Pompeo, the not ideal, not unqualified diplomat

Our view: Full Senate should approve Mike Pompeo as secretary of state despite his hawkish outlook

After more than two centuries, the list of cabinet nominees to be either rejected by the U.S. Senate or withdrawn from nomination is on the order of once per decade. Many of those who failed to make it into office had a brush with allegations of criminality — including President Donald Trump’s onetime Labor secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name from consideration early last year after charges of wage theft, sexual harassment and spousal abuse came to light. By tradition, the Senate does not reject a nominee because a majority disagrees with that individual politically or on specific policy grounds; the decision focuses more on qualifications and ability to do the job.Late Monday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unexpectedly voted in favor of nomination of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, averting what had appeared al likely violation of that past practice thanks to a last-minute change of heart by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. That was the right, if painful, decision. Much as we believe many of the criticisms of the former CIA director are justified — primarily that he is too hawkish for a president who already seems to veer alarmingly toward the hawkish side himself —they do not rise to disqualification. In essence, opponents are using the nomination to attack President Trump’s own inexperience and “my generals” militarism.

We understand the fear expressed succinctly by Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons’ complaint that Mr. Pompeo would embolden President Trump's “most belligerent and dangerous instincts." President Trump has shown little talent for diplomacy — and little faith in his diplomatic corps. His tendencies to harshly criticize the nation’s closest allies and overlook the unacceptable behavior of strongmen like Vladimir Putin or Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte while foolishly backing out of international agreements over trade and climate have earned him a reputation as an erratic egotist who must be showered with praise and shepherded by White House staff. But that’s a peculiar standard — akin to rejecting William Henry Seward because his antislavery positions might push the more moderate Abraham Lincoln into war.

Even by that yardstick, Mr. Pompeo’s selection passes muster. During his conformation hearing, he pledged to “fix” the Iran nuclear agreement, a tepid level of support for an important diplomatic achievement, perhaps, but better than where Mr. Trump has been in the past. It’s also apparent that Mr. Pompeo has the full confidence of Mr. Trump, which his predecessor, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, clearly did not. Mr. Pompeo’s tenure as director of the Central Intelligence Agency has generally been viewed as a success.

Is Mr. Pompeo the best possible choice or even a good one? No. But the Senate is simply not going to see Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall or even Madeleine Albright returning to work at Foggy Bottom under a Trump administration. Mr. Pompeo’s views don’t particularly clash with those of Mr. Trump, whom voters elected to office less than two years ago. The list of subjects on which both men are wrong is a long one. But again, that should not be the standard in this decision.

This is one case where White House complaints about the Democrats playing politics may well be justified. With primary election season closing in fast, Democrats aren’t interested in disappointing their progressive wing. Even those in the Senate who aren’t facing re-election this year can’t ignore the opportunities the party faces this fall to recapture the House and perhaps even regain a majority in the Senate. Plus, the vote appears to have modest lasting consequence. With last week’s announcement that North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, will support the nominee on the Senate floor — as will Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (Indiana) and and Joe Manchin (West Virginia) who announced their support Monday — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has the votes he needs to get Mr. Pompeo’s approval later this week.

A secretary of state who wins Senate approval by one or two votes has the same power and authority as one who wins with the support of 14 Democrats (which Mr. Pompeo got when he was made CIA director). This makes the exercise more a lesson in stagecraft, which, by the way, is also true of diplomacy. Mr. Pompeo ought to remember that if he finds himself in North Korea-U.S. nuclear talks and Kim Jong-Un offers a “grand deal” that isn’t all that grand and a hawkish policy team (including Baltimore’s own John Bolton) has to explain to a disappointed American electorate why military de-escalation on the peninsula isn’t such a good idea after all.

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