With Trump backing, Pompeo seeks to restore State Department luster

US President Donald Trump at the swearing-in of Mike Pompeo as the new Secretary of State

Washington (AFP) – Buoyed by the enthusiastic backing of President Donald Trump, America’s new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear Wednesday he intends to restore the State Department to the heart of US diplomacy following the troubled tenure of Rex Tillerson.

“That’s more spirit than I’ve heard from the State Department in a long time — many years,” Trump said Wednesday at Pompeo’s swearing-in ceremony.

“I want the State Department to get its swagger back,” former CIA director Pompeo told department employees after taking the oath of office.

Tillerson, the former Exxon chief who was fired by a presidential tweet in March, was not mentioned during the public ceremony at the State Department.

The Republican president’s visit to Foggy Bottom, as the State Department headquarters is known, was his first since he took office 15 months ago.

Barack Obama toured the State Department just three days after his inauguration as president in 2009.

Trump’s admiration for America’s generals is well documented, as is his low esteem for its diplomatic corps.

Many top posts at the State Department remain vacant and the Trump administration has sought to make unprecedented cuts to the agency’s budget and staff.

“I’m the only one that matters,” Trump said in an interview with Fox television in November. “We don’t need all of the people, you know, it’s called cost-saving.”

The low morale at the State Department was exacerbated by what many saw as the distant and hands-off style of Tillerson, who had no foreign policy experience before taking the job.

“It is totally dysfunctional,” a foreign diplomat complained recently. “There’s nobody to talk to when issues become political.”

Further complicating the situation was what quickly became a frosty relationship between Trump and Tillerson, his hand-picked secretary of state.

– A new chapter –

Wednesday’s public ceremony at the State Department, which was also attended by Vice President Mike Pence, appeared to be designed to symbolize the opening of a new chapter.

Trump fulsomely praised Pompeo as a “true American patriot” of “exceptional skill” who has earned his “deepest respect and admiration and trust.”

Trump also took pains to salute the “extraordinary men and women of the State Department” and “everything you do for our country.”

Pompeo has also gone out of his way to heap praise on his future Foggy Bottom colleagues.

Ahead of his ceremonial swearing-in, he paid a visit to the State Department on Tuesday and thanked the assembled US diplomats for their “amazing work.”

“To stand here and look at the most important diplomatic corps in the world is enormously humbling to me,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo repeatedly lauded the department’s work and its importance, in an apparent attempt to distance himself from Tillerson, who was criticized for doing little to defend the agency.

The new US secretary of state outlined his priorities on Wednesday: deciding what’s next with the “flawed” Iranian nuclear deal, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and bringing “fairness and reciprocity” to Sino-US relations.

Above all, he said, was taking advantage of an “unprecedented opportunity to change the course of history on the Korean Peninsula.”

“We are committed to the permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program, and to do so without delay,” he said. 

“To my colleagues here, when I say we’re going to do this, I mean ‘we,’” Pompeo stressed. “This is a team effort at the State Department and the whole of the United States government.”

Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat now at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Pompeo’s arrival may give the State Department a new lease on life.

“Trump’s appearance at State will do little to change (the) perception that he’d just as soon see the Department shuttered,” Miller said on Twitter.

“But it will validate Pompeo’s prominence in pecking order; and if he actually empowers and deploys State, it will remove closed 4 season sign from Foggy Bottom.”