- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2018

He has President Trump’s ear, but will he have the State Department’s back?

It’s a question the demoralized troops at Foggy Bottom are asking about Mike Pompeo, the Republican congressman turned CIA director whom President Trump has picked to replace Rex W. Tillerson, who was fired as secretary of state.

Mr. Pompeo won accolades for his smooth management style at Langley over the past year, but if he is confirmed to be America’s top diplomat, he will inherit a whole new level of disgruntlement in the ranks at the State Department.

U.S. diplomats say morale is running dangerously low, a slew of key jobs remain unfilled, senior diplomats are heading out the door and a Tillerson-ordered management overhaul now is in serious doubt.

Mr. Tillerson’s year at the department was marked by anxiety among career Foreign Service officers over his outspoken support for massive State Department and foreign aid budget cuts proposed by Mr. Trump, as well as the “internal redesign” of the department’s bureaus and staff that the former Exxon Mobil chairman wanted to implement.

Some diplomats said they were vexed that Mr. Tillerson seemed to openly disagree with Mr. Trump on issues such as the Paris climate deal, the Iran nuclear deal and policies on Qatar and North Korea, but was unwilling to stand up to the president when it came to protecting the department’s budget and staff.

Mr. Tillerson, who had no prior experience with government service and little interest in public diplomacy, was also accused of running the department with a tiny cadre of aides who shut out the diplomatic and management professionals.

“People felt like there was a bit of black box around Tillerson,” said one senior State Department official who spoke Wednesday on the condition of anonymity. Frustrations soared over the way Mr. Tillerson allowed his personal staff of outsiders — most notably his powerful chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin — to isolate him from direct communication with the senior diplomatic ranks.

Ms. Peterlin announced her resignation after Mr. Tillerson, 65, was fired on Tuesday.

“If there’s a sigh of relief right now, it’s as much over her resigning as it is about Tillerson leaving,” the official said. “She was a like chokehold between him and the rest of the building. It was never clear what information from key bureau heads was actually getting through to him or not getting through.”

One more question is when the new guy can take over. Mr. Tillerson announced Tuesday that Deputy Secretary John Sullivan will immediately serve as acting secretary, and Mr. Pompeo will not have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until mid-April.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, is predicting a “contentious but successful” hearing for the nominee that will be more pointed than his CIA confirmation hearing a year ago.

Hope on Pompeo

Department insiders said they are hopeful that Mr. Pompeo, who enjoys a much closer rapport with Mr. Trump and is more comfortable in public forums and with the news media than the reserved Mr. Tillerson, will mark a major change in the department’s internal operations and interagency clout.

Mr. Pompeo, 54, has served for a year atop another complex executive branch agency, and he has the benefit of a Washington insider knowledge built during his six years in Congress.

Without question, Mr. Pompeo’s hard-line views on Iran and the Obama-era Iran nuclear accord, as well as his conservative Republican background, will rub many the wrong way at Foggy Bottom. His pre-Congress experience as a businessman in the aerospace industry with major U.S. weapons firms might raise concern that he favors military force over diplomacy.

But the State Department’s rank and file have always prided themselves on putting their culture of hard work and global-mindedness above ideological disagreements they may have with the secretary or the administration of the day.

Mr. Pompeo is a former U.S. Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point and later survived Harvard Law School — a resume likely to inspire confidence among diplomats.

“As a former military officer and political figure by both instinct and experience, [he] will be far more approachable than Rex Tillerson, [and] that will reassure his troops at State,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as an assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Obama administration. His relationship with Mr. Trump will be a plus as well, Mr. Crowley said.

“Tillerson’s problems with the rank and file were primarily about management, not substance,” Mr. Crowley said in an interview Wednesday. “That will be the key question about Secretary Pompeo — how his more hawkish policy views fit with his new job description.

“Pompeo will be embraced by [the State Department] if he becomes an advocate for the department, which has been on its heels for more than a year,” said Sam Patten, a former State Department official who regularly works with the American diplomatic community in hot spots around the word.

“More important even than the budget issues at the moment is whether Mr. Pompeo clearly presents his priorities and is then proactive on them,” Mr. Patten told The Times.

Even if some at the department disagree with Mr. Pompeo on issues like the Iran nuclear deal, Mr. Patten said, he will be respected if he is clear where he stands and is willing to fight for his positions.

Mr. Patten said the transition between Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Pompeo reminds him of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright’s departure at the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term in January 2001. Like Mr. Tillerson, Mrs. Albright presided over budget cuts and spearheaded a major internal management reorganization, with disruptive changes that included incorporating the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the U.S. Information Agency and many independent development programs into the department.

Despite her various achievements, many inside the State Department were unhappy with Mrs. Albright’s record as a manager, he said. Department officials “basically had to cobble together a group to say goodbye to her,” he said.

“When Colin Powell came in, it was like the liberation of Paris,” Mr. Patten quipped. “Morale was restored very quickly, and there were people scrambling out of the woodwork to get on his team.”

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