To many, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to be detached from reality. Photo: AFP/Jacquelyn Martin

Atonement becomes an inevitable process as the decline of a superpower begins accelerating. But imperial powers find it genuinely difficult to learn to become “normal” countries. That dichotomy can cause traumatic events.

The sacking of Imperial Rome by an army of Visigoths – northern European barbarian tribesmen – led by a general named Alaric 1,610 years ago was one such event. The Suez crisis of 1956 was another. 

America’s atonement is going to be excruciatingly painful and often humiliating unless it starts straight away. Yet there are no signs of any recognition in the Beltway that the United States’ capacity to impose its will on the world community is rapidly evaporating.

Just glance through the US State Department website. The activities of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the past few days truly remind us of Nero fiddling while Rome burned: 

  • Sanctioning the Cuban commercial bank Banco Financiero International SA as its profits “disproportionately benefit the Cuban military rather than independent Cuban entrepreneurs” (January 1, 2021);
  • Penning an op-ed on China’s “opaque and threatening nuclear weapons buildup” (January 4); 
  • Sanctioning 17 companies and one individual in connection with Iran’s metals industry, whose revenues fund that country’s “destabilizing activities around the world” (January 5); 
  • Dictating to Caracas that Juan Guaidó shall remain Venezuela’s legitimate head of state notwithstanding the election of a new National Assembly (January 5); 
  • Threatening China with more sanctions and “other restrictions” unless the “democracy activists” in Hong Kong are “released immediately and unconditionally” (January 6); 
  • Condemning Hanoi’s conviction and sentencing of three journalists “in a troubling and accelerating trend of arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution,” and demanding that the journalists be “released immediately and unconditionally” along with “all those unjustly detained” and to let Vietnamese people “express their views freely, without fear of retaliation” (January 7); 
  • Designating Falih al-Fayyadh, chairman of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Commission and former national security adviser to the Iraqi prime minister, under the US legislation known as the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (January 8); 
  • Declaring null and void all limits (standing “contact guidelines”) to US relations with Taiwan (January 9); 
  • Condemning the Iranian parliament’s legislation requiring expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear inspectors unless all US sanctions are lifted (January 9). 

Pompeo is acting in a frenzy in his last days in Foggy Bottom. Probably more such missiles are on their way. Indeed, Pompeo casts the US in a false light as a blundering giant out of touch with reality. 

Political operator

Pompeo’s behavior can only complicate matters for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden. Is anyone paying heed to the damage Pompeo is still capable of causing to US interests? 

American opinion generally tends to regard him as a political operator and climber and an errand boy of the Koch brothers. This is what The Nation wrote of Pompeo in a March 2018 piece titled “The Koch Brothers Get Their Very Own Secretary of State”: 

“Pompeo has long been one of the most conflicted political figures in the conflicted city of Washington, thanks to his ties to the privately held and secretive global business empire that has played a pivotal role in advancing his political career.

Activists hold a protest near the Manhattan apartment of billionaire and Republican financier David Koch on June 5, 2014 in New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

“Pompeo came out of the same Wichita, Kansas, business community where the Koch family’s oil-and-gas conglomerate is headquartered. Indeed, Pompeo built his own company with seed money from Koch Venture Capital.” 

Some time ago, Susan Glasser at The New Yorker magazine did a fantastic profile on Pompeo after President Donald Trump picked him to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Glasser traced his amazing journey from being a self-styled progressive who turned into Tea Party activist and finally ended up as a heartland evangelist. 

Pompeo’s pattern of deference to his political benefactors has stood him in good stead with a self-absorbed president. Glasser quoted a former American ambassador as telling her “he’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” No doubt, Pompeo was among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump. 

But then every dog has its day, and with a distracted president brooding in the White House, Pompeo seems to think his day has come. He seems to be pushing a personal agenda before a target audience in America. Glasser wrote: 

“Pompeo has been more political than any other recent secretary and with the exception, perhaps, of Hillary Clinton. In some ways, he’s approached the job like a future presidential candidate, hosting Republican strategists such as Karl Rove and wealthy patrons such as the former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein at regular ‘Madison Dinners,’ named for the fifth secretary of state …

“The dinners are orchestrated by Pompeo’s wife, Susan, who travels frequently with him and whose unusual requests are now being investigated by congressional Democrats after a whistleblower complained that the couple was inappropriately using government resources and treating Pompeo’s security detail as ‘UberEats with guns.’” 

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Paekhwawon State Guesthouse in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP/KCNA VIA KNS

‘Biggest enemy’

Indeed, Pompeo’s concern for his own political image seems to shape such behavior, projecting himself as a hardcore nationalist who truly believes in the New American Century.

But Pompeo is a clever man. He has neatly sidestepped North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s directive to his officials “to develop a more advanced nuclear weapons system with multiple warheads, underwater-launched nuclear missiles, spy satellites and nuclear-powered submarines.” 

Pompeo refuses to take note of Kim’s description of the US as the DPRK’s “biggest enemy” in his address at the Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang on January 5. Certainly, he wouldn’t be party to highlighting that Trump’s biggest foreign-policy trophy, his bonhomie with Kim, was in reality another sham. 

But Pompeo tripped up by badmouthing the Communist leadership in Hanoi. He didn’t realize, perhaps, that by issuing such a vitriolic statement on an influential ASEAN country and emerging regional power, he may have only drawn attention to the collapse of his pet project to persuade Vietnam to join the Quad and US-led Indo-Pacific strategy. (Pompeo even made a visit to Hanoi in October, but, it seems, was snubbed.) 

Pompeo’s press statement of January 9 on “Iran Threatening to Expel UN Investigators” also becomes a case study. No doubt, Iran has shown strategic defiance. But it underscores, above all, that Tehran threw Pompeo’s famous Twelve Commandments (which he delivered as an ultimatum to the Iranian leadership during a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, in May 2018) straight into the dustbin. 

Interestingly, Pompeo is in no more mood to threaten Iran. Instead, he reminds Tehran that “Iran has a legal treaty obligation to allow IAEA inspector access pursuant to Iran’s NPT-required safeguards agreement. Violating those obligations would thus go beyond Iran’s past actions inconsistent with its JCPOA nuclear commitments.” 

Pompeo is urging Tehran to abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action! The wheel has come full circle.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.