Development takes a back seat in Mike Pompeo nomination hearing

Mike Pompeo, the nominee to be the next U.S. secretary of state. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

WASHINGTON — In a five-hour nomination hearing on Thursday, Mike Pompeo, the nominee to be the next U.S. secretary of state, didn’t say much about foreign aid, but did provide some indications about his beliefs and approach to foreign policy issues.

Both in his opening statement and in responses to questions from the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo said he was committed to filling vacancies at the State Department and working to restore morale. Pompeo called himself a “talent hawk” and said he would seek to attract the best Americans to the State Department and fill key vacancies quickly.

“In a recent series of department briefings with team members at State, they all, to a person, expressed a hope to be empowered in their roles, and to have a clear understanding of the president’s mission. That will be my first priority. They also shared how demoralizing it is to have so many vacancies and, frankly, not to feel relevant. I’ll do my part to end the vacancies, but I’ll need your help. And I will work every day to provide dedicated leadership and convey my faith in their work — just as I have done with my workforce at the CIA,” he said.

Also in contrast to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Pompeo said that he would be prepared to make the case to the Trump administration to defend needed resources for the State Department. Whereas Tillerson told senators that if they gave him one more dollar, he wouldn’t know what to do with it, Pompeo said “I’ll take the extra dollar,” and added that he would find ways to use it to add value.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, asked for assurances that as the leader of the State Department, Pompeo would spend the funds that Congress appropriates to the agency, which Pompeo said he had a legal requirement to do and would try to make sure he’s doing so in a way that delivers value.

Pompeo in both his written testimony and throughout the hearing stated that he supported President Donald Trump and many of his policy positions, even when pressed about his own personal opinions. He was also pushed on his views on the role of diplomacy in national security and asked if he supported new National Security Advisor John Bolton’s previous comments about going to war with a number of adversaries.

While some senators praised his close relationship with the president, others expressed concern that Pompeo would be an advocate for military rather than diplomatic solutions.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, said that it is important for other countries to know that the secretary of state is in the inner circle of the president and speaks for the president, calling it “critical for success.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, pointed out that America is asking whether the president is creating a “war cabinet” that could lead the U.S. into another war. Many of Merkley’s questions were directed at understanding Pompeo’s position around the use of force, and whether his views were “close to Bolton’s advocacy of force in almost every situation,” which would be dangerous.

“There are few people like soldiers who appreciate diplomats and diplomacy work,” Pompeo said. “You want to be prepared, but you’re counting on the fact there will diplomats pushing back, preventing what you’re training and preparing for.”

Many of the concerns raised by individuals and organizations in advance of the hearing centered on Pompeo’s human rights record, his past anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT statements, and his record on women’s rights and access to health care.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, asked Pompeo about a number of those concerns, particularly about his commitment to women’s issues. In response to her question about the unfilled post of ambassador for global women’s issues, Pompeo committed to finding a qualified person and filling the role as quickly as possible.

Shaheen also raised concerns that State Department employees had been asked to pare down language about women’s rights and discrimination in the annual human rights report. Pompeo said he committed to keeping things that shouldn’t influence the report out of the process so it reflects the facts.

Pompeo, in response to a question from Sen. Merkley, said that he will look into the administration’s decision to stop funding to the United Nations Population Fund, and that if he is convinced that there is a lack of evidence to justify the decision, he will look into restoring funding.

When asked about the importance of human rights and his past anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT statements, he pointed to his record, particularly at the CIA, where he said he “honored and valued every officer regardless of race, color, gender, or sexual orientation” and promised to do the same at the State Department.

Pompeo said that he does not support gay marriage, but believes that LGBTQ people have every right. “Many countries don’t believe that. It is our responsibility to do our best to have an impact and make them recognize the fundamental dignity of every human being as we do in the U.S.”  

He also said that he has regularly worked with majority Muslim countries while at the CIA, and he honors their religion and that on a whole, Muslims are good people who deserve to be treated with dignity and faith.

Cardin asked him to clarify how he would be clear about an American commitment to human rights and to not engaging in torture, saying that if the U.S. leaves any room in defining torture, dictators will try to exploit it.

“Torture is illegal and never permitted,” Pompeo said.

A host of other issues were raised, with much of the hearing focused on national security threats posed by Russia, North Korea, Iran, and China. Notably, the United States Agency for International Development wasn’t mentioned, nor were the State Department’s global health programs, including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The Millennium Challenge Corp. did get a brief mention when Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia, asked Pompeo if he was familiar with the agency and encouraged him to focus on what MCC was doing as part of the U.S. government’s soft power capabilities.

Then in a somewhat odd moment, Isakson said that the U.S. should use its soft power, particularly in Africa, in part to help get more votes at the United Nations.

Among the other issues raised were democracy promotion and engagement on humanitarian aid in specific regions, notably Latin America and Africa.

Pompeo said he believed democracy promotion was in the vital national interest, and that effectively doing so is important to U.S. foreign policy. He said he believes in the rule of law and that American actions and behavior on rule of law and human rights matters. Pompeo also said that human rights would be a priority and that history reflects that defending human rights is in the U.S. national interest.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, asked Pompeo about the U.S. relationship in the Americas and the perception that America does not value its relationships with countries to its south. Pompeo said there is an enormous risk in not engaging with places in turmoil, including Venezuela. He said the refugee crisis is deeply important and he committed to getting an undersecretary for the Western Hemisphere in place and establishing a South American policy.

Pompeo also committed to action on other humanitarian issues, including on human trafficking. He said American diplomats “have and must continue to do our level best to stop this tragic activity” in Burma against the Rohingya. He also committed to working to get Trump to advocate against the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, asked Pompeo about U.S. engagement in Africa, saying he came away from a recent trip to the continent with the impression that many countries felt neglected and were yearning for more engagement with the State Department. He asked Pompeo to state on the record that working on the continent will be a priority for him, and that he will work to put together a real strategy to address both the humanitarian and political challenges.

Pompeo confirmed that he would work on it “full scale, from humanitarian needs to all the other elements of U.S. diplomatic power.”

Pompeo also gave other assurances: He said he would look into refugee settlement, and what is driving the current slow process, in which only about 10,500 of the 45,000 refugees allowed in the fiscal year by law have thus far been settled in the U.S.

“I think America has an important role here with respect to refugees, an important role to provide humanitarian assistance” in places close to where they are displaced, Pompeo said, adding that he was committed to work with the committee on those issues.  

On climate policy, Pompeo said he shares the president’s position on the Paris climate agreement, that it “places an undue burden on the United States of America” but he said that if there is a moment when that is not the case, the U.S. will engage. Sen. Cardin pushed him on the issue and asking if he didn’t think it would hurt the ability of the U.S. to work with the international community if it is the only country not signed on to the agreement.  

The U.S. many times works with allies in some places and not others, and diplomacy can still work, Pompeo responded.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.