Five challenges for Pompeo at the State Department

Five challenges for Pompeo at the State Department
© Greg Nash

Almost immediately after he was sworn in as secretary of State, Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS warns airlines about flying over Persian Gulf amid Iran tensions Trump: Anonymous news sources are 'bulls---' Iranian official: Trump 'holding a gun' while pursuing talks MORE jetted off to Brussels to deliver an urgent message to NATO allies: President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE is prepared to pull the U.S. out of the Iran deal, "absent a substantial fix."

The appearance marked the debut for the former CIA director as the United States's top diplomat, and underscored his role as an emissary for Trump abroad.

Pompeo's remarks seemed to set him apart from his predecessor, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Defense: Trump rails against media coverage | Calls reporting on Iran tensions 'highly inaccurate' | GOP senator blocking Trump pick for Turkey ambassador | Defense bill markup next week Trump frustrated with advisers over Iran, wants to speak to leaders in Tehran: report Juan Williams: Trump's scorecard is rife with losses MORE, who faced questions about his tempestuous relationship with a president often willing to break with his top diplomat.

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Still, Pompeo is sure to face a number of challenges in his new role, including filling various vacancies at the State Department, helping plot talks with North Korea and maintaining a unified message with the president.

Here are five challenges for Pompeo:

Building up morale at the State Department

The tenure of Pompeo's predecessor, Rex Tillerson, was haunted by a narrative of discontent and low morale among the department's career officials. Now Pompeo faces the challenge of flipping that storyline. 

There are signals that he may be able to do that. Pompeo's stewardship of the CIA has reportedly convinced some State Department officials that he has the managerial skills needed to lead America's diplomatic mission

Still, others have continued to voice concerns that Pompeo could act as a type of "yes man" for Trump, who campaigned on an "America first" vision of U.S. foreign policy and has often appeared skeptical of more traditional means of diplomacy.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month, Pompeo acknowledged the desire of department officials to be "empowered."

"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," he said.

Also key to Pompeo's success at the State Department is whether he can help fill dozens of vacant positions. Of the 161 Senate-confirmed positions at the State Department, 61 still have no nominee, according to figures tracked by The Washington Post and the nonprofit group Partnership for Public Service.

Pompeo acknowledged during his confirmation hearing that the vacancies were a source of low morale at the agency and vowed to help fill the jobs.

"I’ll do my part to end the vacancies, but I’ll need your help," he told lawmakers.

Navigating talks with North Korea

Even before his State Department confirmation, Pompeo exercised his diplomatic duties when he was quietly dispatched to Pyongyang earlier this month to help lay the groundwork for a possible meeting between Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

The White House on Friday released images of Pompeo and the North Korean leader shaking hands while facing each other, with Trump administration officials casting the meeting as a positive diplomatic step toward a summit between Trump and Kim.

But looming over his work on Trump's potential May or June summit with Kim are questions about Pompeo's views on regime change in North Korea.

During his confirmation hearing this month, Pompeo told senators that he had "never advocated" for such a shift. 

But that claim appeared to contradict a remark he made last summer, when the then-CIA director suggested during a security conference in Aspen that the U.S. pursue a way to "separate that regime from this system."

"The North Korean people I'm sure are lovely people and would love to see him go," Pompeo said at the time.

Managing tensions with Moscow

Officials acknowledge that relations between Russia and the West have sunk to their lowest point in decades, punctuated by both sides expelling scores of diplomats over the poisoning of a former double agent in the U.K. last month that Western nations have blamed on Russia.

The deterioration in relations has also been spurred by Moscow's backing of pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine, state-sponsored meddling in foreign elections and the Kremlin's support of Syrian President Bashar Assad amid that country's years-long civil war.

While the Trump administration has taken several actions viewed as unfriendly toward Moscow, the president himself has often appeared reluctant to openly criticize his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian government.

Pompeo, on the other hand, has been more openly critical of Moscow. He made that position clear in his confirmation hearing, blaming the poor condition of U.S.-Russia relations on "Russian bad behavior."

That may help Pompeo to cast himself as a counterweight as the Trump administration seeks to strike a balance between being overly critical of an increasingly ambitious Russia and appearing too eager for warmer relations. 

Key decisions in the Middle East

Pompeo's tenure in Foggy Bottom comes at a particularly tumultuous time in the Middle East — a reality embodied in the almost immediate dispatch of the newly minted secretary of State to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan this week.

Trump is sprinting toward a May 12 deadline for deciding whether to keep the U.S. in the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which he and Pompeo have both derided as a diplomatic disaster.

But during his confirmation hearing, Pompeo indicated that he wanted to "fix the deal," and suggested that, even if Trump were to withdraw from the pact, Tehran would not be likely to develop a nuclear weapon immediately. 

That assertion signaled a break from Pompeo's past warnings that Iran was bound and determined to develop a working nuclear arsenal.

As Trump prepares to make a decision on the Iran deal, the U.S. is also hurtling toward another major diplomatic move: opening a new embassy in Jerusalem.

The president's decision to transfer the outpost from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been a sore spot for Palestinians, whose leadership cut off contact with the White House after the December announcement. 

But as CIA director, Pompeo reportedly developed a good rapport with both Israeli and Palestinian intelligence officials, which could help him quell tensions with the Palestinians.

Shoring up diplomatic relations

Tillerson's often-fraught relationship with Trump gave rise to questions from foreign governments about whether the secretary of State enjoyed the confidence of the president — or even spoke for the administration.

During his tenure at the CIA, however, Pompeo quickly became a close confidant of Trump, often delivering intelligence briefings at the president's request. That could lend the secretary of State more weight abroad than his predecessor.

Yet despite Pompeo's perceived closeness to Trump on key policy issues, the secretary of State still faces the unique challenge of his diplomatic work being potentially rendered null or dramatically altered on a moment's notice by a presidential tweet.

Tillerson, for example, battled to stake out a clear position on North Korea when Trump ordered his top diplomat in a tweet to "stop wasting his time" after Tillerson suggested the U.S. was trying to open up lines of communication with Pyongyang.