By the time Michael R. Pompeo walked away from the State Department on January 20, The Washington Post had long decided on his legacy: “Worst secretary of state in U.S. history.” The New York Times agreed, noting that Pompeo’s “scorched-earth foreign policy” had largely failed.
But these negative appraisals omitted his gravest deeds while toeing the Democratic Party line. Pompeo was castigated for failing to stand up to Russia, dethrone Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, bolster Hong Kong’s opposition party, and stop China’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims—all expected establishmentarian targets.
In short, Pompeo, also a former CIA director, was mostly faulted for not intervening in other countries’ affairs correctly or enough. But the ignominy he is due comes precisely from his obsessive interventionism and its catastrophic repercussions in Iran, Yemen, Palestine, Venezuela, and Cuba.
"Whether or not he's the worst Secretary of State in history—let's not forget about the American-led slaughters in Vietnam, Cambodia, North and South Korea, Central America, and Iraq, among others—Pompeo certainly returns to civilian life with a disgrace akin to that of Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger."
A review of Pompeo’s press releases, speeches, and interview transcripts reveals U.S. foreign policy at its most forbidding. In his thirty-three months at the helm of the State Department, Pompeo came to caricature rightwing jingoism. Economic and rhetorical warfare were his first resorts; obstructionism was his modus operandi.
Rather than nourishing alliances, he was on a perpetual crusade against “bad actors,” vilifying especially China and Iran with evangelical persistence. And while past Secretaries of State would at least perform gestures of impartiality when it came to encouraging fair elections and the right to protest around the world, Pompeo did not disguise his partisanship. He remained mostly silent about massive demonstrations in Israel, Thailand, Chile, Bolivia, and India, while ecstatically celebrating those in Hong Kong, Belarus, Russia, and Venezuela. In the end, some U.S. allies were too “embarrassed” to meet with him.
Still, this was reflective less of Trumpian exceptionalism and more of the sort of strategic antagonism that hawkish U.S. administrations have employed since the Cold War. It was colorfully repurposed by George W. Bush, for example, in his “axis of evil” speech, a phrase eagerly brandished by the likes of then-U.N. ambassador John Bolton and Vice President Dick Cheney. The Trump Administration later drew upon this tradition to antagonize, manipulate, and punish foreign regimes.
Donald Trump’s U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley wielded the word “evil” in her own style, and John Bolton, then as National Security Advisor, actually started using “axis of evil” against new countries. No one, however, was more consistently bellicose than Secretary Pompeo.
“The Chinese Communist Party is all around us,” Pompeo said in an interview on January 5, echoing the darkest language of the 1950s Red Scare. “They are working in our schools. They are working in our clubs and organizations.”
Trump and Pompeo picked China as a key culprit. Through a “distrust and verify” stratagem, they sought to neutralize some of globalization’s pitfalls by economic coercion—trade wars and tariffs. They also aimed to delegitimize China’s global standing by reestablishing Cold War-era civilizational divides, never missing a chance to say “Chinese” and “Communist Party” in the same sentence. “Much of the threat to NATO countries,” Pompeo declared, without delving into specifics, “comes from the Chinese Communist Party.” His alarm bells helped secure $400 billion in pledged NATO spending through 2024.
When he spoke with The Epoch Times in January, Pompeo was still lamenting the “Wuhan virus.” In May 2020, he told an interviewer that “China has a history of infecting the world.” Last August, he showily embraced the lampoonish “Name the Enemy Act,” a failed attempt by Republicans to forbid U.S. officials from referring to Xi Jinping as the president of China.
Despite Pompeo’s refrains about the “evils” and “vulgar materialism” of the Chinese Communist Party, it’s worth noting, as Fred Kaplan does in Slate, that “though it enslaves minorities and imprisons democratic activists, much, perhaps most, of the Chinese population supports the CCP, which lifted more than 850 million people out of poverty in astonishingly fast time.”
Pompeo always had a penchant for sycophantic interviewers—mostly Fox News and conservative talk radio hosts—and was notoriously unfriendly to journalists who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. Rightwing commentator Ben Shapiro typified this bootlicking in his January 2020 interview with Pompeo, days after President Trump had ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Shapiro’s opening line: “First of all, let me just congratulate you and the Trump Administration on an excellent week for American foreign policy.”
Of course, crushing Iran—which invariably meant harming Iranian civilians—was another leitmotif in Pompeo’s dark saga. “Under the Trump Administration, being Iranian [was] crime enough,” The New York Times editorialized, contending that “U.S. efforts to cut Iran off from the rest of the world in the midst of the pandemic are cruel.” While U.S. sanctions against Iran date back to 1979, Pompeo piled economic restrictions on Iranian companies and institutions by the week, strangling the country’s currency amid the Middle East’s worst COVID-19 death toll and depriving millions of Iranians of medicine, loans, and livelihoods.
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Pompeo’s efforts to defeat Iran culminated in the wild allegation, one week before Joe Biden took office, that Iran was the new base for al-Qaeda. The two were, he claimed, “partners in terrorism, partners in hate.” Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, replied with a tweet: “No one is fooled. All 9/11 terrorists came from @SecPompeo’s favorite [Middle East] destinations; NONE from Iran.”
Zarif was referring to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which received undying devotion from Pompeo in their ferocious war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Perhaps the blackest stain on Pompeo’s career is his partial—but direct—responsibility for what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
In 2019, Pompeo bypassed a Congressional embargo of arms sales to Saudi Arabia by declaring an emergency, despite overwhelming evidence of mass civilian slaughter and starvation in Yemen. Just last fall, he reaffirmed “a robust program of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”
And, on the day before leaving office, he declared the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organization,” a designation that the International Committee of the Red Cross said will have a “chilling effect” on the delivery of vital aid and the International Crisis Group said goes “against the advice of more or less everyone working in the humanitarian, economic and diplomatic fields in Yemen.”
Pompeo’s malevolence wasn’t limited to the Eastern hemisphere. Both Cuba and Venezuela descended into further economic ruin during Trump’s presidency, and while Pompeo cheerfully separated his targeted regimes from “the people,” the latter always paid the price.
"A mere contrast to Pompeo isn't enough. Sighs of relief that our new Secretary of State is not a rightwing chauvinist could very well disguise the sort of centrism that preserves U.S. traditions of intervention and militarization."
Michael Pompeo is not the first U.S. official to leave office having committed a litany of injustices and violent acts against foreign governments and civilians. His distinction, however, is threefold: He was impudently transparent in his antagonisms; he fomented a striking number of hostile agendas simultaneously; and he harnessed the powerful machinery of U.S. diplomacy in the full service of a jingoistic ethos: comply with our demands or face our wrath.
Whether or not he’s the worst Secretary of State in history—let’s not forget about the American-led slaughters in Vietnam, Cambodia, North and South Korea, Central America, and Iraq, among others—Pompeo certainly returns to civilian life with a disgrace akin to that of Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger.
The question we are left with is whether the newly confirmed Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, can do better.
Blinken is, after all, a centrist, establishment politician serving under an even more Washington-entrenched President. And he’s already playing games with Iran, pandering to Israel, and badgering Russia.
Last week, in his first major foreign policy address since taking office, President Biden sounded far from progressive. He demonized Russia and China, annulled planned U.S. troop withdrawals from Germany, and vowed to protect Saudi Arabia from Iran.
Still, there were some rays of light. Without naming Saudi Arabia, Biden announced an end to “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” He vowed to restore refugee admissions programs. He’s already rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the World Health Organization. And Blinken has begun to send some signals that servile concessions to Israel might soon end.
But a mere contrast to Pompeo isn’t enough. Sighs of relief that our new Secretary of State is not a rightwing chauvinist could very well disguise the sort of centrism that preserves U.S. traditions of intervention and militarization, including the stationing of U.S. forces in some 70 percent of the world’s countries.
Instead, Blinken should resist his own taste for intervention and work toward reducing the United States’ (and NATO’s) military footprint. He should ease sanctions on countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran. He should cease our hypocritical meddling and withdraw support for repressive regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. After all, our overseas expenditures bear upon our successes at home, and we’ve never needed to be more prudent, resourceful, and rehabilitative.