For the Americas, Pompeo seen as an improvement over Tillerson

CIA Director Mike Pompeo speaks at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Washington.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo speaks at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Washington. AP

Mike Pompeo is no novice on Latin America.

If there was ever a question about his role in the Trump administration’s policy toward the region, the then-CIA director made clear in January that it was his agency’s intelligence informing White House action on the president’s biggest Latin America play so far — sanctions against Venezuela.

"Who had the money?" Pompeo said, describing the questions President Donald Trump asked his intelligence chief as he considered how to punish Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas for unwinding democratic institutions. “Where was the debt?"

“It wasn't long thereafter, that would have been the first or second set of sanctions that the administration put in place, were enabled by the very intelligence that we had delivered and he had requested,” Pompeo told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute.

Now, after Trump dumped Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and announced on Twitter that he would nominate Pompeo to lead the department, Pompeo’s supporters are pointing to that exchange as evidence that America’s new top diplomat already has a better relationship with the president, and that it will benefit everyone who seeks closer ties between Washington and the region.

Indeed, from the right and the left, Latin Americanists agreed that Pompeo would be an improvement over Tillerson, who largely ignored the region, failing even to meet with many of his ambassadors.

"Secretary Tillerson is leaving our relationships with neighbors in the Americas in their worst shape in years,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “From being absent at the last minute at a key OAS meeting on Venezuela to harkening back to the Monroe Doctrine during a recent speech, Secretary Tillerson's approach to the region has been extremely disappointing.”

Pompeo is known as a foreign policy hawk with a deep knowledge of Russia and Iran, but he will be forced to think more about Latin America because of next month’s Summit of the Americas in Peru, and as the White House grapples with ways to address the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela.

Senator Marco Rubio, who has been frustrated with how the State Department under Tillerson and his right-hand man Thomas Shannon have handled the Venezuelan crisis, said he looked forward to working with Pompeo on the issue.

“I know Mike Pompeo well. He is an excellent choice,” Rubio said. “His experience as CIA director, an Army officer, and a congressman, and his proven leadership on national security matters give him unique qualifications to lead the State Department at this critical juncture. I will enthusiastically support his nomination and am hopeful he can be confirmed quickly.”

Pompeo is expected help smooth out philoshical differences between the White House and State Department on Venezuela. And regional experts expect his relationship with Trump will help bring new energy and attention to regional issues.

“A secretary of State’s only currency is his or her relationship with the president,” said John Feeley, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Panama until this month. He said he hopes Pompeo can reassert State’s leadership "or at least its relevance" on everything from Venezuela to NAFTA and immigration.

Pompeo’s appointment almost certainly means tougher times for Venezuela’s government, as Washington presses forward with sanctions against Maduro and his team amid a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.

“The difference is you’re going to see more of an effort to knock out the legs of the stool of Chavismo," said José Cárdenas, a former U.S. Agency for International Development official under President George W. Bush, referencing Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chavez.

In July, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Samuel Moncada, accused Pompeo of secretly plotting to topple the Venezuelan government after Pompeo signaled CIA’s desire for a new government in Caracas and acknowledged having conversations about the issue in Colombia and Mexico. “There is a secret operation by the Central Intelligence Agency to split up a democratically elected government,” Moncada said.

Given the CIA’s history in the region, criticisms from governments in left-leaning countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia are expected, but James Cason, retired U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and previously chief of mission at the U.S. interests section in Havana under Bush, said countries in the region are eager for more attention to be paid to Latin America.

At least, he said, their ambassadors might have someone who will receive them in the State Department, “all of which was not happening under Tillerson.”

“This can only be a step up, but we have to wait and see,” Cason said.

On Tuesday, foreign leaders from Jamaica and Mexico were careful to praise Tillerson while expressing hope for working with Pompeo.

“We certainly recognize Secretary Tillerson’s positive influence in building a strong bilateral relationship,” said Ambassador Gerónimo Gutiérrez of Mexico. “We wish Mike Pompeo success and look forward to working with him as soon as his confirmation process in the Senate concludes.”

Tillerson oversaw a major shrinking of the diplomatic corp, including the retirement of Shannon and high profile resignations of US Ambassadors Roberta Jacobson to Mexico, John Feeley to Panama and Foreign Service officer Elizabeth Shackelford, who worked in Nairobi for the U.S. mission to Somalia.

State has been shedding diplomats rapidly; 60 percent of the State Departments’ top-ranking career diplomats have left and new applications to join the Foreign Service have fallen by half, according to recent data from the American Foreign Service Association, the professional organization of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

The State Department will benefit by having a secretary whose views are taken seriously in the White House. But Benjamin Gedan, who served as South America director on the National Security Council in the Obama administration and previously was responsible for Argentina policy at the State Department, said the close relationship is only an asset if Pompeo “understands the importance of diplomacy, and advocates for the resources the State Department needs to succeed."

"Until now, those arguing for ‘America First’ protectionism and isolationism have drowned out the voices of foreign policy experts who recognize the value of our global alliances," Gedan said. “Ideally, that will now change."

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez