While all eyes are on Donald Trump and his Capitol Hill mob, a would-be heir and successor is running riot all by himself, storming citadels, wagging the flag and breaking china. No, it’s not Donald Jr, or Ivanka, or Ted Cruz, and certainly not poor, conflicted Mike Pence.
Mike Pompeo may not strike many people as presidential material. But Trump lowered the bar. Make no mistake. America’s snarly, bully-boy secretary of state is focusing not on Joe Biden’s inauguration this week but on how to beat him or any other Democrat in 2024.
Pompeo, the man who would be king, is playing political hunger games – and, looking ahead, he aims to win.
In a display of extraordinary chutzpah, Pompeo has spent the time since Trump lost the election setting booby traps and laying diplomatic minefields in global conflict zones. Partly he aims to secure his own and Trump’s “legacy”. Partly it’s to screw Biden. But mostly it’s about winning the White House.
Pompeo has upended established policies, adopted ultra-hardline positions, and claimed imaginary successes to advance his personal standing with the Trump rump. In fact, he’s trying to out-Trump Trump. Like him, he’s unscrupulous and aggressive, but here’s the difference: he’s not stupid.
That potentially makes the former Kansas Tea party congressman and CIA chief more dangerous to the Biden presidency, and the progressive cause, than a disgraced Trump may ever be. He showed his political savvy by steering clear of the impeachment fracas. Instead, Pompeo is busy setting future agendas.
Speaking in Washington last Tuesday, for example, he declared – without new evidence but drawing from a dust-heap of recycled, unproven claims – that “al-Qaida has a new home base: it is the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
The American right has been trying to make the Iran connection ever since Dick Cheney falsely fingered Saddam Hussein for 9/11. But Pompeo does not get hung up on facts. He prefers assertions, tweets and slogans. Thus, he claimed, “they [Iran and al-Qaida] are partners in terrorism, partners in hate… This axis poses a grave threat to the security of nations and to the American homeland”.
There’s no doubting where Pompeo and his re-purposed axis of evil are headed with this sort of talk. “We ignore this Iran-al-Qaida nexus at our peril,” he said. “We must confront it. Indeed, we must defeat it.” Message to Biden: when dealing with Iran, make war, not peace – or be accused of coddling terrorists.
Raw bellicosity plays well on the right, especially with Christian Zionists and evangelical born-againers, of whom Pompeo is ostentatiously proud to be one. Such voters now seek a less toxic Republican standard-bearer. His new designation of Yemen’s Tehran-supported Houthis as terrorists is yet more grist to this mill, regardless of the civilian suffering he admits it will cause.
Pompeo also arbitrarily returned Cuba to the US list of terrorist sponsors last week. Cuba accused him, reasonably enough, of “political opportunism” to obstruct improved relations under Biden. Pompeo is notably less vocal about Havana’s ally, Venezuela, where he and John Bolton risked Bay of Pigs II with failed regime change plots.
Pompeo loves baiting China, the new “evil empire”, no matter that “Wuhan virus” insults, sanctions, and sabre-rattling are plainly counter-productive. He gratuitously goaded Beijing again last week by strengthening contacts with Taiwan. Decades of delicate east Asian diplomatic balancing flew out the window.
This last-gasp diplomatic blitzkrieg does not fatally tie Biden’s hands but coupled with past policy blunders, it makes sensible policymaking more difficult. In truth, the Pompeo-Trump legacy is best defined in negatives: not achieving North Korean disarmament, wrecking the Iran nuclear deal, quitting the Paris climate accord, alienating allies, undermining the UN. In this sense, Biden just needs to act positive.
Pompeo’s last big push for a trademark achievement – persuading Saudi Arabia to join Gulf states in cutting highly-questionable “peace deals” with Israel – ran into the sand. The Trump administration leaves office with the Middle East in greater disarray than when it arrived, whether it’s Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, or the western Sahara.
Unabashed, Pompeo is zealously re-writing this record of failure as a fake narrative of success. “If Pompeo’s efforts [to promote his legacy] look comical… if they are a bloated mess of obsequious praise for Trump, empty sloganeering, and half-truths, well, they are also a fair reflection of the man himself,” wrote analyst Jeffrey Lewis.
As he not so stealthily lays the groundwork for a 2024 run, Pompeo has controversially exploited his position to deliver partisan speeches, hold exclusive dinners for wealthy backers, woo Christian groups, tour key domestic battlefields such as Iowa, get chummy with authoritarian foreign leaders – and tailor US foreign policy to his hawkishly regressive views.
His politicised machinations have not gone unnoticed. Pompeo’s professional conduct has been investigated by his own state department. He was accused of lying about the Ukraine phone call that got Trump impeached the first time. For a while, he abetted Trump’s election denialism with talk of a “second term”.
Many abroad are wary. After Pompeo, anxious to get out of Dodge during last week’s Trump showdown, invited himself to Brussels, he was roundly snubbed. EU politicians who have smarted at past insults, served up one of their own. They did not have time for him. The trip was cancelled.
Many in Europe hope finally to have seen the back of him. Fat chance. If he gets his way, Pompeo will be the next Trump. It’s an alarming prospect for America and the world.