Donald Trump says he and his pick to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, “have a very similar thought process,” but what they seem to have most in common is a code of conduct for dealing with adversaries. Trump, drawing on the lessons he learned from his former lawyer Roy Cohn, often describes himself as a “counterpuncher.” And the same could be said for Pompeo in his approach to international affairs.
“When someone punches you in the nose you can’t walk away. They may punch you in the nose again,” then-Congressman Pompeo noted in 2013, explaining why he wanted to maintain a modest U.S. military presence in the Middle East even though he saw wisdom in Barack Obama’s troop drawdown in Afghanistan. “If they bring the fight to you, you have to continue to do battle with” them. “And we still have radical Islamic terrorists who want to kill us here in America.”
Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas who rode the Tea Party wave to Congress in 2010, has been described as in sync with Trump’s view of the world. And to a considerable extent that’s true. As CIA director, he has loyally defended the president’s policies and cultivated a close personal relationship with Trump by taking part in his intelligence briefings at the White House. Before joining the administration, Pompeo shared Trump’s disdain for the Iran nuclear deal, determination to wage no-holds-barred war against jihadist terrorism, and disgust with lax immigration and refugee policies.
But Pompeo’s counterpunching instincts have also placed him at odds with Trump on certain issues—most significantly U.S. relations with Russia. Trump has, against his nature, pulled punch after punch after punch when it comes to Vladimir Putin’s provocations against the United States and aggression in places like Ukraine and Syria. Not Pompeo, who patrolled along the Iron Curtain as an Army cavalry officer at the tail end of the Cold War. “We need to continue to push back against the Russians everywhere we find them,” he said earlier this year.
“What was the penalty to Vladimir Putin for taking one-fifth of a European nation?” Pompeo asked during a speech in Wichita just days before the 2016 election, in reference to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. The Obama administration “passed some sanctions. Anybody think that that’s sufficient? … There will be those who say ‘It’s not our problem: Ukraine shmukraine. My children can’t find it on a map.’ Let me assure you that the reordering of Europe is first among the agendas for Vladimir Putin. And that, I have to tell you, is not good for the people of Kansas.”
“I know what our presidential candidate has said. Let me assure you: The attacks on our political system are in fact coming from Vladimir Putin. I have seen the intelligence,” Pompeo continued, in reference to Trump’s denials on the campaign trail of Russian interference in the U.S. election. “This is Vladimir Putin trying to make America look like a third-world country.” (Since he started working for Trump, Pompeo has downplayed these attacks as routine Russian misbehavior; last fall he claimed the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that Russian meddling hadn’t affected the outcome of the presidential race, when it in fact had made no such assessment.)
Pompeo tends to calibrate his punches based on the nature of the adversary; at times he comes across as something of a low-budget hawk. In discussing how to counter Russia in his Wichita speech, for example, he proposed non-military retaliation such as denying Russians tourist and student visas, providing Ukraine with lethal and non-lethal assistance, and selling Ukraine U.S. natural gas and crude oil so it would be less dependent on Russian energy sources.
In other cases, however, he’s advocated more forceful responses. He once floated the idea of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, and his primary argument against the nuclear agreement that the United States brokered in 2015 with Iran and other world powers was that it left the Iranians staggering but still swinging rather than down for the count. The expiration dates for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities only temporarily bar Iran from producing nuclear weapons, he asserted, and the economic relief offered in exchange for those restrictions is helping Iran finance terrorism and extend its influence across Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. The Obama administration failed to take “advantage of crushing economic sanctions to end Iran’s nuclear program,” he declared when the deal was struck. “That’s not foreign policy; it’s surrender.”
Where Pompeo has called for the most decisive knockout blow is in the fight against terrorism. While he was in Congress, in order to help deliver that blow, Pompeo allied with anti-Muslim activists, introduced legislation to revive mass-surveillance programs, and endorsed expansive U.S. military involvement in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “is a tool of Iran and so to the extent we’re not prepared to push back on Iran in the form of Assad we’re making mistakes,” Pompeo said on a radio show in 2015, when the civil war was raging and ISIS was at the height of its power. “It’s not just ISIS either: al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda. These are all the same two sides of the terror coin and we got to go crush them all.”
Tellingly, however, Pompeo argued for American intervention in Syria not to bring democracy to the country, nor to ease the humanitarian crisis, but essentially to punch back lest Americans be punched again. “What starts in Damascus doesn’t stay in Damascus, as much as I might wish that it were so,” Pompeo told his constituents in Wichita in 2016, lamenting how the Syrian conflict had bred terrorism and migration flows that were “reshaping” Europe and beyond. “The idea somehow that America can just withdraw—the line says ‘we’ll just let them all kill each other’—simply won’t protect us here in Kansas.” It was an America-First case for engagement abroad.
At the CIA, Pompeo’s role was to continue punching back: with drones against terrorists, with covert campaigns against North Korea, with condemnations of WikiLeaks for acting like a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” And given the nature of American diplomacy with countries like Russia and North Korea, that experience may serve him well. But Pompeo’s record on foreign policy reveals less about how he’ll handle the other key role of the State Department he will lead: extending a hand.