia in both countries. And shortly before his last days as secretary of state, the State Department’s spokesperson stated on March 22, in response to the arrest of more political activists in Bahrain: “We strongly urge the government [of Bahrain] to abide by its international obligations and commitments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and that includes the freedom of expression.”
It is noteworthy that shortly after being fired on March 13, Tillerson delivered a statement at the State Department in which he thanked his staff for “promoting values” not only in how they treat each other but also in the formulation of US policy around the world. Tillerson also emphasized that all State Department employees—career individuals and political appointees alike—take an oath to defend the Constitution, implying that loyalty to the nation far outpaces loyalty to one particular individual. But in taking this indirect swipe at Trump, who seems to think that policy differences are an act of disloyalty, Tillerson was also suggesting that he was proud to have helped “promote values” even if Trump did not deem them important.
Pompeo’s Record and Likely Priorities
Pompeo, in contrast to Tillerson, is a former member of Congress who held strong policy ideas and voiced them publicly. As a member of the right-wing Tea Party caucus, he believed in less government and more fiscal responsibility; but he also seemed to subscribe to certain extreme foreign policy beliefs, stating at one point that Iran was “intent on destroying America.” He also called the Iran nuclear deal “disastrous” and mentioned in late 2016 that he was looking forward to Trump “rolling it back.” In addition, Pompeo has at times expressed Islamophobic ideas and received an award from ACT for America, led by Brigitte Gabriel and labeled an anti-Islam hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. While in Congress, Pompeo sponsored legislation that called for the blanket designation of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as a foreign terrorist organization, a bill that did not differentiate between different MB branches and the tactics they have or have not used.
As CIA director, Pompeo gained Trump’s trust by briefing him nearly every day and learning his likes and dislikes. That Pompeo and Trump share a disdain for the Iran nuclear deal also solidified their relationship, and Trump has said that he and Pompeo have developed a “very good chemistry.” But knowing that Tillerson got into hot water with Trump over the Iran nuclear deal and other issues, Pompeo, as a smart bureaucratic player, has probably learned the lesson that to strongly disagree with Trump on a major foreign policy issue could mean a fall from grace and an early exit from Trump’s inner circle.
Pompeo’s priorities in the Middle East seem to be to counter terrorist groups like IS and to oppose Iran, not just on the nuclear issue but in terms of Iran’s regional activities. He has not enunciated a clear position on democratization in the Middle East, though as a congressman he did express skepticism about its chances and did not think it was a priority in any case, saying
in a 2015 speech: “You don’t find many Thomas Jeffersons over there. Once you accept that … the line needs to be drawn between those who are on the side of extremism and those who are fighting against them, of whatever faith we may find them.” Moreover, some human rights groups have criticized his support for torture when Pompeo was a congressman, emphasizing that someone with his record should not be approved by the Senate as secretary of state.
In addition, a prominent Washington Post journalist has noted that both Pompeo and incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton are opposed to the belief that US power can and should be used to reshape the world or spread democracy. Because of this belief, Pompeo and Bolton are “much more of an ideological match” for Trump than perhaps other foreign policy players.
Some friendly Arab regimes that were upset with Tillerson’s approach toward the region (not only with his desire to save the Iran nuclear deal but also his criticism of some of their repressive practices) are likely to be happy that Pompeo is headed to State. They have gotten to know Pompeo as the CIA director and may feel that as long as they tout their actions against IS and lran, they will stand in his good graces.
Implications for US Policy
Should Pompeo act as a yes-man to Trump, he, along with Bolton, would merely reinforce Trump’s intentions to give unqualified support to friendly but repressive regimes. This means that whatever pressure the United States can apply on such regimes to make them less repressive and more democratic will be set aside. For long-term US strategic interests, however, this approach would be shortsighted, as it serves to alienate members of the intelligentsia in these countries who chafe under draconian laws and police surveillance and brutality. And if these regimes experience political upheavals (as some of them already have in the recent past), opposition political forces that might come to power one day would then have no reason to do Washington any favors.
However, should Pompeo concentrate on being a good manager at State, he would have to take into account the positions of the various components of the department. This means he cannot simply dismiss those elements in the regional and human rights bureaus that have real expertise on the issues and want their views to be heard and implemented. As a competent, though for a short time, manager from his time at the CIA, Pompeo understands that as a leader of a large organization, he must be seen defending the interests of the people under his stewardship. Otherwise, morale would suffer, as it did under Tillerson.
This presents a sliver of hope that Pompeo may be receptive to hearing divergent views from within the State Department, and not just those who are working on counterterrorism. If those who hold such divergent views are imaginative enough, they can frame certain policy options as serving US national security interests. For example, the incarceration of thousands of political prisoners and the restricting of political space in a country like Egypt may actually create more—not less—terrorists. Pompeo could possibly be persuaded that giving the Sisi regime carte blanche to continue its policies of cracking down on civil society and putting restrictions on political space only serves the interests of the terrorists, who exploit such practices to recruit disaffected young people into their ranks.
Juxtaposed against this more inclusive approach is bureaucratic survival. To remain as secretary of state, Pompeo probably believes that unless he can convince Trump that “supporting the strongman” approach in the region is counterproductive, he is unlikely to go head-to-head with the president.