Confident Pompeo due in Israel on Middle East diplomatic debut
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Confident Pompeo due in Israel on Middle East diplomatic debut

New US secretary of state heads to Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Amman on trip to meet with ‘key allies’ in the region

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo gives a press conference during a NATO Foreign ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 27, 2018. (AFP/ JOHN THYS)
US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo gives a press conference during a NATO Foreign ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 27, 2018. (AFP/ JOHN THYS)

Washington’s newly appointed secretary of state set off on a tour of America’s key Middle East allies on Saturday, vowing to bring some “swagger” back to US diplomacy.

After attending NATO talks in Brussels, Mike Pompeo was to embark on a three-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Jordan to update “key allies and partners in the region,” as referenced by State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, on President Donald Trump’s plans for the Iran nuclear deal. Pompeo is set to return to the US on April 30.

Pompeo insists his boss has not yet made the decision, but Trump is widely expected to pull the United States out of the accord next month, re-imposing sanctions against Tehran’s nuclear program.

The former CIA chief, who was sworn in as Trump’s top diplomat on Thursday and set off within two hours for Brussels, will consult with leaders of Iran’s main regional opponents ahead of the announcement.

But he also has a second more personal mission, to show foreign capitals and his own colleagues that US diplomacy is back on track after the troubled reign of his sacked predecessor Rex Tillerson.

Trump’s first secretary of state, a former oil executive, failed to fill senior positions, embarked on unpopular bureaucratic reforms, and had conspicuously little chemistry with the president.

Pompeo — a former army officer, businessman, and conservative congressman — wanted to set off on the road immediately on being sworn in, in order to reach out to NATO and Middle East allies.

The former Kansas politician is seen as an anti-Iran hawk with hardline views about projecting US military might.

In Saudi Arabia on Saturday, Pompeo is due to hold talks with his counterpart Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, before having dinner with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The prince, or MBS as he is commonly known, is the kingdom’s de facto ruler and a would-be social reformer who launched an anti-corruption drive to secure his own control over the oil-rich royal elite.

Like Trump and Pompeo, he is a tough opponent of Iran, but his war against the Tehran-backed Huthi militia in Yemen is stumbling and has contributed to the country’s large-scale humanitarian disaster.

Trump also wants Riyadh to do more and spend more to support the US-led operation in Syria to defeat the Islamic State group and allow American forces to come home more quickly.

Promises diplomacy, ‘swagger’

Where Tillerson was seen as a voice for moderation in the Trump administration, Pompeo is viewed as a hawk who could combine with new White House National Security Adviser John Bolton to back Trump’s aggressive posturing on the world stage.

Democrats challenged Pompeo on his hawkish views in a confirmation hearing earlier this month.

Pompeo, who Trump hailed as an “incredible asset for our country at this critical time in history,” was accused by Democrats as being too bellicose, and of harboring anti-Muslim and homophobic sentiments.

But after barely getting the nomination past the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was easily confirmed by the entire body in a vote of 57-42, with a handful of Democratic senators facing tough reelection battles voting in favor.

Despite his conservative religious background, he also insisted his record at the CIA was one of openness toward Muslim and gay and lesbian employees, though a number of Democrats said he was not convincing.

“He will always put the interests of America first,” Trump said. “He has my trust. He has my support.”

Pompeo has insisted his focus will be on diplomatic solutions to problems, while pledging to bring “swagger once again” to the State Department.

He promised to address State Department staff in Washington on his return on Tuesday, and was full of praise for the staff who scrambled to put together his first foreign itinerary.

“I just met with a great group of State Department officers who work here at the mission. They may have been demoralized, but they seemed in good spirits,” he said Friday, at NATO headquarters.

“They are hopeful that the State Department will get its swagger back, that we will be out doing the things that they came onboard at the State Department to do,” he promised.

“To be professional, to deliver diplomacy — American diplomacy — around the world, that’s my mission set, to build that esprit and get the team on the field so that we can effectuate American diplomacy.”

Secret North Korea trip

A veteran who graduated first in his class at the elite US Military Academy at West Point, and later earned a law degree from Harvard, the 54-year-old served four terms as a Republican congressman from Kansas before Trump tapped him to head the Central Intelligence Agency last year.

There, he promised a more “vicious” intelligence operation, making unapologetically menacing statements toward North Korea and Iran.

He also earned Trump’s ear in regular intelligence briefings at the White House, accommodating Trump’s desire for simplified, visual presentations rather than detailed texts on the world’s security dangers.

Behind the scenes, he made numerous trips abroad to meet foreign political and security leaders, especially in the Middle East. He also took the lead in creating a dialogue with North Korea as Pyongyang demonstrated its theoretical ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

In late March, Pompeo secretly traveled to Pyongyang, where he met with Kim to discuss what could become a historic summit between the two countries possibly as early as in May.

“He’s the perfect person to come in at this time and lead those efforts diplomatically,” Republican Senator Bob Corker said ahead of the vote.

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