Regardless of character, regimes have tended to show their wilier face to the world. Mao Zedong had Zhou Enlai, Ronald Reagan had George Shultz, Margaret Thatcher had Lord Peter Carrington. That is diplomacy — using persuasion to achieve what would be far costlier by war.
Mike Pompeo is an exception. Donald Trump’s secretary of state does not finesse his boss’s instincts. He talks through megaphones at Americans. The world is not there to be persuaded. It is a backdrop to Mr Pompeo’s domestic messaging. Foreigners, as a result, have stopped taking him seriously.
That is a pity because Mr Pompeo fulfils one crucial qualification to be an effective diplomat: the trust of his leader. Mr Pompeo could be the great Trumpian explainer, the approachable face of America First.
Instead he has picked the role of Baghdad Bob, Saddam Hussein’s spokesman, who exaggerated his leader’s instincts. Such mimicry extends to Mr Pompeo’s management. Last week Mr Trump fired the state department’s inspector-general — its supposedly independent watchdog — at Mr Pompeo’s behest.
Mr Trump conceded he had never heard Steve Linick’s name. He did not question Mr Pompeo’s motive. Mr Linick’s investigations posed a threat to Mr Pompeo. In addition to his use of staff for trivial errands, such as picking up dry cleaning, Mr Pompeo had allegedly faked an emergency order to circumvent a block on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Instead of facing the music, Mr Pompeo asked Mr Trump to shut it down. That is how Mr Trump operates. Mr Linick is the fifth inspector-general to be sacked in the past two months. “Someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner,” was how Mr Pompeo mocked the uproar. That is the language of impunity.
On top of loyalty, Mr Pompeo is driven by two compulsions. The first is a burning ambition to succeed Mr Trump. That means never being on the wrong side of the president. If Mr Trump says one thing before breakfast and the opposite afterwards, Mr Pompeo keeps step. Few others have proven so adept.
As a result, Mr Pompeo has amassed unusual power. He dominates Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, and Mark Esper, the US defence secretary. Not since Henry Kissinger has America’s chief diplomat wielded such influence. Unlike Nixon’s consigliere, who was an inexhaustible originator of ideas, Mr Pompeo is his master’s voice. Trying to keep up with Mr Trump may explain Mr Pompeo’s short fuse. When his actions are questioned, Mr Pompeo lashes out.
His second motive is loftier: to serve God. Many US politicians pay lip service to Christianity. Mr Pompeo is sincere. He served as a deacon and lay preacher in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Among its tenets are a belief in “end times”, that the world will conclude in the rapture of Christ’s second coming once prophecies have been fulfilled. Among these are the return of all Jews to the original Holy Land.
Since Mr Trump needs a high evangelical turnout in November to win a second term, Mr Pompeo’s beliefs align with his president’s goals. Unlike Mr Trump, Mr Pompeo’s theology is not for show. “Pompeo talks about God a lot,” says a former senior national security staffer. “Sometimes he does so in a self-deprecating way. But God is never far from his mind.”
The only trip Mr Pompeo has taken since the start of the US coronavirus lockdown was to Israel last week for a photo-op. Mr Pompeo had already abandoned decades of policy by shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem and giving the green light to Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. “I am confident the Lord is at work here,” Mr Pompeo said on an earlier visit. He meant it.
Mr Pompeo also means what he says about China, which he calls “Communist China”. This now includes openly stoking Taiwanese independence. That may be good politics but it is not diplomacy.
Mr Trump puts all the blame on China for America’s pandemic toll and depicts Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presidential candidate, as its lackey. “A vote for Joe Biden is a vote for China”, said one pro-Trump advertisement.
China’s official media calls Mr Pompeo a “superspreader” of the “political virus”. Such bluster should be easy for the world’s leading diplomat to dismiss. But Mr Pompeo has robbed himself of standing. America and China now daily hurl conspiracy theories at each other. The rest of us inch uncomfortably close to the rapture.
Coronavirus business update
How is coronavirus taking its toll on markets, business, and our everyday lives and workplaces? Stay briefed with our coronavirus newsletter.