Rexit and American foreign policy: from the ‘axis of adults’ to a cabal of cranks?
19 Mar 2018|

‘Rexit’—the much rumoured departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from Foggy Bottom—has finally occurred. The so-called ‘axis of adults’ composed of Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser, HR McMaster—viewed by some as a moderating influence on Donald Trump’s more abrasive ‘America First’ foreign policy tendencies—is now a man down. Moreover, HR McMaster is, according to Politico’s Susan Glasser, also on his way out. This would leave the ‘axis of adults’ mantle resting solely on Mattis’ shoulders.

The question that remains, then, is what shape American foreign policy will take when Mattis inevitably exits stage left?

While Tillerson has been lambasted as the ‘worst secretary of state in living memory’ due to him overseeing a sharp reduction in both the State Department’s budget and policy expertise, and for his inability to develop a consistent relationship with the president and other key national security officials, his successor, Mike Pompeo, now looms as a major potential competitor for that title.

‘Even implacable enemies of the administration,’ Eliot Cohen asserted in December 2017, should ‘cheer’ Pompeo’s shift from the CIA at Langley to Foggy Bottom because ‘he is a former Army officer, a successful politician, and a veteran of running a large bureaucracy—the CIA. This means that, unlike Tillerson, he is used to motivating career people whom he cannot either fire or incentivize with money.’

Cohen failed to note, however, key ideological characteristics that make Pompeo a fellow-traveller of elements of the fringe right-wing that Trump has so actively courted since he began his presidential campaign in 2016.

While Tillerson’s ham-fisted management of Foggy Bottom may now be replaced with a sound pair of hands on the managerial side of the equation, Trump’s appointment of Pompeo threatens to increase the influence of what can only be described as a cabal of cranks and conspiracy theorists on the direction of American foreign policy. The transition from Tillerson to Pompeo, Amanda Sloat has noted, ‘may be good for State Department personnel and processes but bad for policy’.

Pompeo, as both a congressman and director of the CIA, has clearly expressed views aligned with the fringe right and that challenge long-standing US commitments to various aspects of the ‘rules-based order’.

As a congressman he regularly appeared on the radio program ‘Secure Freedom Radio’ hosted by the Center for Security Policy’s Frank Gaffney. During one episode in February 2015, Pompeo and Gaffney speculated that President Barack Obama had ‘an affinity’ with the cause of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

Frank Gaffney, it should be noted, has been a purveyor of an extreme right-wing conspiracy theory for decades. Gaffney argued during the 2016 election that Trump was combatting a ‘Red-Green-Black’ axis between ‘the Left’, the Black Lives Matter movement and the ‘Islamists’ to subvert the United States. In this scenario Hillary Clinton, with her commitment to a neoliberal economic agenda, open borders, criminal justice reform, and support for conservative Middle Eastern states (such as Saudi Arabia) in the struggle against both Islamic State and the Assad regime, formed the ‘connective tissue’ of a conspiracy that would see ‘the elimination of our country’.

Elsewhere Pompeo has made numerous and inflammatory statements depicting a civilisational war between the ‘Christian West and Muslim East’, supported the continued use of Guantanamo Bay and ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques in the ‘war on terror’, and as CIA Director called for regime change in North Korea.

A particular lightning rod for his ire as a congressman was the Obama administration’s negotiation of the nuclear deal with Iran. For Pompeo, the nuclear deal not only amounted to an American ‘retreat’ from the Middle East, but sinister evidence of the Obama administration’s conclusion ‘that America is better off with greater Iranian influence in the Middle East’. Unsurprisingly he has pushed strongly for decertification of the Iran deal, aligning him clearly with the known preferences of President Trump to ‘get tough’ on Tehran.

If Rex Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department was defined by a disconnect between Foggy Bottom and the White House, Pompeo’s looks set to tune it to the president’s own brand of belligerent American nationalism. This, as Jacon Heilbrunn notes, shouldn’t be of comfort to friends and allies of the United States: ‘Maybe the only thing worse than Trump the isolationist is Trump the interventionist.’