White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly had placed a call with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the last leg of his African tour, 9 March, asking him to shorten his five-country mission and head back to Washington DC, and that he “may get a tweet”.
The tweet in question would come from US President Donald Trump.
The news of the ouster of Tillerson came four days later, 13 March, and the promised tweet also included the appointment of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency as Tillerson’s successor.
Tillerson would remain on the job till 31 March, while his successor needs confirmation by the United States Senate.
The change at the helm of the State Department did not come as a surprise.
Talk of finding a replacement for Tillerson had become widespread in the Beltway from the last quarter of 2017.
The reasons were multiple and ranged from the absence of personal chemistry between the president and his secretary of state, and deep differences of opinion concerning vital questions in US foreign policy.
This ranged from how to deal with North Korea, the Iranian nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 group in July 2015, and also, and not least, how to deal with the crisis of the Arab quartet and Qatar.
President Trump himself told reporters the same day the White House had announced the news that “Really it was a different mind-set, a different thinking,” speaking of Tillerson.
And true to form, he had high praise for Mike Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement.
He expressed confidence that he “is the right person for the job at this critical juncture”, and he will “continue our programme of restoring America’s standing in the world, strengthening our alliances, confronting our adversaries, and seeking the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
There are various interpretations for the decision to replace Tillerson. One pertains to framing it in a larger redirection of the Trump White House towards a multitude of international questions and crises that would put the United States in open conflict with other major powers.
In fact, the decision reflects the growing assertiveness of American foreign policy. And it would mark a clear break with the legacy of the previous US administration of former president Barack Obama, which operated in the context of building consensus with allies in dealing with major challenges to the security of the United States and NATO members — a foreign policy less confrontational in tone and practice.
We could argue that the one year that Tillerson had spent at Foggy Bottom was a transition from a foreign policy based on consensus to a confrontational and adversarial approach, not only towards enemies like Iran and North Korea, but also towards friends and allies.
Pompeo is the man best placed to carry out such a radical change in American foreign policy, whose far-reaching consequences on international peace and security are difficult to gauge at present.
This task is rendered all the more critical with rumours swirling around Washington DC that White House National Security Adviser General Herbert McMaster could also be out soon. General John Kelly assured White House staff that there won’t be any changes in personnel, but this denial could be seen as something in the offing. He, himself, could be replaced.
Pompeo is a West Point graduate, went to Harvard Law School, and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2011 in the wave of the Tea Party’s emergence in American politics.
He was adamantly opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal and had gone as far as calling for bombing Iranian nuclear sites in 2014.
At the time, he talked about a massive military strike that could take around 2,000 sorties to carry out, and that would have brought more havoc and destruction to the Middle East.
Early in 2017, he had written on Twitter that he was looking forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism”.
With 12 May as the next deadline approaching for certification or decertification of JCPOA, and the possibility that the United States will exit the deal, and with the re-imposition of American sanctions on Iran, no one knows what the recommendations of the new US secretary of state— if confirmed by the Senate — will be, but a probable direct impact on the overall security situation in the larger Middle East is on the cards.
As far as North Korea is concerned, Pompeo is on record saying that regime change in Pyongyang would be a welcome development.
Speaking before the Aspen Security Forum last July, he pointed out, in dealing with North Korea, that “the thing that is most dangerous about it, is the character [leader Kim Jong-un] who holds the control over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
” Probably, he had not foreseen back then that he could someday be the secretary of state assisting President Trump negotiating these serious questions, the answers to which will have a direct impact on international peace and security.
Under Pompeo, American foreign policy is expected to become more hawkish, more assertive and confrontational.
His nomination squares with the new National Security Strategy of last December that designated, openly, both Russia and China, as in an “adversarial” relationship with the United States.
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaking about the trio of Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense General James Mattis and General Kelly, the White House chief of staff, said that they are “those people that help separate our country from chaos”.
One of them will be gone by the end of March, General Kelly is rumoured to be replaced, and General Mattis would find himself without moderates and consensus-seekers in the decision-making process in the White House, and more particularly in the National Security Council.
Paul Pillar, a former CIA official and a foreign policy expert working for the Centre for Security Studies at Georgetown University, as quoted in The New York Times, noted that there will be “many issues… in which the balance between a hard line and a more moderate view are finely balanced”.
The probability is that under the stewardship of Pompeo, moderation would not characterise American foreign policy, neither in the Middle East, nor in Northeast Asia.
Let us fasten our seat belts for the bumpy road ahead.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly