Should we care that the US changes its top diplomat?


Disturbing pick. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky speaks during a press conference at the US Capitol to announce his opposition to the nomination of CIA Director Mike Pompeo as new Secretary of State, on March 14. (AP)

Does it matter that Trump’s America will get a new secretary of state? Not as much as one might think.

Tittle-tattle about Rex Tillerson’s enforced ignominious departure and his inept handling of State Department organisational matters is just more of the news-spume discharged almost daily by Donald Trump’s White House.

Substantively though, it is a mere bagatelle. For the world at large and the Middle East and North Africa region in particular, American foreign policy remains the same as on January 20, 2017, when Trump was inaugurated president. “The dismissal of Rex #Tillerson does not make anything better,” German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth posted on Twitter.

The US president said so himself in December. “I call the final shots,” he tweeted about reported disagreements with his now-sacked secretary of state, “…we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots)…”

Quite so.

Tillerson has been repeatedly overruled by Trump on signature foreign policy decisions, not least the December 6 unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, US withdrawal from the Paris climate pact, decertification of the Iran nuclear deal and the imposition of steel and aluminium tariffs.

The situation does not change now that Trump has picked Mike Pompeo for secretary of state. “We are always on the same wavelength,” Trump said of Pompeo, currently head of the CIA. He might have added but didn’t, “(anyway,) I call the final shots.”

That said, there are three reasons for the world beyond America to note the passing of the diplomatic baton from Tillerson to Pompeo.

• The new secretary of state can be reliably said to speak for the US president, as Lindsey Graham, a senator belonging to Trump’s Republican Party, has pointed out. That will give him authority in European chancelleries, the courts of Middle Eastern rulers and the offices of elected leaders.

• Pompeo is a conservative, small-government politician unafraid to publicly take anti-Muslim positions and previously condoned torture for suspected terrorists.

• He is firmly against doing deals — or even honouring multilateral done-deals — with Iran.

This means Pompeo’s rise matters if only because it amplifies Trump’s voice, enables his gut instincts and provides all-important self-affirmation to a president who in November proclaimed: “I’m the only one that matters” in setting US foreign policy.

The cumulative effect will be that of a unified administration, with the State Department firmly aligned with the country’s elected chief executive officer. Isn’t that how things should be?

Yes, if the United States were a private limited company or an absolute monarchy rather than the world’s oldest democracy and the richest, most powerful country.

In the short term, the gains from Pompeo’s elevation appear to accrue to those who lobby against Iran and for Israel but that may be an overly sunshine view of the storms that darken the horizon.

Almost six years ago, the nominee for America’s secretary of state made an impassioned speech to the House in which he claimed “the perspective of both a Christian and a former soldier” to lambast Iran and argue against “a badly mistaken notion that Israel is some way or another the aggressor (in the Middle East).”

Pompeo also indicted his fervent religious conviction that occupied Syrian and Palestinian land was part of Israel.

Does that matter? Pompeo’s perspective on the world is important only in that it meshes well with that of his boss. They share a mindset.

In any other administration, the individual appointed to be the US president’s “chief foreign affairs adviser” would be a significant choice. The secretary of state heads the first federal agency established under the US Constitution in 1789.

Starting with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, there have been many original thinkers as secretary of state. In the 20th century, John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger can legitimately be described as architects of the American foreign policy of their day. The US secretary of state was never meant to be a mouthpiece.

Pompeo, however, will be like a vinyl record, His Master’s Voice. After decades of the pristine sharp sound of CDs, vinyl is in fashion again but it doesn’t have much of a role in driving tastes.