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Mike Pompeo’s Dismal Legacy

The outgoing secretary of state may be the figure who leaves the most bitter taste of all President Trump’s former collaborators.
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Mike Pompeo, Yorba Linda, California, 7/23/2020 © Ringo Chiu / Shutterstock

January 20, 2021 12:36 EDT

As the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden takes place, pundits have begun offering political obituaries of prominent personalities associated with the outgoing administration. Mike Pompeo, for example. At 57, his career may not be over, but there is a sense in which, were it to be revived on the national stage, the nation may have the feeling that it is living through a remake of “Terminator.”

Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of state, may be the figure who leaves the most bitter taste of all President Trump’s former collaborators. Many consider him the most credible heir to the Trump mantle in the 2024 presidential race now that Mike Pence is deemed worthy of hanging. Pompeo has offered a parting shot in a tweet excoriating multiculturalism because that’s not “who America is.” It’s his way of affirming that America is white, Christian and supreme.

Can Mike Pompeo Swagger His Way Into 2024 Election?


New York Times journalist Lara Jakes has reviewed what she calls Pompeo’s “dubious” legacy. She expresses her low opinion of what Pompeo proudly lists as “his foreign policy successes.” Success meant demonstrating strength through incessant bullying with apparent impunity. It consisted of a foreign policy that systematically punished entire populations for the failure of their governments to align with Trump’s vision of “America First.” If success in US foreign policy is measured by the degree to which other populations are made to suffer, Trump and Pompeo have at least equaled and possibly exceeded the accomplishments of Bill Clinton (murderous sanctions on Iraq) George W. Bush (pre-emptive wars) and Barack Obama (drones galore).

Jakes notes the importance Pompeo gives to a deeply formative event in his career. It occurred when he was still a cadet at West Point in 1983 and read about the terrorist attack in Beirut in which an Iranian-linked militia sent a truck laden with explosives barreling into the barracks that housed the US Marines. The explosion killed 241 American troops. President Ronald Reagan responded by withdrawing all US troops from Lebanon.

Jakes describes Pompeo’s epiphany in these terms: “By his own telling — ‘My life wouldn’t be the same after that,’ Mr. Pompeo said on Tuesday, in his last public speech in office — it was a powerful indoctrination for a young soldier in training to protect the United States from deadly enemies.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:


The aim of most teaching, which produces a result that is diametrically opposed to the outcomes of learning.

Contextual Note

Secretary Pompeo’s speech, published on the State Department website, bears the title: “The Iran-al-Qa’ida Axis.” The title reveals the first principle of indoctrination: Never hesitate to use powerfully evocative ideas that have mobilized people’s emotions in the past, even if they have been discredited by history. The word “axis” is perfect for the needs of indoctrination. It was the title Italian dictator Benito Mussolini gave to his alliance with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, which later included Japan. Germany held the central place in what Mussolini’s imagination saw as the axis around which Europe turned. The metaphor made sense since the geography of the two countries could visually represent a north-south axis linking the Baltic to the Mediterranean.

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George W. Bush’s speechwriter David Frum invented the phrase “axis of evil” that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Intent on militarily occupying the Middle East, Bush took rhetorical advantage not only of the association with Hitler but also of the echo of President Ronald Reagan’s famous characterization of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” Little did it matter that, unlike Hitler and Mussolini, the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Mohammad Khatami were not allied. They were clear adversaries who had recently been at war with each other. Little did it matter that Kim Jung-il’s North Korea had no strategic links to either nation. The US disapproved of the politics of all three nations, which made them an axis. An axis is any two or more countries deemed to threaten American interests.

In today’s rulebook of political rhetoric, it is considered illegitimate to compare politicians or governments to Hitler and the Nazis. Voices on Twitter will cry foul. That is why the term “axis” is so useful. It evokes Hitler without mentioning his name. 

Several months after Bush’s successful gambit announcing the “axis of evil,” Undersecretary of State John Bolton took the concept a step further. In a 2002 speech, “Beyond the Axis of Evil: Additional Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Bolton pasted onto Bush’s three-pronged “axis” three more nations that had nothing to do with one another: Cuba, Libya and Syria. (Bolton and Pompeo later formed a high-profile hawkish duo in the Trump administration, until Bolton was dismissed for insubordination.)

Pompeo has now shamelessly recycled the evocative term to apply it to what have become the two favorite enemies in the most recent edition of the US handbook of indoctrination. The first is a nation: Iran, a symbol of pure evil since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The other is the symbol of more than pure, Satanic evil ever since 9/11: al-Qaeda. Although there has never been evidence of a strategic connection between Iran and al-Qaeda, Pompeo undoubtedly remembers that there was none between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaeda, either. But a majority of Republicans for years believed they were allied simply because the Bush regime kept telling the same lie. After all, they are both Muslim and wear funny clothes. They are clearly not “who America is” and, therefore, must hate America.

Historical Note

Lara Jakes has no doubts about the reputation that will follow Pompeo in his future career: “As he leaves office, Mr. Pompeo, 57, has been tagged by a number of officials and analysts with the dubious distinction of the worst secretary of state in American history.” He is certainly one of the worst interpreters of historical events of all time. If what he says is true about the Beirut attack’s influence on his thinking, he has drawn the most inappropriate conclusions from an event that led to a significant shift in US foreign policy away from the commitment to belligerence Pompeo favors.

Micah Zenko, writing for Foreign Policy in 2014, noted that following the attack, Reagan “ended America’s military commitment to a strategic mistake that was peripheral to America’s interests.” General Colin Powell had already called that commitment “goofy.” Pompeo’s memory of the moment he learned about the attack apparently fixed his belief that contrary to Reagan, the correct response is to recognize and even magnify the threat before taking “significant actions to crush it.” Pompeo sees no reason for recognizing the danger of military overreach.

The same tragic event had a slightly different impact on other people. Malcolm Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut and the father of NBA coach Steve Kerr, was assassinated by terrorists in Beirut a few months after that attack. Steve Kerr was a teenager at the time. The terrorists who assassinated his father called themselves Islamic Holy War.

As a former NBA player and successful coach, Steve Kerr has frequently spoken out against Trump’s and Pompeo’s brutal policies. In a New York Times profile, Kerr spoke out about the need for understanding and the deleterious attitude prevalent in the US toward Muslims: “It’s really simple to demonize Muslims because of our anger over 9/11, but it’s obviously so much more complex than that.” He cites the legacy of his late father: “He at least gave me the understanding that it’s complex. And as easy as it is to demonize people, there’s a lot of different factors involved in creating this culture that we’re in now.” Politics happens to be one.

Kerr recalls from his childhood experiences in Egypt and Lebanon a period of history when “Americans were revered in much of the Middle East.” He believes that recent US policies, and especially those applied by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, have irreparably damaged the image of the nation. In contrast to Pompeo’s lifelong resolution to employ force against other nations because of the events in Beirut, Steve Kerr saw no sense in the kind of xenophobic, militaristic indoctrination Pompeo identifies with. The terrorists who slaughtered Americans in Beirut could be so bold and cruel precisely because they were indoctrinated. In contrast with the young Mike Pompeo, the young Steve Kerr understood that indoctrination was the problem, not the solution. 

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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