Brett Graham: Confirm Pompeo, Deny Haspel

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 5:28pm

Last week, in the latest round of “Survivor: West Wing Edition,” President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and nominated Mike Pompeo, current CIA director and former Tea Party congressman, to take his place. To fill Pompeo’s post, Trump nominated Pompeo’s deputy, Gina Haspel. Each of these people would be a disaster in their post and potentially irreparably harmful to both U.S. foreign policy and what little moral standing this country has left. Senate Democrats, however, in the current political climate, should consider biting the bullet and confirming Pompeo, while remaining firmly opposed to Haspel.

First of all, it is important to establish why both are so odious. Pompeo is your standard order, run-of-the-mill Republican hawk; his career has been financed almost entirely thanks to the Koch brothers, he puts forward a “hard line” on terrorism that often bleeds into Islamophobia, he thinks the National Security Agency’s surveillance program does “good and important work” and he wants Edward Snowden extradited and sentenced to death. He resembles, in more ways than one, an external-facing, slightly younger Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff known for his controversial stance on immigration law.

Compared to his deputy and potential successor, he’s also the more palatable of the two. Haspel ran a CIA torture site in Thailand in the early 2000s, where prisoners were waterboarded, slammed against walls and confined within coffin-like boxes. For those not already sold on her, she later oversaw the destruction of the video evidence that would have almost certainly damned her as a war criminal in violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. So, torture and a cover-up. Double trouble.

There are, though, a few fundamental situational factors to take into account. First of all, consider the current state of the agencies that each of these would-be Kubrick characters have been nominated to run. The State Department has been understaffed to the point that, by many accounts, it is struggling to function properly. As recently as February, no fewer than 45 ambassadorships were left vacant, many of which are to important world powers and allies. South Korea, Australia, Germany, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all belong to this group. Though the thought of staffing these positions with conservative, reactionary ideologues is not the most appealing eventuality, there is foreign policy merit to having warm bodies in those chairs. Pompeo has been, according to reports, decently effective and well-liked at the CIA. A lukewarm performance like that would be a major step up from what State looked like under Tillerson.

Secondly, after he staffs the place up and gets it in working order, there’s a good chance that most foreign policy will still be run out of the White House. More than temperament, what impeded Rex Tillerson’s ability to get things done was the fact that any diplomatic conversation or stance could and would be thrown out the window in 140 characters or fewer. Twitter is Trump’s State Department and he is his own ambassador to the world. That is not likely to change depending on whom is serving in that post.

For those news sources that seem to suggest Pompeo is different in any way to the sycophants that came before him — that Trump listens, trusts or respects him more than anyone else who has come through the White House to this point — please stop. There was a time that he listened to Steve Bannon, too. At other times, it was going to be Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s cooler heads prevailing. Remember when we were supposed to collectively breathe a sigh of relief when John Kelly entered the picture because he was a moderating force to who Trump listened? How’s that working out?

Pompeo is not a game changer and, at this point in time, we should treat that as a victory. Republicans face a tough road between now and the midterm elections. Now is not the time to pick a confirmation fight over a nominee as qualified as Pompeo, just to give them a bit of slack and make people think that this is partisanship business as usual.

Senate Democrats should nonetheless make a distinction; Pompeo, though abhorrent, is qualified to do the job and the State Department needs a secretary. The CIA, on the other hand, is not in any state of crisis whatsoever (that we know of). It does not necessarily need this modern-day Torquemada to keep the lights on and the trains on time, so to speak.

Pompeo is just about on par when it comes to what we expected from a Trump nominee. Confirm him. The State Department needs a secretary. Haspel is almost undeniably a war criminal. The CIA can wait for someone much better.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.