Mike Pompeo has his work cut out for him

A combination photo of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Editor's note:

It is too bad to see Rex Tillerson fired after just over a year of leading the State Department, writes Michael O’Hanlon. Now, incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s job will be to help refine President Trump’s thinking on foreign policy, especially on how to meet the challenges posed by countries such as Russia and China. This piece originally appeared in USA Today.

President Trump’s decision to ask the Senate to confirm CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the new secretary of State, replacing Rex Tillerson, is unsurprising. Rumors to this effect have been floating around for months. But it is still an important moment to take stock of where we are in U.S. foreign policy, as Pompeo prepares to take the reins at a crucial moment in world affairs.

First, a word of appreciation for Tillerson. It is too bad to see a good man forced to leave office after just over a year on the job. Such a short tenure is not usually associated with success. Other individuals who have lasted only a year or so in top administration jobs—such as President Clinton’s first head of the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, or CIA Director Porter Goss in President George W. Bush’s administration, or President Reagan’s first few national security advisers—usually recede fairly quickly in the annals of history. Tillerson deserves credit, however. He displayed good judgment on a number of key issues such as Iran and North Korea, projected steadiness in handling various crises around the world, was level-headed about how to deal with great powers like Russia and China, and forged a good working relationship with other members of the Trump team like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (if not necessarily with Trump himself).

Tillerson was less impressive in his thinking about how to reorganize the State Department, and his willingness to accept 29 percent cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid funding along the way. Such deep slashing to core budgets is not compatible with meaningful reform. Many top U.S. diplomats were voting with their feet and resigning in protest. This part of Tillerson’s legacy is unfortunate. Luckily, Congress has prevented such draconian cuts in what are already quite modest budgets, together less than 10 percent of the Pentagon’s. But on balance, Tillerson served nobly, and the nation should wish him well.

Pompeo will have to be careful to retain, and build upon, what Tillerson got right. By all accounts, Pompeo is smart and has a good relationship with Trump. But as CIA director, he had the luxury of criticizing policy without necessarily having to produce better ideas himself. It is easy to say the Iran nuclear deal could have been better—which it could have been—until you are responsible for devising an alternative. It is easy to think that we should simply “solve” the North Korea problem until you realize that doing so, if carried out impetuously, could lead to the deadliest war experienced by Americans since 1945. I suspect that Pompeo knows as much. But now, he will have to prove it—not only to his immediate boss, but also to the Congress and the rest of the nation that he will collectively serve.

Pompeo faces a challenge in refining the language and thinking expressed in Trump’s National Security Strategy of last December as well as his National Defense Strategy that was released in January. Both these documents paint China and Russia with a similar sweeping brush. But those two countries represent very different challenges to the United States.

President Vladimir Putin is bent on challenging U.S. foreign policy and interests in Europe and the Middle East—and here at home, with our media and elections—almost for the sport of it. He sees weakening America as part of his core purpose in life. He also behaves like a thug at home.

We need to accelerate our efforts to push back against Russia, especially here in the United States in terms of hardening our electoral machinery and democratic resilience. At the same time, we need to explore new security arrangements for Eastern Europe and Syria that could lead to compromises with Moscow. In other words, we need to develop a complex strategy of pushback in some areas, flexible and creative thinking in others. The Trump administration has been largely stuck in its Russia policy due to investigations over the 2016 U.S. elections. It is time to try to shake loose of those constraints, even as the Mueller investigations continue.

By contrast to Russia, China is an impressive rising power. Its leadership under President Xi Jinping is much less reckless than Putin’s, and China is helping us a good deal on North Korea policy in particular. Many of its economic and political practices are objectionable in American eyes, and its industrial and military potentials require careful monitoring. But the Pentagon in particular is somewhat too quick to assume that we will wind up in hegemonic competition with Beijing; more nuanced thinking is required there as well.

It is a fraught, but also an exciting, time in U.S. foreign policy. I am encouraged that Trump has chosen such a bright and promising new leader for Foggy Bottom, while also now planning to elevate a woman to the directorship of the CIA for the first time in our history.

I remain a critic of Trump in many ways, but fortunately for the country and the world, he continues to choose talented individuals to lead his foreign policy team.