Pompeo Offers Sweeping View of US Foreign Policy at Economic Club Forum

July 30, 2019 by Dan McCue
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answers questions from Economic Club of Washington, D.C. president David M. Rubenstein. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that President Donald Trump has ordered him to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the 2020 election and begin the closing chapter of the nearly two-decade-old conflict.

“That’s my directive from the President … and he’s been unambiguous,” Pompeo said during an appearance at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

“End the endless wars. Draw down. Reduce. It won’t just be us,” the secretary continued, paraphrasing the president.

Pompeo, who has enjoyed a relatively smooth relationship with the president, unlike his predecessor Rex Tillerson, then suggested the troop reduction might determine  whether he’s asked to stay on as secretary should Trump win a second term.

Noting that the military presence in Afghanistan is a multi-national effort, Pompeo said, “we hope the overall need for combat forces in the region is reduced,” but regardless, an American draw down is “not only my expectation, it would be job enhancing.”

The revelation, delivered with a broad smile, was just one of the noteworthy moments in a freewheeling half-hour interview with Economic Club president David M. Rubenstein.

The tone of the exchange was set early on, with Pompeo declining to rank the challenges confronting the State Department, but then going on to provide an ordered but sweeping summation of US foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

To the surprise of no one gathered in the crowded dining room of the Ritz Carlton in downtown Washington, an ongoing priority is Asia.

Pompeo said the first thing he does every morning is read about China and “the broad array of issues” that present “both real opportunities and risk to America.”

The secretary had little to offer on the frayed state of trade relations between the two countries, but said China has been “very helpful on North Korea,” doing more to enforce UN Security Council resolutions against the Hermit Kingdom than “at any time in history.”

Pompeo went on to say China has also been “helpful” in Afghanistan and has respected U.S. sanctions on Iran.

“So far so good,” he said.

The conversation inevitably led to the current unrest in Hong Kong and what the U.S. response would be if the Chinese sent the military in to put down protests there.

“I never answer hypotheticals about what we’ll do or won’t do,” Pompeo said. “Having said that, I think we’ve been pretty clear — protest is appropriate. We see this in the United States. In fact, I’m confident there will be protestors outside when I drive over to the State Department today.

“Our expectation is that the Chinese will do the right thing with respect to that and respect the agreements that are in place with respect to Hong Kong,” the secretary said.

North Korea

When it came to North Korea, Rubenstein’s curiosity turned to the personal. What, he wanted to know, is Kim Jong-un really like?

“He’s bright,” Pompeo said without hesitating. “He has managed to rise to the level of leadership in a difficult environment, and he did it as a very young man.”

From the very first, the secretary said, Kim Jong-un has been “very candid with me about the things that are important to him … and how the negotiations might proceed.”

As for the currently stalled talks between the US and North Korea, Pompeo said he hopes working level discussions will start again soon “so that we can unlock the Rubik’s cube.”

“He’s now repeated that he’s prepared to denuclearize. It’s time to execute. And I hope that we can achieve that,” the secretary said.

Russia

Pompeo said that he never doubted Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, “and the one before that and the one before that and the one before that … and the one in 2018.”

“People keep saying we have to protect the integrity of the election in 2020, and they seem to forget there has been an election since 2016,” the secretary said. “People who ran in 2018 cared a lot about us protecting the integrity of that election and we did so very effectively and we’ll do it again in 2020.”

But Pompeo went on to emphasize that Russia isn’t the only nation trying to undermine western democracy.

“That has been true since the founders created this great nation,” he said. “And so we have to be ever vigilant.”

“Have you communicated to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that we do not like what he’s done before and shouldn’t do it again?” Rubenstein asked.

“On a number of occasions,” Pompeo said.

“And what was his response?”

“‘Noted,'” Pompeo said. “That’s a diplomatic term for, ‘I hear you, brother.'”

Iran and the Middle East

When it came to the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, the secretary said the US is committed to keeping the Strait of Hormuz, the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean, navigable for trade.

However, he quickly added that “building out” a maritime security plan for the critically important water passage, which lies between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, “will take more time than we wish.”

About a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and 25% of the oil consumed across the globe annually passes through the Strait, making it a potential choke point for a rogue actor intent on disrupting its traffic.

Given, its global importance, Pompeo said the US expects all nations with a vested interest in the waterway to participate in keeping it open, and that “America is prepared to be a significant part of that.”

But he stopped well short of saying the US would intervene militarily should Iran seize any more ships transiting the area.

On July 19, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seized a British-flagged oil tanker, the Stena Impero, for allegedly “violating international regulations” as it passed through the Strait. A second British-flagged vessel was later detained, but eventually allowed to go on its way.

The United Kingdom has sent two Royal Navy warships to the Gulf to protect British ships traveling through the area.

Pompeo said in such a situation, “we tend to focus on the tactical” but as he stated later in the interview, the mission of the State Department is “to get American outcomes through diplomacy.”

“So I think you have to step back and think about what we’re doing more broadly in the Middle East with respect to Iran as the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. It has the capacity to continue to work toward developing a nuclear weapon system, which would cause proliferation risks throughout the region,” the secretary said.

Pompeo said the Trump administration’s hard line toward Iran has dramatically reduced the amount of oil revenue it funnels to terror organizations. Asked whether the current US policy might force Iran to the negotiating table by sometime next year, Pompeo refused to make any predictions.

“I don’t do timelines. Timelines are a fool’s errand,” he said.

On another topic, the prospect for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Pompeo said while the White House has been diligently working on its peace plan, the situation is no less complicated today than it has ever been.

“There’s a reason it hasn’t been solved for 40 years or more,” the secretary said. “In the end, this will be the decision of the prime minister of Israel and the leadership in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Pompeo said he’s worked closely with White House advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner on the US proposal, and that Kushner and State Department officials will be traveling to the Middle East “in coming days” to “flesh out our path forward for our partners in the region.”

Pressed on whether the US prefers a one- or two-state solution to conflict, Pompeo demurred.

“You’ll see our plan shortly,” he said. “Our preference is whatever the Palestinians and the Israelis agree to in terms of what their future relationship will look like.”

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