Washington (AFP) – Mike Pompeo — President Donald Trump’s new secretary of state — is a former cavalry officer, businessman and conservative congressman who has already plunged into one of the most fraught and ambitious diplomatic gambits in decades.
Roughly a month ago, Pompeo met secretly in Pyongyang with North Korea’s enigmatic autocrat Kim Jong Un.
In his then role as CIA chief, it was Pompeo who made the initial face-to-face contact that may make possible a summit between Kim and America’s bombastic leader.
Now, as leader of the huge but demoralized US diplomatic corps, the 54-year-old foreign policy hawk must prepare Trump for a meeting that could help head off an escalation of tensions — or new military hostilities — on the Korean peninsula.
But if Pompeo charts Trump a course to avoid a conflict with the potential to go nuclear, it will belie his image as one of Washington’s most hardline champions of projecting America’s military might.
Prior to his confirmation by the US Senate on Thursday, Pompeo had served since the start of Trump’s presidency more than a year ago as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and often gave the US leader his daily intelligence briefing.
The president — a property magnate and reality television star with no background in foreign policy — has chafed against many of his national security advisors.
But he and Pompeo seem to have formed a bond.
Trump never got along with his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, a former oil executive with a pragmatic world view closer to Washington’s conservative mainstream than to Trump’s “America First” nationalism.
But, while Tillerson irritated his boss, Pompeo displayed the political wiles of a four-term congressman, cutting a path into Trump’s inner circle with a diet of ready praise and staunch public support.
Pompeo echoes Trump’s hard line on Iran and North Korea and is a Russia hawk — even if he has downplayed concerns about Kremlin election meddling in support of Trump to avoid offending the commander-in-chief.
“With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process,” Trump said after he brutally dismissed Tillerson by tweet.
– Conservative billionaires –
Pompeo was born and raised in southern California and attended the prestigious US Military Academy at West Point, where he specialized in engineering and graduated at the top of his class in 1986.
He is a socially conservative Christian who, as a congressman, opposed gay marriage and US funding for family planning in the aid budget.
At his confirmation hearing, he insisted he would manage fairly and without prejudice the State Department’s large and diverse staff, but refused to say whether he still believes homosexuality to be a “perversion.”
Pompeo served in the military for five years — although never saw combat — and then left to attend Harvard Law School.
He later founded an engineering company in Wichita, Kansas, where he formed ties with big Republican donors from the energy industry.
In 2010, he made his successful first run for Congress, where he promoted legislation in the House of Representatives that was seen as friendly to energy businesses.
He moved quickly onto the House Intelligence Committee, where, as overseer of the CIA and other agencies, he was privy to the country’s deepest secrets.
But he made his name on the committee set up to investigate the 2012 killing of a US ambassador and three more Americans in an attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya.
This made him a leading voice against Trump’s favorite political opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the assault and a target of the committee.
– Promoted ‘vicious’ CIA –
As director of the CIA, Pompeo has matched the tone of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements.
“The CIA, to be successful, must be aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless,” he has warned, and he has joked about assassinating foreign leaders like Kim.
He has reportedly readily accommodated the president’s aversion to reading long reports by having staff prepare simple graphic presentations of global risks and threats.
When pressed in public, he has endorsed the January 2017 US intelligence report that concludes Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential race to help Trump defeat Clinton.
Pompeo has been a stern critic of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, an accord seen as a victory for non-proliferation by America’s allies, but as a capitulation by anti-Iran hardliners.
During Pompeo’s nomination hearing, Republican Senator Rand Paul complained that he could be so hawkish that he works against Trump’s instinct to avoid costly foreign adventures.
Paul, however, ended up voting to confirm Pompeo after Trump called him and assured him that the new secretary shares his ambition to pull US forces out of Syria and Afghanistan.