Who is Mike Pompeo? A Political Profile of the Nominee for US Secretary of State

Mike Pompeo, born on December 30, 1963 in Orange, California, is President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. As the outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Pompeo now has a year of intelligence experience alongside his time in the US military. After graduating high school, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated first in his class in 1986 with a degree in mechanical engineering. As an active duty cavalry officer, Pompeo served in Germany, patrolling the Iron Curtain before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He also served with the 2nd Squadron, 7th Cavalry in the US Army’s Fourth Infantry Division during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. After leaving active duty, Pompeo graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced law in Washington, DC, then moved to Kansas and co-founded an industrial aerospace and defense company.

Prior to being confirmed as CIA director, Pompeo was elected to his fourth term as a Republican congressman from Kansas’s conservative fourth district. He first joined Congress as a result of the conservative Tea Party wave in 2011, bringing with him to Washington an anti-establishment sentiment. Subsequently, he consistently scored as one of the more conservative members of Congress; his opinions were particularly far-right on issues of defense, intelligence, and national security. Despite being an outspoken critic of former President Barack Obama and his foreign policy—and a lead committee member for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s congressional investigation of the 2012 Benghazi attacks—Pompeo was relatively unknown outside of conservative and right-wing circles; but, simultaneously, was recognized as a hyper-partisan lawmaker with little regard for working with Democratic colleagues.

Despite little name recognition, Pompeo’s focus on the threats from “radical Islamic terrorists,” his past inflammatory remarks about Muslims, association with fringe, right-wing characters, and support for the use of Guantanamo Bay and torture for suspected terrorists all aligned with Trump’s vision of the world and quickly made him a favorite for the directorship of the CIA. Pompeo is generally well-liked by those who know him and he is adept at massaging the president’s ego, characteristics that likely contributed to his unforeseeable rise from Tea Party congressman to potential secretary of state. Now, Pompeo is expected to head to Foggy Bottom where his equally aggressive worldview will mesh well with that of the president.

Anti-Tillerson

When considering his policy positions, temperament, and personal relationship with President Trump, Pompeo is almost the polar opposite of outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Pompeo is more charismatic and, based on public appearances and statements, is much less likely to contradict or challenge his boss publicly. How much they will disagree is unclear because Pompeo and Trump tend to agree on many issues. Indeed, Pompeo has stated publicly that he hopes to roll back the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that governs Iran’s nuclear energy program, a key position of Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Tillerson, in Trump’s opinion, was too “establishment,” choosing to abide by decades of precedent and consensus when making US foreign policy decisions. Pompeo, on the other hand, appeals to Trump’s sense of being an outsider who disregards the status quo.

Middle East Policy Positions

Mike Pompeo does not have the extensive foreign policy experience one might expect for a nominee for secretary of state, but to a certain degree, neither did Rex Tillerson. Based on his modest record on foreign policy issues, Pompeo can be described as very pro-Israel, very anti-Iran, and ardently focused on counterterrorism and combatting both non-state terrorist groups, like the so-called Islamic State, and other Islamist groups—even those that are seen by many as political groups (i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood). Pompeo also sees the region through a military and national security perspective, so he is in favor of expanding US government surveillance and intelligence collection and acting much more aggressively against perceived threats. His confrontational tone might be problematic in a position where he must speak with friends and foes, instead of just intelligence partners. Though Tillerson was by no means an experienced diplomat, his more relaxed demeanor and inclination for seeking cooperation over confrontation served as a perfect balance to Trump’s more aggressive style. However, because he shares many of the same traits as Trump, it is difficult to see Pompeo finessing crucial negotiations with actors he despises, like Iran and Syria, or with Qatar for its supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel: Like many conservative members of Congress, Pompeo has been considered reliably “pro-Israel” and has voiced his support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government. In addition, and along with Tillerson, Pompeo cautioned the administration about moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—though as a congressman, he frequently sponsored legislation calling for that very move. Shortly after Trump announced Pompeo as his pick to head the CIA, Israeli officials heaped praise on the decision, citing Pompeo’s aggressive posture toward Iran.

Palestine: During his time in Congress, Pompeo frequently received negative marks by groups that score members of Congress on their positions vis-à-vis Palestinian issues. Pompeo scored unfavorably for his frequent sponsorship or co-sponsorship of bills that mandated moving the embassy to Jerusalem and/or officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; bills that were intended to prohibit the United States from even referring to any geographic area as “Palestine” or recognizing any unilateral declarations of a Palestinian state; and bills that cut US funding for UN programs that service Palestinian refugees. Though he has had a businesslike relationship with Palestinian intelligence since he became director, he has not proven to be sympathetic to Palestinians. In addition, his intense dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood extends to the Gaza Strip’s Hamas, making him even more averse to supporting Palestinians.

Syria: Pompeo’s position toward Syria is more indicative of his stance against Russia and Iran than Syria itself. One of his most frequent critiques of the Obama Administration was his belief that President Obama “invited” Russia into Syria and that Russia did little to help the fight against the Islamic State. Though Pompeo’s views have evolved since then, the role of Russia in Syria could be one area where he and the president diverge significantly, particularly because President Trump holds a more positive view of Moscow and Vladimir Putin.

Iran: Pompeo has been most consistently critical of Iran. He was an outspoken opponent of the JCPOA, he supports creating and empowering a Gulf Sunni axis to push back against Iran, and he even has candidly spoken about his desire to take preemptive military strikes against the Islamic Republic. His animus for Iran persisted even as he left Capitol Hill for Langley. In 2017, Pompeo ordered the release of a tranche of previously classified documents collected during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and there is speculation that it was in order to demonstrate ties between Iran and the terrorist group al-Qaeda.

Gulf Cooperation Council

The area in which a new secretary of state could arguably find the most success early on is helping mend the split between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar. This is especially important after the United States and Qatar signed political and security agreements during the last round of the US-Qatar strategic dialogue. However, Pompeo has been critical of Qatar since he took up the top post at the CIA because of what he considers Qatar’s vigorous support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Because of this, Pompeo might be more sympathetic to the Saudi argument that Qatar exports terrorism in the region through its support for the group. Tillerson, by contrast, was a calm figure in this regard, urging the White House not to take sides in the rift. Pompeo could exacerbate the crisis at a time when the blockading side appears to be losing interest in the conflict.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

What kind of Secretary of State could Mike Pompeo be in the Trump Administration? He has very limited foreign policy experience and brings a largely military and intelligence perspective. To Pompeo’s benefit, he is positioned to have more success at the beginning of his tenure than Tillerson did. The State Department is currently not functioning well and morale is at an all-time low, so Pompeo will likely be received by its embattled employees with a semblance of optimism. He could then begin constructing the department as he sees fit. Additionally, his relationship with President Trump could bring the State Department into the confidence of the White House, something that does not appear to have been the case under Tillerson.

However, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Pompeo’s candidacy for the position. He has been described as very hard on subordinates, often berating them and sapping morale. In addition, he is fiercely partisan and political, once being described as the “most political” director the ostensibly apolitical CIA has ever had. Furthermore, Pompeo is extremely hawkish and shares some of Donald Trump’s more negative views of Muslims and the broader Middle East. Indeed, Democratic senators have already warned they will not support a Donald Trump “yes man” who would further degrade the State Department and militarize what is left of the beleaguered diplomatic arm of the government.

For all of these reasons, some fear for the potential politicization and militarization of the State Department. Instead of acting as the diplomatic intermediary for the administration, Pompeo could use the position to further antagonize US enemies abroad. Overall, Pompeo’s nomination for the position of Secretary of State does not warrant optimism for more functional and pragmatic US diplomacy.

This profile was compiled and updated by Marcus Montgomery, a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here