U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Becomes Trump's Point Man for Middle East

'The most important takeaway from this trip is that Pompeo now holds the Middle East portfolio,' former State Department and Pentagon official says

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, is greeted by Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, right, before his meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, in Amman, Jordan, April 30, 2018.
Khalil Mazraawi/AP

WASHINGTON –  Mike Pompeo's first visit to the Middle East as Secretary of State ended on Monday in Amman, Jordan, where Pompeo met with Jordan's King Abdullah and with the country's Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi. The four-day visit, which also included stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel, highlighted the Trump administration's priorities in the region, and also established Pompeo as the person leading Middle East policy within the administration. 

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"The most important takeaway from this trip is that Pompeo now holds the Middle East portfolio," says Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department and Pentagon official, who now works at the Washington-based Center for New American Security. "The State Department is back in the Middle East. It is no longer exclusively the territory of Jared Kushner," Goldenberg told Haaretz on Monday. 

<< In first meeting, Pompeo thrills Netanyahu with hawkish talk on Iran – and what he doesn’t say about Palestinians | Analysis <<

Pompeo was confirmed as Secretary of State last Thursday. Immediately after swearing into the role, he flew out of Washington to Brussels, where he attended a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. After a day in Europe, he headed to the Middle East, with Riyadh being his first stop. The fact that within 48 hours of becoming Secretary of State, he was already on his way to the region sent a message about his interest in this part of the world. 

For the first year of the Trump administration, Pompeo's predecessor, Rex Tillerson, did not lead the administration's Middle East policy. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which Trump described as a top priority, was handed to Kushner, his son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, formerly one of Trump's attorneys. Kushner also took possession of the administration's policy towards Saudi Arabia, a country he secretly visited last summer after striking a strong personal relationship with its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Throughout the administration's first year in office, there were multiple reports about Tillerson's frustration over Kushner's expanding involvement in the Middle East. The two found themselves clashing last summer over Saudi Arabia's decision to impose a blockade on its neighbor, Qatar. Tillerson, a former chief executive for the energy giant Exxon Mobile, urged the Saudis to end the blockade and resolve their differences with Qatar through negotiations. Kushner, according to press reports, urged a different line, and was successful in convincing Trump to express support for Saudi Arabia's pressure on the Qataris. 

"Tillerson never recovered from that incident," says Goldenberg. "It showed the entire world that he didn't have influence inside the administration. Trump undercut him while he was trying to solve the problem."

Ironically, Goldenberg adds, "with time, Trump's views on this evolved, and he adopted Tillerson's position." But for Tillerson himself, it was already too late to make a difference. 

Pompeo, who was a Republican member of Congress before becoming Trump's CIA Director last year, seemed before his nomination like a potential ally for the anti-Qatari policies of Saudi Arabia, based on his past statements about the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist organization that Qatar has supported over the years. Yet on his visit to Riyadh this weekend, he forcefully urged the Saudis to change their policies against Qatar and strive to find a solution. 

According to a number of American reporters who accompanied Pompeo on his trip, the new Secretary's message to the Saudi leadership was "enough is enough" with regards to Qatar. "Enough with the silliness," one American official described the bottom line. Pompeo has made it clear in his public statements that he views Iran as the most important problem in the region, and that fighting Iran's influence requires cooperation between different countries, including between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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"Tillerson said the same things, but Pompeo seems to have more credibility when he's saying it now," according to Goldenberg. 

One issue that didn't seem like a high priority for Pompeo was the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In a press conference with Jordan's Foreign Minister in Amman, Pompeo said that the Trump administration remains committed to reaching a peace deal, and would endorse a two-state solution if the Israelis and the Palestinians did the same.

In fact, Pompeo stated that the U.S. was open to a "two-party solution as a likely outcome" at the press conference. "With respect to the two-state solution, the parties will ultimately make the decision," he said.  

Sec. of State holds joint press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister, April 30, 2018.

But it's clear that unlike the Iran deal and the Gulf dispute, this issue still remains mostly under the responsibility of Kushner and Greenblatt - at least for now. 

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked for two decades on Israeli-Arab negotiations, predicted that Pompeo's role when it comes to Middle East policy will only grow, and that he will become more influential than Kushner and also Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, who has become the ultimate favorite of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

"As Pompeo's role ascends," Miller wrote on twitter, "influence of others will fade. Haley will remain politically resonant and popular but diminished, as will Kushner -already well on his way."