Mike Pompeo. Photo: AFP

When President Donald Trump decided to strike at Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles back in April 2017, a photo circulated of him meeting with his top advisers at his estate in Mar-a- Lago. Mike
Pompeo, the CIA director, was not in the picture — nor, seemingly,
in the room.

At the time a story circulated saying that Pompeo had advised against such military action, saying that it would neither deter the Syrians nor stop their violence, and that it would only aggravate an already complex Syrian conflict. As a result of these views, it is believed he was kept out of the meeting by Trump himself, who doesn’t like being told that he is wrong.

Previous US administrations have often insisted on the presence of CIA directors when something strategic is being said or done. In 2003, George Tenet stood behind Colin Powell as he made his WMD accusations against Iraq, ostensibly lending credibility to the dubious claims. And in 2011, Leon Panetta was on the conference screen with Barak Obama as they waited for the results of a raid that eliminated Osama Bin Laden.

If the story of Pompeo’s sidelining during Trump’s first overseas military intervention is accurate, it seems the former has learned his lesson and decided against crossing his boss again. Rex Tillerson, who was in the room with President Trump and who had said “no” to the Syria strike, did not learn his lesson. He was fired as secretary of state last week, this time over Iran, among other things, rather than Syria.

Trump and Tillerson did not know each other prior to the 2016 presidential election and reportedly the chemistry between them was poor. Tillerson was haughty, stubborn, and less compliant than other
members of the Trump team. He once even called him a “moron.”

Pompeo’s nomination has raised hackles in Tehran but triggered less concern in Moscow and Damascus

Pompeo, however, seems to get along well with President Trump. He treats him as boss — not as political equal — and certainly doesn’t think that he is smarter than the president. Over the past 14 months, he has met with Trump at least once a day for about 40 minutes, gaining the president’s trust and respect.

His nomination as Trump’s new secretary of state has raised hackles in Tehran, where he is expected to nix the 2015 Nuclear Deal, but triggered less concern in Moscow and Damascus. Russian officials seem somewhat assured that the former CIA director — despite his hawkish reputation — will choose not to pick a fight with them over Syria. This explains why Russian and Syrian state media have been relatively muted in their response to his nomination.

Being a declared Trump loyalist and protégé, Pompeo will take his foreign policy cues from his boss, rather than peddle independent views that contradict with those of the White House. That, after all, is what destroyed Tillerson, who disagreed with Trump about a basket of issues, including withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and recognizing  Jerusalem as the “eternal capital” of Israel.

Trump’s Syria agenda is strikingly different from Obama’s. Far from being interested in regime change, he has only three objectives, the first being the total annihilation of Islamic State. Secondly, he wants to empower and reward the Kurds, seen as vital allies in the on-going war on terror, with territory and influence in cities and towns east of the Euphrates River.

Thirdly, he is bent on clipping the wings of Iran and Hezbollah, and on ejecting them from the Syrian battlefield.When Trump took sides with Saudi Arabia over its spat with Qatar last summer, Tillerson tried to act as an honest broker, standing at arm’s length from both Gulf countries. The kiss of death, of course, was his insistence that, in the interests of US security, the Iran Deal must not be aborted. Trump famously believes it to be the “worst” deal in history.

More than confronting the Russians, Pompeo would rather have them on his side

Pompeo’s firmest statement on Syria was delivered in an interview at the Aspen Institute back in January 2017, when he said: “It is difficult to imagine a stable Syria that still has Assad in power.” He added that it is “unlikely” that American interests will be “well served” if the Syrian president remains in power – but he made no commitment on removing the latter. One year later, when asked whether the Russians had been trying to undermine US elections, he said: “Yes sir, have been for decades.” Speaking on CBS’ Face the Nation, he added: “We have many foes who want to undermine Western democracy.”

This is tough talk, no doubt — but the Russians have heard it all before from previous CIA directors. And while words are one thing, taking serious action that could backfire is another – which Pompeo knows only too well. More than confronting the Russians, he would rather have them on his side, moderating Iranian behavior if the Nuclear Deal is sunk, or perhaps leaning on them to control Iranian behavior in Syria.

Trump has promised to walk out on the deal by May, unless his European allies “fix it,” which seems highly unlikely. Pompeo, if approved by the Senate, would certainly support the president in withdrawing from the deal. If that happens, it would cause hardliners in Iran to return to uranium enrichment, prompting Israel to strike — either directly at Iran, or at its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. Iran would also try to unleash its own proxy war against Israel, and possibly against the US and its allies, through the Syrian battlefield. Pompeo needs friends to confront Iran, not more enemies.

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