For those in the Jewish community unfamiliar with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s choice to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, the questions on Tuesday were, who’s Mike Pompeo? Will he be good for Israel? Where does he stand on the Iran nuclear agreement?
The answers were readily available, and fortunately, supporters of Israel and critics of the Iran deal can put a check next to those items on their wish list for America’s top diplomat.
In Israel, senior officials were still riveted to the coalition crisis when the news broke, and reactions were a bit slow in coming. But Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, who met with the CIA head several times, did not have to ask, “Who’s Mike Pompeo?”
Katz was first to tweet: “I wish to congratulate Director Pompeo on his appointment…and thank him for his support of Israel and contribution to strengthening the security and intelligence ties between our two countries.”
Deputy Minister Michael Oren, a former ambassador to Washington, described Pompeo as “very positively disposed toward us.”
When rumors that Pompeo might take over from Tillerson first circulated back in December, journalist and Middle East analyst Tom Gross said he would become “the first properly pro-Israel U.S. secretary of state in decades.”
Indeed when, as a congressman from Kansas, he came to Israel in 2015, he expressed his feelings about Israel’s ongoing struggle with implacable enemies:
“Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are incredibly admirable and deeply appreciated,” he said after a meeting with the prime minister.
And he lauded Israelis’ “admirable restraint in the face of unspeakably cruel attacks.” The United States needs to “stand with our ally Israel and put a stop to terrorism,” he said. “Ongoing attacks by the Palestinians serve only to distance the prospect of peace.”
President Trump explained to reporters at the White House on Tuesday that he felt it necessary to remove Tillerson because they “disagreed on some things,” particularly Iran.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK…So we were not really thinking the same,” said Trump.
Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis were reportedly the ones who most stood between the president and a “nix it” of the Iran agreement. Tillerson advocated a “fix it” in the form of a supplemental agreement, which would preserve the existing accord, which he believed has succeeded. But his version of “fix it” evidently fell short of what Mr. Trump could live with.
Accordingly, supporters of the Iran deal were voicing concern on Tuesday that Pompeo’s nomination will herald a change of policy.
“I think it spells trouble for the nuclear deal,” said Colin Kahl, who served as the national security advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden. He also noted that Tillerson “did appear to have some impact in delaying Trump dumping the Iran deal.”
Mr. Trump also gently acknowledged personal reasons for wanting a “Rexit.”
While maintaining that despite policy differences he “got along” with Tillerson, Mr. Trump made clear that this could not compare with his relationship with Pompeo:
“We have a very good relationship,” the president said on Tuesday. “For whatever reason, chemistry, whatever it is. Why do people get along? I’ve always — right from the beginning, from day one — I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo. We’re always on the same wavelength.”
Critics of the president referred to Pompeo, somewhat sneeringly, as a Trump loyalist, insinuating that doing the boss’s bidding was more important to his selection than professional qualifications.
Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams explained that loyalty is not a secondary qualification; rather, it’s a primary one.
“The loyalty question is critical because the President’s team is actually quite small … You have, let’s say, 1,000 people, but the bureaucracy is millions of people. The president issues an instruction or guidance and goes over to…[State or Defense]; it can be ignored. It can be given lip service. What’s the follow-up? How do you know if maybe they’re trying and failing? Maybe they’re trying in good faith but it isn’t working? They will tell you. But they will tell you what they want you to hear.
“Every administration has a kind of nervous system of loyalists that are in each department, that you know you can reach out to…[T]he government can’t function unless that nervous system is also working,” said Abrams.
A president is entitled to choose cabinet members and advisors with whom he can communicate easily and depend on to carry out his decisions without foot-dragging or contrary agendas, and every president has sought out such “loyalists” for key positions.
Actually, Pompeo’s views on Iran are his own, formed long before Mr. Trump became a viable candidate for the presidency. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, he strongly opposed the nuclear deal. In 2014, he argued that the military option should be more than rhetoric to palliate Binyamin Netanyahu.
“In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” he stated. After being appointed to head the CIA last year, he tweeted that he looked forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Thus, his willingness to carry out the president’s foreign policy will not just be a matter of subordination, but working toward goals that he sincerely shares. No president deserves less.