Pompeo’s pugilistic rhetoric masks a dangerous absence, a shrinking from the world stage at a crucial moment. “As we face the biggest public health crisis of our time, we’re saddled with a secretary of state who is uniquely unsuited to carry out the kind of diplomacy needed to galvanize the global response it demands,” Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “From undermining cooperation among the Group of Seven nations to shunning a European-led effort to develop an effective vaccine, his unrelenting fixation with punishing Beijing is leaving us exposed and isolated. His credibility is so diminished, any statements he makes are met with skepticism, especially among our allies. Once again, it’s America alone.”
After mostly being missing in action in March, as the coronavirus crisis really took root in the U.S. and embassies abroad, Pompeo has since emerged as a ubiquitous presence, ramping up his media appearances—particularly with Trump-friendly outlets—to push Trump’s favored origin story for COVID-19. According to a count by Foreign Policy, in the month of April alone, the secretary of state conducted more than 90 interviews and media roundtables with U.S. and international outlets. A recurring theme across the media hits is Pompeo adopting a hard-line toward China and a confident posture that the novel coronavirus came from a Chinese lab. During a Sunday interview with This Week, the secretary of state asserted there was “enormous evidence” to support the lab theory, but offered none.
“We’ve said from the beginning that this was a virus that originated in Wuhan, China. We took a lot of grief for that from the outside, but I think the whole world can see now. Remember, China has a history of infecting the world, and they have a history of running substandard laboratories. These are not the first times that we’ve had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab,” Pompeo told ABC’s Martha Raddatz. “So while the Intelligence Community continues to do its work, they should continue to do that and verify so that we are certain, I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.” (The Wuhan lab has denied this theory.)
“The Chinese Communist Party had the opportunity to prevent all of the calamity that has befallen the world, and here we find ourselves today,” Pompeo continued. “China behaved like authoritarian regimes do. It attempted to conceal and hide and confuse.”
It isn’t that diplomats don’t recognize that China hamstrung the world in responding to the coronavirus with its lack of transparency. But they see Pompeo’s approach as misguided, particularly given the nature of the COVID-19 virus and the reality that stamping it out will require international cooperation—particularly from China. “We will need to work with the Chinese—and others—on global health, global economic, and global security issues. Picking a loud rhetorical fight accomplishes little for a long-term strategy to manage our China relationship,” a former high-ranking State Department official told me. “I don’t mean to say that we should shy away from expressing our views or being clear with the Chinese when we find their behavior unacceptable. But there are better ways to do that than launching heated rhetoric via U.S. radio and TV. As America’s top diplomat, I’d hope for a more strategic and farsighted strategy from the secretary of state.”
For Pompeo, a longtime China hawk, who made a name for himself as a congressman from Kansas by peddling fringe theories and emerging as a vocal Clinton critic during the Benghazi hearings, the tone is not exactly surprising. “Before coming to the cabinet he was a congressman who trafficked in incendiary and baseless conspiracy theory,” a former U.S. ambassador told me. “He is still doing that as secretary of state. Instead of conducting the bare minimum of diplomacy to even just participate in conversations with other countries to solve problems, he spends time trying to convince our own public that those very problems are someone else’s fault.”
“It’s malpractice and dereliction of duty to maintain relationships in the interest of our national security,” this person continued. “At least he is consistent.”
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