Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s legacy will be that he was perhaps the only Secretary of State to upset the majority of State Department personnel while simultaneously rebelling against the President on most issues.
He operated with Trump’s resentment for career civil servants, and the civil service’s resentment for Trump’s foreign policy. This unhappy contradiction had eased European governments’ otherwise strained relations with Trump’s America.
His successor, Mike Pompeo, is likely to care less about the Department’s internal workings and is certain to impose policy preferences and attitudes that the President shares. Thus, for the first time, foreign governments – especially European ones – will be forced to deal with the consequences of the 2016 U.S elections.
European governments are presently trying to formulate proposals for expanding economic sanctions on Iran. They plan not so much to constrain Tehran as to persuade the Trump administration not to renounce President Obama’s 2015 “Iran deal,” which has begun to cultivate profitable trade relations between Europe and the Islamic Republic. In short, these discussions are about finding the minimum that Europe can do to discomfit Iran enough for Trump to avoid withdrawing from the deal completely.
So long as Tillerson remained in office, European governments could have counted on his advocacy for a softer and more symbolic stance, with the full compliance of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Tillerson favored staying in the Iran deal, as does much of the U.S foreign policy establishment. But Pompeo, like Trump, has always opposed it.
Now Trump is replacing McMaster with John Bolton, who is not in awe of the national security bureaucracies and whose opposition to the Iran deal is stronger even than Pompeo’s. The Europeans’ proposed sanctions will have to move much closer to abrogating the “Iran deal” if they want to preserve any part of it. The Iranians and some Europeans believed that they could preserve the deal even if the US pulled out, because there would have been enough support in the White House to prevent American sanctions against European firms that continued to do business in Iran.
Because that is now out of the question, the Europeans will have to exit the deal if the US does.
Iran would be left with the choice between scaling back its hugely effective but deeply destabilizing foreign policy in the region, or triggering a nuclear arms race that is in no one’s interests. Europeans would do well to spend their energies making sure Tehran chooses the former. It is, after all, the expansionist, zero-sum game adventurism that Pompeo, Trump and their regional allies are most intent on reining in. If Europe can somehow deliver that for Washington then it really would be a win-win.
By the same token, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Washington, America’s foreign policy establishment is concerned about the impending collapse of US relations with Qatar and Turkey. There is not much patience or affection for either country on Capitol Hill these days, with the record that both have of supporting extremist groups and American enemies in the Middle East. Lawmakers and analysts are still concerned about the risks of isolating either country further, which may just push them closer to Iran and increase regional instability.
Tillerson and McMaster had effectively reversed Trump’s declared support for the Saudi-Emirati position on this basis. Pompeo, by contrast, has been arguing internally for a tougher line against these “frenemies.” Qatar has responded with panic to his appointment by quickly releasing a list of designated Qatari terrorists which carries many of the same names that they rejected when presented with them at the outset of the boycott last year. The contrition is designed to appease the new Secretary of State, but it significantly undermines Doha’s claim to be innocent of the charges against it.
Pompeo is a forceful advocate of American prestige and power. He will not accept any subversion of US interests by supposed allies. This matches well with Trump and with the American public’s sentiments.
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Nevertheless, it is too easy to overrate this partnership. Trump was elected having voiced heartfelt chagrin at the endless wars that the U.S. government has waged around the globe inconclusively, for purposes not-so-reasonably related to America’s interest. He had singled out U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as egregious in this regard.
But in July 2017, the national security bureaucracies, speaking through his cabinet and McMaster, convinced Trump to confess that he had erred on Afghanistan and would continue with the policies he had campaigned so virulently against. As some of his support fell away, leading him to reconsider his basic political position, he concluded that his advisers had served him poorly.
Mike Pompeo, as CIA Director, was among those who led Trump to this humiliation and political wound. It is a loss that continues to rankle. John Bolton has written extensively that America must act on its own interests unilaterally if need be, neither involving itself nor staying its hand at allies’ behest. This might bridge the gap that opened between the foreign policy on which Trump was elected and that of President Trump’s first year.
Angelo Codevilla is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Boston University