Pompeo’s strange farewell tour, full of symbolism and silence
Nov 23, 2020 - 03:55 PM
WASHINGTON — What’s Donald Trump’s top diplomat to do when allies have turned the page and are waiting for Joe Biden but the president refuses to concede?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is addressing the complex predicament with a most unusual 10-day trip — a farewell tour in everything but name in which he has dodged the press but forged ahead with Trump’s norm-shattering foreign policy.
The trip opened with 54 hours in Paris in which he appeared for a total of one minute in public, when he laid a wreath in memory of victims of recent jihadist attacks in France.
Pompeo spent the full weekend in Paris accompanied by his wife, Susan, staying at the US ambassador’s residence on what was nonetheless described as private time, with a series of meetings that were not listed on his public schedule.
When Pompeo resurfaced on Monday, he paid the quick visit to the memorial before meetings with France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that were closed to the press.
It was Pompeo’s first bilateral visit to America’s oldest ally during his tenure.
France described Pompeo’s trip as a courtesy visit and said it was fully transparent with the team of Biden, whose victory has been hailed in European capitals after four years of tensions with the unilateral-minded Trump.
Diplomacy of a different sort
Pompeo headed from Paris to Istanbul at a time of high tension between France and Turkey, and agreed, in statement to the French newspaper Le Figaro, that recent actions by Ankara have been “very aggressive”.
Not that he was going to mediate. Pompeo did not meet any officials on his visit to Turkey, with the State Department blaming incompatible schedules.
Instead Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who has put a top priority on religious freedom, met with the leader of the Orthodox world, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, as well as the Vatican’s American-born envoy.
Turkey complained about Pompeo’s visit, saying the United States should address racism and other issues at home, and has already congratulated Biden, although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is bracing for a tougher relationship with the Democrat who has vowed to empower Turkey’s opposition.
As Trump made baseless allegations of voting fraud in closely fought states including Georgia, Pompeo headed on to another Georgia — the nation in the Caucasus.
Tbilisi, eager to boost relations with the United States, is going through its own internal crisis with the opposition boycotting parliament, saying October 31 elections were rigged.
Breaking taboos for Israel
Pompeo finally spoke on his fourth stop, in Jerusalem, where he pushed the Trump strategy of unstinting support for Israel and maximum pressure on Iran.
For what will likely be his final visit as the top US diplomat, he broke taboos and became the first secretary of state to visit an Israeli settlement in the West Bank — more precisely, the Psagot winery.
That enterprise had already rolled out a Pompeo wine label after he contested the international consensus that Israeli construction on occupied Palestinian land is illegal.
Pompeo also became the first secretary of state to tour the Golan Heights, whose annexation by Israel from Syria was recognised by Trump.
Ben Rhodes, a top aide to former president Barack Obama and a major critic of Pompeo, told NBC that the lame-duck secretary of state seemed focused on not just “complicating the Biden presidency but his own political interests”.
He was alluding to wide speculation that Pompeo will seek the White House in 2024, a campaign in which he will likely reach out to fellow evangelical Christians who are staunchly supportive of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the “tremendous friendship” of Pompeo but, mindful of the future, he spoke by phone with Biden on Tuesday, in what the premier’s office called a “warm” conversation.
Pompeo highlighted a signature achievement of Trump by participating in the first-ever visit to Jerusalem by the foreign minister of Bahrain, which officially established diplomatic ties with Israel last month.
He then flew to the United Arab Emirates, which has also normalised relations with the Jewish state, and is finishing his tour with stops in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo is expected to brief the Arab allies on US deliberations on whether to label the Iranian-linked Huthi rebels in war-ravaged Yemen as a “terrorist” group.
Speculation has also grown of more dramatic action against Iran, with The New York Times reporting that Trump after the election mulled a military strike over its nuclear programme, which has grown since Trump withdrew from a denuclearisation accord.
Whatever his discussions, they may remain secret for now with Pompeo looking set to go through the whole trip without taking questions from the travelling press, a silent spell with little precedent in the history of the State Department.