Trump, despite his wild claims of fraud, has acknowledged reality, in fact if not in tweet, and started the transition process with President-elect Joe Biden. It appears, however, that he has abandoned his official duties, focusing all his attention on delegitimizing Biden’s electoral victory. Trump appears to have embarked on a ‘scorched earth’ strategy, sabotaging the U.S. economy, the response to the pandemic, and the national security landscape. In this, he appears to have the active cooperation of Mike Pompeo, the last adult left on Trump’s national security team. Trump’s National Security Advisor and White House Chief of Staff spend all their time defending Trump’s attacks on the elections. The President has fired his Secretary of Defense and his ‘acting’ replacement is clearly in over his head. Biden has about six weeks before he can grab the tiller of the ship of state and steer it away from the course Trump set.
But does Mike Pompeo have his own agenda while enabling Trump’s scorched earth tactics? On one issue, picking a fight with Turkish President Erdogan, Pompeo appears to have struck out on his own ignoring his distracted President. Pompeo visited the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople to show “support for religious freedom” in Turkey, outraging Erdogan. This comes on top of Pompeo’s generally anti-Turkish stance on events in the Eastern Mediterranean, including his decision to partly lift the arms embargo on Cyprus and his criticism of Turkish claims on the Exclusive Economic Zones of both Greece and Cyprus. This contrasts with Trump’s toadying to the Turkish autocrat. Erdogan could once have checked these gambits with a call to the Oval office. Unfortunately for him, his best buddy appears too busy to take the call.
Pompeo has also burnished his credentials in Israel. He became the first Secretary of State to visit the Golan Heights, and the first to visit Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. On that occasion he dramatically altered 50 years of policy and announced that all goods originating in those settlements will be labeled “Made in Israel,” essentially recognizing Israeli legal sovereignty over all of Palestine, not just the part Trump allocated to Israel. Pompeo has changed U.S. passports to allow anyone born in Jerusalem to read “born in Israel.” He declared BDS (a movement seeking to pressure Israel to resolve its dispute with the Palestinians) as anti-Semitic. Finally, Pompeo engineered a ‘secret’ meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman at which, according to reports, both he and Netanyahu attempted to pressure the Saudi royal into agreeing to an attack on Iran. Others explain the mysterious encounter as a last-ditch effort to secure Saudi-Israeli ‘normalization’ following the Abraham Accords. Both appear to be non-starters. Meanwhile, Pompeo has taken the lead on a series of actions advertised as increasing the pressure on Iran, including the deployment of more American forces to the Gulf, declaring more sanctions, and allowing leaks that Trump had to be talked out of ordering a major attack on Iran. Given Trump’s demonstrated aversion to starting wars, this sudden last-minute change of heart appears totally out of character.
Has Pompeo started his 2024 bid for the Presidency? Clearly, his moves on Israel position him as a candidate who can claim the support of the pro-settler wing of the American Jewish community. His visit to the Ecumenical Patriarch and support for Greece against Turkey serves the same objective with the Greek-American community. It also distinguishes his record from that of his boss, who has had the closest personal relationship with a Turkish leader of any American President.
Pompeo’s religious zealotry may also explain his frenetic activities. He takes pride in keeping an open Bible on his desk to consult for policy guidance. His dedication to the reestablishment of Israel in its original homeland goes without question. His apparently sincere convictions could well explain his visit to the Ecumenical Patriarch, his criticism of Turkey’s bad record on religious freedom, and his condemnation of Erdogan’s conversion of Aghia Sofia from museum to mosque. (Trump remained silent.)
Finally, his actions do lay the ground for 2024. Pompeo’s implementation of Trump’s ‘scorched earth’ policies threatens Biden’s first term success. Biden has said he will reinstate the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement with Iran, with little sympathy for the objections of Saudi Arabia or Netanyahu. Our JCPOA partners all support American reinstatement. A disastrous incident with Iran prior to January could foreclose Biden’s options. Pompeo has also created so many new “facts on the ground” in Palestine that will enormously complicate Biden’s attempts to restart Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. Realistically, he cannot undo moving the Embassy to Jerusalem but this, in the larger scheme of things, will not kill negotiations. However, the legitimization of settlements and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the whole of an expanded Jerusalem render the “two-state solution,” the cornerstone of American policy, virtually unattainable. No Israeli government can turn down this windfall and Biden himself will have to reconcile any actions with long-established Democratic Party support for Israel.
Trump plans to run for President in 2024. If his efforts get derailed by courts or by bankruptcy, Trump has no obvious political heir. Pompeo probably sees himself as a leading contender for the GOP nomination. On the other hand, if Trump does run, Pompeo as his most loyal and only competent acolyte could be Vice President to a very old man with an unhealthy lifestyle.