Pompeo tries to unite the West while dividing Washington
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the midst of a major foreign trip, visiting multiple continents to make a pitch for Western unity against foes including China and Iran. It’s the second recent trip of this type for the former congressman from Kansas often accused of playing politics rather than advocating abroad.
But the early reviews are in, and they are not encouraging. At the Munich Security Conference, Pompeo’s speech about how the West was “winning” highlighted the stark difference between the braggadocio of the United States and the unease of Europe. A subsequent three-stop visit to Africa, which ended on Wednesday, brought no solace to those who argue that the Trump administration’s Africa policy is an afterthought.
On Wednesday, Pompeo criticized China for expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters, suggesting that “mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions,” but he was mocked for a lack of self-awareness given his own treatment of journalists. And though he will end his travels with the more comforting hosts Saudi Arabia and Oman, there are signs of rough water in the Persian Gulf, too.
2 weeks ago, Pompeo's State Department falsely claimed NPR hadn't been up-front about topics for an interview.Then the State Department barred an NPR reporter from an overseas trip, with Pompeo saying the move sent the "perfect message about press freedoms."
Pompeo’s pitch to U.S. allies appears to be falling on deaf ears. The problem is easy to spot: America’s top diplomat may speak of uniting the West, but his language speaks of the divide in Washington.
The disconnect between Pompeo’s rhetoric and its audience was on full display in Munich. The annual conference in Germany is supposed to promote transatlantic ties but also reckon with its weaknesses. This year the organizers spoke of the theme of “Westlessness” — the idea that Europeans and Americans were ceding global influence.
Pompeo disagreed. He suggested that Europe’s pessimism about the Trump administration’s foreign policy was wrong. “I am here this morning to tell you the facts,” he said before launching into a blistering celebration of American leadership. He reminded the audience that he had visited Germany three times in the past month and asked: “Is this an America that rejects responsibility?”
The speech was met with silence. Politico’s Matthew Karnischnig wrote that “a consensus formed among the Germans and French that Pompeo’s audience wasn’t the Europeans in the room, but Donald Trump.” One anonymous European official complained to The Washington Post: “I think I heard the words ‘we’re defending sovereignty’ 13 times, and you wonder what that means."
As he headed on to Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia, Pompeo received a similar reception. He urged African nations to look past China, the continent’s biggest trading partner for more than a decade, and instead turn toward the United States.
However, the secretary of state had little to offer that could dispel the president’s dismissive attitude to the continent. “The lack of a big-ticket announcement also seemed to underline how the Trump administration has shifted the U.S. government’s Africa policy toward the rhetorical as opposed to the tangible,” The Post’s Max Bearak noted.
During his time in Africa, Pompeo made misleading statements. Speaking in Angola, he seemed to suggest that the United States hired local workers for projects when other nations — unnamed, but surely China — did not. But a recent study found that more than 70 percent of workers in Chinese-run construction and manufacturing projects were Angolan.
Rex Tillerson went to Africa to smooth over relations after Trump called them "shithole countries."Now Mike Pompeo is doing his obligatory Africa tour days after Trump banned immigrants from 4 African countries — Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Eritrea.
Unfortunately for Pompeo, such actions may speak louder than words. Pompeo and predecessor Rex Tillerson have visited fewer than 10 African states since 2017, the New York Times noted. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited almost two dozen in four years. The Trump administration has cut aid to the continent and expanded a travel ban that now affects about a quarter of the 1.2 billion people in Africa.
Pompeo may brag about his time spent in Europe, but there is no evidence those visits have resulted in mutual understanding. Trump has ignored Europe’s advice on big issues such as the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. It’s not surprising that Europe does the same back: Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Trump administration’s closest Western European ally, bucked U.S. orders on the Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Pompeo has pledged to bring up human rights in Saudi Arabia, his next stop. But it remains to be seen whether his words will do anything for Walid Fitaihi, a U.S. citizen allegedly tortured during Saudi detention. As The Post’s editorial board noted this week, U.S. attempts to press the Saudis on human rights have turned into a “never-ending process” by their own admission.
There’s certainly evidence that U.S. allies are indeed worried about the rise of China and threats from Iran. But the Trump administration seems to be unable to speak their language.
Pompeo, who was deeply embroiled in the impeachment proceedings and has barely concealed political aspirations of his own, may have other things on his mind: The Tampa Bay Times reported Wednesday that he made an unannounced and unexplained stop in late January to the doorstep of one of the wealthiest Republican donors in Central Florida.