Mike Pompeo is being lined up to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, but I believe he should remain in his present position as CIA director.
Don't get me wrong, I believe Pompeo could serve effectively as America's chief diplomat. He has the knowledge and intellectual curiosity to manage the team at Foggy Bottom and the temperament to negotiate with championship BSers like the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers. It's also clear that Tillerson's tenure needs to come to an end.
The problem, however, is that assuming Jeff Bezos can't be persuaded to take on the CIA job, Pompeo is not easily replaceable.
After all, it's increasingly clear that Pompeo is thriving in his current position.
We gained proof of this last week, when Pompeo and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, were interviewed by Bret Baier in California.
Put simply, Pompeo evidenced an abundance of the two qualities that the CIA most depends on for its success: comfort with risk taking and intellectual rigor.
On Iran, Pompeo (rightly) confirmed that he recently warned the head of the Islamic Republic's covert action force not to threaten U.S. interests in Iraq. But if he was aggressive in this regard, Pompeo also showed cognizance of the complexity of Iranian politics. Describing various power blocks in Tehran, Pompeo referenced Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, President Hassan Rouhani, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and explained that "one not ought to think of Iran as a unitary actor here."
This distinction is important in that it suggests Pompeo is focused on countering Iranian aggression while also mitigating actions that would destabilize more-moderate elements in the regime. This is necessary for any long-term U.S. policy success against Iran.
The California event also showed that Pompeo has the trust of President Trump. That's a big deal.
Earning Trump's trust, as we know, is a rare quality and one that Panetta rightly praised Pompeo for his success in establishing. Consider that if Trump doesn't trust his CIA director, American policymaking will suffer in a vacuum of ignorance.
Instead, it is based on Trump's appreciation for Pompeo's product. Some criticize the director for being "too political" in this regard, but I believe the opposite is true. By engaging with Trump at a personal level, Pompeo ensures the weighted influence of his agency in Trump's deliberations.
For one example as to why this is important, consider how Pompeo responded when Baier asked him whether the U.S. would continue supporting the Kurds of northern Syria. This is relevant in light of the apparent pledge by President Trump to Turkey to cease U.S. support for Kurdish groups. While Pompeo wouldn't be drawn to an exact answer, he noted that "throwing allies under the bus is bad form."
I smiled at those words. As I've explained, the U.S. has a keen strategic interest in ensuring that Iran is not able to displace Kurdish influence along the Iraq-Syrian border.
Pompeo also evidenced success at the broader strategic level. He argued that "in each and every case" he has asked Trump for more authority to take risks, the president has assented. Again, as I've outlined, while Pompeo's pro-risk approach to leading the CIA is important (albeit complex), it requires political support from the top. That he has won that support means Pompeo can lead his agency to deliver more security for America and better understandings to our policymakers.
Still, the event also showed why Trump trusts Pompeo: The CIA director has a penchant for rising to the fight!
For a few minutes during the discussion, Pompeo and Panetta were at each other's necks as they disagreed over the merits (or otherwise) of President Trump's tweets. With Panetta criticizing Trump, Pompeo pointed out that many of the foreign policy issues Trump is now addressing were left to metastasize under President Obama's watch.
Yet, Pompeo also exemplified an intellectual independence that is an absolute necessity for any effective CIA director.
Praising Panetta for his work on counterterrorism operations while at the CIA, Pompeo stated that he frequently asks the Obama-era director "how to think about things." This might seem simple, but it shows a bipartisan intellectual introspection — something that defines the CIA at its best.
Finally, Pompeo also showed that he's willing to listen and learn from his foreign counterparts. He specifically referenced ongoing U.S. efforts to support European counterintelligence operations against Russian intelligence services. Intelligence relations are instrumental in the U.S.-European alliance.
Ultimately, the work of the CIA is too important to be left to just anybody. Pompeo is clearly exceeding expectations, both in his relationship with Trump and in his leadership of a complex but crucially important agency. For the sake of the nation, he should remain in Langley, Va.