EIGHT years ago Mike Pompeo was a 47-year-old greenhorn congressional candidate in Wichita, Kansas, with a modest business career and unremarkable limited-government views. He was best known for being the biggest recipient of campaign donations from Wichita’s largest private-sector employer, Koch Industries. No one, save possibly that company’s conservative mega-donor owners, marked him out for greatness. Yet with the Senate’s blessing, which is likely to be forthcoming, Mr Pompeo will shortly be the first person to have occupied the offices of both CIA director and secretary of state.
His rise is yet another illustration of how Donald Trump has turned the old order on its head. Because the president knew few Republican policy experts at the time of his election, and was despised by most of them, he turned to soldiers, businessmen and politicians to fill his senior positions. Gratifyingly for Mr Trump, who has a mixed view of politicians and admires real-world achievement, Mr Pompeo, one of four members of the House of Representatives thus favoured, was all of the above. Before his business career he graduated top of his class at West Point and served five years in a cavalry unit; he retains an air of the bullish straightforwardness military high-achievers exude. Mr Trump was allegedly sold the moment Mr Pompeo, a well-built man like the president, came barrelling into his office. Yet he left the army almost 30 years ago and his soldierly carriage is misleading.
Having suffered the defeat of many clever plans, experienced officers moderate their youthful swagger with caution, inscrutability even. James Mattis, the defence secretary, is more a cerebral student of history than the “Mad Dog” Mr Trump thought he had hired. Mr Pompeo’s bullishness, by contrast, is amplified by a politician’s ideological certainty and eagerness to score partisan points. Though accomplished for a House member, he was most notable for his nakedly partisan and, as it turned out, baseless effort to pin the blame for a terrorist attack six years ago in Benghazi, in Libya, on Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state. That was even more delightful to Mr Trump, who allegedly passed over another Republican congressman, Mike Rogers, for the CIA job because he had acknowledged that Mrs Clinton was not to blame.
Mr Pompeo’s blend of establishment smarts and aggressive partisanship explains his success in Mr Trump’s administration. The president has found its apolitical members, such as Rex Tillerson, the outgoing secretary of state, disappointingly unenthused by his ideas. (Of this group, only Mr Mattis has had sufficient heft to stave off the president’s hunger for validation.) By contrast, ideologues such as Mick Mulvaney and Tom Price, the budget director and former health secretary, have been willing servants of the president’s agenda, but too inflexible to be effective managers. Mr Pompeo grasped that his tasks were to please his department and the president, and he has succeeded at both.
Unlike Mr Tillerson, he arrived at his agency with a small entourage, appointed a careerist as his deputy, gained a reputation for listening to colleagues, and has talked up the CIA’s operational effort relentlessly. The agency’s business, he says with grim theatricality, is “to steal secrets to protect America”. On occasion he has defied the administration in defence of his department. He opposed shifting America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, on the basis that the resulting upheaval would endanger its officers and agents. Yet he has at the same time set out—more than any recent spy chief—to curry favour with the president and trumpet his policies. He gives the presidential intelligence briefing most days, and often remains at the White House to discuss whatever Mr Trump has on his mind. Foreign-policy experts suspect this chumminess is a ploy. “No one is loyal to Trump—he is too indecent a human being,” speculated Eliot Cohen, a conservative pundit and no fan of Mr Trump, on Mr Pompeo’s feelings for his boss. Yet they underrate, as Mr Trump never has, the power of tribal allegiance to alter hearts and minds.
Mr Pompeo illustrates how partisanship has made the Republican establishment, in which he has a foot, rally to a rule-breaking president. On Benghazi and in his recent efforts to downplay the CIA’s analysis of Russian electoral meddling, he has shown a serial willingness to substitute partisan myth for reality.
Pompeo and circumstance
His world view is similarly prone to the sorts of distortion that extreme partisanship has fuelled, on the right especially. Unlike the more mercurial president, to be sure, Mr Pompeo seems in many ways a reliable foreign-policy realist: pessimistic about alliances and supportive of free trade, albeit with a hawkish enthusiasm for using military power. He has advocated a tougher line against Russian expansionism, in Ukraine and Syria, than Mr Trump has. He sounds as admiring of China’s strongman leader, Xi Jinping, as the president does. He appears deeply sceptical that North Korea’s rogue regime is open to negotiation. Yet he also holds some of the irrational views that made his party so vulnerable to Mr Trump’s confabulations and conspiracy theories.
His hostility to Iran’s theocratic regime is understandable, but laced with exaggeration. He has claimed, without evidence, that Iran is in cahoots with Islamic State and al-Qaeda. He is openly Islamophobic. He once questioned American Muslims’ loyalty and “commitment to peace”. He dismisses climate science as a fraud. His establishment nous notwithstanding, Mr Pompeo is not playing Mr Trump so much as finding common cause with him. He is where traditional realism meets America First.
This explains his effectiveness, which America’s diplomats, craving relevance after the ravages of Mr Tillerson’s tenure, will be glad of. But they may not like his usage of them. Mr Tillerson, for all his failures, sought to provide a moderate counterweight to Mr Trump’s impulsive and irrational views. There is a danger that Mr Pompeo will reinforce them.