It's been wild days – unless you got your messages from @SecPompeo, the official Twitter account of outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The republic is in crisis, but at Digital Foggy Bottom, it's all #swagger to use one of Pompeo's favorite terms
Since the beginning of the new year, Pompeo's Twitter account has been raging and promoting the achievements of his tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The account posted between 20 and 30 tweets a day, each defending the administration's record, calling all the major social media hashtags "Make America Great Again": #LeadingFromTheFront, #SoMuchWinning, #StillWinning, #MaximumPressure, #AmericansFirst, # PeaceThruStrength and of course #swagger. At the time of submission of this column, there were approximately 200 such tweets.
The report kept this up through Wednesday's uprising when President Donald Trump called on a mob to storm the Capitol in order to overcome his election loss. Pompeo staff paused long enough to put out a short thread with three tweets condemning the violence. After a presumably decent hiatus, the account returned as usual.
Pompeo's tweets are regularly dived on social media. But they represent something else: the first draft of narrative management that their wiser members compose of their heritage. Individual tweets are not much. But when you see them all together in a huge mess of hashtags, things get clearer.
The tweets lack diplomatic accomplishments measured in a traditional way – there are few mentions of agreements made, no statistical measures of progress, nothing. As far as concrete measures are mentioned at all, they are largely negative measures such as the withdrawal from international agreements such as the treaty on medium-range nuclear forces, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iranian nuclear deal.
But my god, there's a hell of a lot of attitude. The recurring theme, tweet by tweet, is not so much about what they did as how they did it. When Pompeo talks about having done something, he mostly talks about the attitude of the administration or the attitude that it had more than concrete advantages.
In a sense, this is not surprising. At the beginning of the administration, several officials used the term "resigned" to emphasize their tough new foreign policy. For four years, the government announced that many places were "up to date" including Iran, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela and, in one case, the world. It didn't mean anything, but it didn't matter. It was about the pose.
All of this has very concrete implications. Take North Korea, where Pompeo has ridden the least deserved winning lap since its boss claimed to have won the 2020 election, both on Twitter and in interviews. Sure, he eventually admits that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hasn't decided to give up his nuclear weapons – at least not yet. (This is progress for a man who routinely claimed Kim agreed to disarm, even when North Korea repeatedly said otherwise.) And yet, Pompeo declares victory because Kim has agreed to test nuclear and ballistic weapons end missiles that can hit the United States.
"But we have convinced Chairman Kim, at least since the start of these talks," Pompeo said in an interview with Bloomberg News, "to stop testing his long-range ballistic missiles, which threaten the United States." . We convinced him not to develop his nuclear capabilities by testing a nuclear weapons system. "
There's just one little problem with that. Kim has waived this moratorium. He literally gave a speech in which he said: "There is no longer any reason to be unilaterally bound by an obligation to which there is no counterparty."
It is true, as Pompeo says, that Kim has not launched an ICBM since December 2017. Since the collapse of negotiations in February 2019, North Korea has publicly resumed testing of ICBM engines, an important step in testing the massive ICBM that Kim showed up in the parade in October 2020. Kim has explicitly stated that North Korea will use the ICBM as well will test a number of other new nuclear weapons soon. If nothing changes, it's just a matter of time.
And then there's this: Kim only agreed to the moratorium after conducting a test, under Trump's supervision, of a thermonuclear weapon that exploded at about 10 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb and an ICBM that targets all of the United States could achieve. including Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. While I believe the Biden government should do whatever it takes to extend these moratoriums – what's next will be even worse – the trick would have been to get the moratoriums before North Korea has tested these capabilities.
Pompeo boasts of being strong, but North Korea agreed to the moratoria from a position of strength – "Hey, we tested a thermonuclear weapon and missile to drop on you. Shame if that messes up your re-election." "It was a shakedown, something Kim thought Trump would understand. Trump lifts the sanctions and Kim doesn't cause him any more problems. Kim doesn't disarm, but the problem somehow disappears from view.
In Pompeo's version, however, North Korea buckled under "maximum pressure" and came to the negotiating table.
Trump had to test this proposal. Refusing to lift sanctions on North Korea, he argued that maximum pressure that would have forced Kim to the table would force him to persevere and disarm. He was wrong. North Korea did not disarm no matter how much boast the United States showed. Instead, talks collapsed in Hanoi and North Korea has resumed development of its ICBMs and other new nuclear capabilities. Trump leaves North Korea far better armed than he found it.
Pompeo is rewriting North Korea's history to imply that upon leaving office the problem is under control and an agreement is imminent. If the moratoriums collapse and North Korea resumes testing, Pompeo will simply claim that they were on the verge of something great before President-elect Joe Biden's team messed everything up.
And the pathetic thing is that the argument will work for a lot of people. It will work because the partisan policy demands allegiance to Trump. But it will also work on the part of the public, as Pompeo's reasoning is based on a certain weakness in American political life. Americans love to believe that virtue can transcend structural realities – it's the plot of every underdog movie Hollywood has ever made. If Pompeo pretends that boasting can work diplomatic wonders, he's firmly entrenched in mainstream American self-image.
And so Trump's defense will be this: He restored American toughness, but his chance to take advantage of it was stolen along with the elections. All of Biden's failures will be due to the fact that Democrats don't love America as much as Republicans do. And its successes will be based on Republican leverage. A generation of aspiring Republican foreign policy wonks are expected to either memorize this catechism or risk being labeled a socialist cuck.
It was, of course, inevitable that Pompeo would defend his legacy – and that of Trump. Even Richard Nixon tried to rehabilitate himself after stepping out of grace from the presidency and accepting a guilty pardon. If Pompeo's efforts look weird by comparison, if they're a bloated mess of submissive praise for Trump, empty slogan ringing, and half-truths, then they're also a fair reflection of the man himself.