The Absolutely Useless, Always Forgettable Secretary of State

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Saying “Mike Pompeo” out loud feels odd, like mouthing the name of an old girlfriend. What’s Mike done lately? Does he have a Facebook page? As the Trump administration wraps up its first term focused on domestic issues, the United States has passed almost four years without much foreign policy, and thus without the need for a Secretary of State or a department of diplomats behind him.

A Google query shows “Searches related to Mike Pompeo Achievements” include “Mike Pompeo weight,” “Mike Pompeo net worth.” One can easily imagine Pompeo, even pre-COVID, slipping out the side door at Foggy Bottom shouting as one long syllable “I’ll be working from home, check with my deputy if anything comes up” while his wife is waiting in the car for him, Ferris Bueller-style.

We had high hopes. Mike and John Bolton were the Bad Boys who were supposed to start wars with Iran and North Korea, outdo Cheney and even challenge the legend, Bloody Kissinger. Pompeo instead watched as not much happened between the U.S. and North Korea. He watched as the ending of the Iran nuclear treaty caused not much to happen. He watched as a standing to-do item for Secretaries, suck up to the Saudis, dropped off. Bolton, who liberals expected to see one day in Tehran rolling a mullah’s bloody head around his lap, now squats unemployed by the phone hoping a think tank will offer up an intern to listen to his stories.

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Prior to Pompeo, it was Rex Tillerson. Tillerson couldn’t even come up with an elevator speech of his accomplishments when asked, listing as he left office North Korean sanctions which achieved nothing, alongside his own mea culpas for failing to make progress in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, where with a straight face he noted there was “more to be done.” A bit hard to blame him, as Trump chose a policy of stasis, not wanting to withdraw the last trooper anywhere and forever be the man who lost Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq.

Commentators wrote Tillerson would be remembered as the worst secretary of state in history. Wrong. He made no significant blunders, gave away nothing. He just didn’t do much at all. His actual only real accomplishment was a humiliating apology tour of Africa, meeting with leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign affairs grouchy over the president calling their nations sh*tholes.

It would be easy to blame Trump for everything, with his open mic night style of making decisions, his decrees by Twitter. Unlike his predecessors, Trump never took advantage of his get-one-free foreign incursion along the lines of invading Grenada, occupying Lebanon, or an adventure in Somalia, never mind a big ticket item like a Mideast war or three. Sure, Trump did bomb Syria (who hasn’t?) and nipped at Iran, but the tumescence was over before the media could even declare the end of the world again.

One can imagine diplomatic meetings with friendly foreign nations in the Age of Trump: “Anything new from your side? No, you? Something on Twitter from POTUS about Armageddon, misspelled. Say, Crimea still giving you trouble? A little, whatever, you watching Tiger King? Pretty funny. Quite.” 

So turn the page backwards to John Kerry, Obama’s second term Secretary of State. Kerry imagined himself a Kennedy-esque man of action, Flashman at the ready, and had the State Department keep an online tally of how many miles he had traveled doing studly diplomatic stuff. The Nationcalled him “One of the Most Significant Secretaries of State in the Last 50 Years,” heady company when you realize the list includes Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, and Kissinger.

That Nation article cites as achievements “the military retaking of Mosul, the sponsorship of an Oceans Conference, the strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council” all of which mean what in 2020? Kerry also sang Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin at an APEC conference, so there’s that.

Kerry’s signature accomplishment, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, faded quickly. As negotiated the thing was only for 10 years anyway, and would be about half over even if Trump had not walked away. And that’s giving Kerry full marks for getting an agreement which the Iranians wanted badly enough to help their economy they were willing to trade away a lot of Wonka tickets. Kerry’s work with the TPP and Paris Agreement also showed fine effort. We’ll put them up on the fridge next to the one song Ringo got onto each Beatles album. Most of Kerry’s efforts came to little substance (albeit often through little fault of his own) but the legacy business is harsh.

On the other side of the scale you do also have John Kerry helping muck up Syria. Kerry floundering in the Ukraine and Crimea. Kerry failing to move the ball forward in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Palestine, or blunting China as it assumed a pivotal role in Asia in every way except militarily (they’re working on it.) Kerry’s actual most significant real achievement was leaving Democratic voters wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush beat Kerry to take on a dismal second term.

But Hillary! Never mind “one of,” Google chair Eric Schmidt called her “the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson” (suck it, Kerry.) Secretary of State was only the first half of the prize Hillary got for clearing the way for Obama in 2008 (Barack shooing Joe Biden aside for her in 2016 was the second) and Clinton made the most of it. For herself.

Ignoring America’s real foreign policy needs (or was she being ignored?) she turned the State Department into an arm of her Foundation, projecting “soft power” on things like women’s issues and AIDS to pair with her eventual platform, all the while generating B-roll like an ersatz Angelina Jolie. She had the Department obsessively document her constant travels, with formal photos of Secretary Clinton alongside world leaders as well as selfies of Hil letting her hair down among her own diplomats. It was less a tenure in the same job once held by giants like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Daniel Webster as it was a four-year campaign stop.

In the tally of history Hillary Clinton did… not much. Time Magazine listed her key accomplishments as “the liberation of Libya, establishment of diplomatic ties with Burma, and the assembly of a coalition against Iran.” In a summary piece, USA Today singled out “Clinton convinced Chinese leaders to free blind dissident Chen Guang Cheng,” who returned the favor by joining an American think tank opposing abortion and gay marriage.

From the horse’s mouth, quoting Hillary Herself, key accomplishments were “hosting town halls with global youth, raising awareness for religious minorities, protecting Internet freedom and advancing rights for women and the LGBT community around the world.” Not resume items as momentous as forever changing the Cold War balance of power by opening China like Henry Kissinger or assembling the first Gulf War coalition like James Baker. Meanwhile, the world owes Hillary for her significant contributions to the failed state of Libya and the subsequent refugee flow, the human misery of Syria, the missed chances of the Arab Spring, and failing to end other wars she helped start or voted for.

A generation before Hillary we have Colin Powell and Condi Rice, whose only accomplishments as Secretary were to midwife marching America into the desert (Colin) and to march the State Department into the desert with the guaranteed-to-fail mission to create democracy in Iraq (Condi.)

The good news is today the U.S. is experiencing a peace of a sorts not by sweating out the sins of diplomacy, but just by not going around the world throwing matches into buckets of gasoline. Trump has made little use of his Secretaries of State and their Department. But as we’ve seen, no recent president made much use of those diplomats either.

The next Secretary, whether working for Trump or Biden, will find themselves in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. They may very well end up somewhere near the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing a network of embassies to serve as America’s concierge abroad, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting Washington bureaucrats in town to play at international relations.

If the U.S. government had suddenly to downsize into a smaller capital space, the State Department would likely end up on the curb, alongside those boxes of the kids’ elementary school drawings. Cute, good times, but why did we keep them all these years? 

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.



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