Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s new book, “Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love,” combines two well-known genres of the Washington memoir. The first is a gauzy recounting of how a gifted politician rose to power, a figure so heroic that he/she could perhaps be the next commander in chief by virtue of his/her brilliance, humility and a general willingness to serve.
The second is the bitter, score-settling accounts of Washington insiders who position themselves as much smarter than many of their peers.
The first category typically ends up in the bargain bin at bookstores. The second category can be considerably more revealing and interesting – for instance, “The Room Where It Happened,” John Bolton’s blistering takedown of former President Donald Trump based on his time serving as Trump’s third national security adviser.
“Never Give an Inch” combines Pompeo’s case that he would be a terrific US president with considerable elements of the score-settling memoir. It is already #5 on the Amazon chart this week, so it’s selling quite well.
If you have seen Pompeo on television of late, he is almost unrecognizable because he has lost so much weight. Pompeo told the New York Post he lost 90 pounds through a diet and exercise regimen, and laughed at the idea it was motivated by politics, saying, “I want to be there for my family and hopefully lots of grandchildren.”
But Pompeo also told CBS News last week that he would make up his mind about a 2024 presidential run in the “next handful of months.”
Based on a close reading of his book, I bet he will take the plunge. Pompeo could be looking to benefit as Trump loses altitude among some Republicans, and at 59, Pompeo is a spring chicken compared with President Joe Biden and Trump, so if it doesn’t work out well this time around, he sets himself up for other runs down the road.
Working for a mercurial boss
As head of the CIA and then Secretary of State, Pompeo had a difficult job working for such a mercurial boss. Consider that Trump went from tweeting that “my nuclear button” is “much bigger & more powerful” to Kim Jong Un to sending the North Korean leader self-described “love letters.” Trump also publicly fulminated that he could end the war in Afghanistan in a week, but he didn’t want to “kill 10 million people.” Then he ordered Pompeo to get a peace deal done with the Taliban.
As part of those negotiations, Pompeo’s chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, strongarmed the elected Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom promptly returned to the battlefield, according to Afghan officials.
This episode goes oddly unmentioned in Pompeo’s 438-page memoir, which rejoices in the splendidly tendentious title, “Never Give an Inch.”
“Let’s Just Give Away the Store” might have been a more apt title for how Pompeo’s team dealt with the Taliban. Even H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser, publicly described the peace deal that Pompeo agreed to with the Taliban as a “surrender agreement.”
Another whiplash moment came as the fight against ISIS in Syria was winding down in December 2018, and Trump ordered all US troops out of Syria. Within two months, Trump reversed himself, and American troops remained in Syria to try to prevent ISIS from reforming.
More confusion resulted when Trump authorized an airstrike against the Iranians in June 2019 and then called it off just as the planes were in the air on the way to their targets.
Six months later, Trump authorized the assassination of Iranian military leader Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, an episode Pompeo covers in interesting detail in his memoir. (Pompeo reportedly has round-the-clock diplomatic security protection due to his role in planning Trump’s campaign against Iran.)
Team of vipers
In addition to Trump’s sudden reversals, Pompeo also had to navigate the Borgia-level backstabbing that characterized the administration. He loathed Bolton, who, according to Pompeo, was “constantly scheming to win for himself and no one else.”
Pompeo writes that Bolton should be criminally prosecuted for publishing his critical memoir that came out while Trump was still in office, accusing him of treason. Pompeo adds that he would happily be a witness for the prosecution. Ouch.
In Pompeo’s telling, Nikki Haley, Trump’s US ambassador to the United Nations, was allegedly plotting with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to oust then-Vice President Mike Pence and appoint herself in the role. However, he offers no substantiation for this claim, and Haley said it didn’t happen.
The fact that Haley is planning her own presidential 2024 campaign makes the inclusion of this alleged incident in Pompeo’s book…interesting.
Pompeo takes Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, to task for his opposition to “America First” policies. For instance, he says Mattis didn’t want to take military action against Iranian targets that Pompeo thought was merited.
Pompeo acknowledges it was something of a miracle that he was the only member of Trump’s “core national security team” who didn’t resign or get fired during the four years he was in the administration.
This may partly be because he was a “heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass,” as a former US ambassador memorably described Pompeo to The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser. Pompeo also shared many of Trump’s same policy goals on issues such as Afghanistan, China and Iran. And he bonded with his boss on bucking “the establishment” and blasting the media.
Pompeo vs. ‘the establishment’
Pompeo says that during his time as both Trump’s CIA director and secretary of state, he was confounded at every turn by “the establishment.” It’s an odd claim for someone who was first in his class at the US Military Academy at West Point, then an editor of the Harvard Law Review and later a US congressman from Kansas. But it’s, of course, the same conceit that Trump often uses, claiming he isn’t part of the establishment when, in fact, Trump wasn’t just born with a silver spoon in his mouth but a silver dinnerware set.
For Pompeo, the establishment includes the Foreign Service Officer Corps that he oversaw as secretary of state. He improbably describes it as “overwhelmingly hard left,” as if members of Antifa populated the staid halls of the State Department.
Then there is the press corps.
Pompeo describes The New York Times and The Washington Post as “bed-wetters who didn’t have a grip on reality” because of their purportedly overwrought reactions to the 2018 murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials close to the inner circle of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS. (MBS denied involvement in the murder.)
Khashoggi was dismembered with an electric saw inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The fact that The Washington Post strenuously objected to his grisly murder hardly seems like bed-wetting.
Pompeo goes on to note that there is “nearly zero evidence that directly links MBS to ordering the murder.” The word “directly” does a lot of work in this sentence, considering that in 2021 the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified its assessment that the Crown Prince “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Foreign policy failures
In Pompeo’s view, Trump’s long flirtations with North Korea’s Kim averted a nuclear crisis. Pompeo recounts how when he was CIA director, he secretly flew to North Korea to start laying the groundwork for Trump and Kim’s later summits.
Those summits produced well-publicized grip-and-grins between Kim and Trump, photo-ops that the media covered obsessively, but bupkis in the way of long-term gains.
While Trump was in office, the North Koreans continued producing fissile material and tested short-range ballistic missiles. In short, Trump achieved nothing to end the North Korean nuclear program.
Similarly, in Pompeo’s telling, the US-led campaign of sanctions and “maximum pressure” against Iran, combined with pulling the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018, also made the world safer.
Yet, according to Trump’s own US intelligence agencies, the Iran nuclear deal was working to stop the Iranians from enriching uranium anywhere close to the levels needed for a weapon. And pulling out of the nuclear deal has now brought the Iranians much closer to having nuclear weapons. As of this month, the Iranians have enough fissile material for “several nuclear devices,” according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Foreign policy wins
To be fair, the Trump administration did score some real foreign policy wins. The Trump team destroyed much of the ISIS geographical “caliphate,” a campaign that had begun under then-President Barack Obama and that was largely completed during the time that Pompeo was CIA director.
The Trump team also brokered the Abraham Accords. While not of the same importance as the 1978 peace deal between Israel and Egypt which President Jimmy Carter negotiated – that was between two countries that had been at war for decades – the Abraham Accords did get Arab states such as Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates to recognize Israel for the first time.
The big foreign policy issue that the Trump national security team got right was taking the real measure of China. There had long been a bipartisan American delusion that as China got richer, it would also liberalize. That delusion most definitely ended with the Trump administration.
Pompeo gives the usual laundry list of complaints against China: its theft of intellectual property and the uneven playing field American companies face when they work in China versus how Chinese companies can work in the United States. Pompeo describes the Chinese Communist Party as “our most dangerous adversary.”
Pompeo explains how the Trump administration sought to undercut the influence of Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The Trump team saw Huawei as a threat because by sitting on 5G networks around the world, it could gather massive amounts of personal, commercial and national security data.
Pompeo set up a State Department task force to counter Huawei, which he says resulted in 60 countries agreeing not to do business with it. As a result, the US government “crushed Huawei’s global telecom business,” according to Pompeo.
A theme that Pompeo returns to often in his memoir is his religious faith. He recounts how a chance encounter with a Bible study group when he was at West Point turned him into a fervent Christian. As a result, Pompeo’s account of supporting religious freedom worldwide is credible.
He is rightly exercised about the treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority in China. The US government and UN estimated that up to two million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were detained in a giant network of internment camps despite Chinese denials of human rights violations. Pompeo is proud that the State Department officially pronounced what was happening to the Uyghurs a genocide, a measure he took on his penultimate day in office. The Biden administration has since formalized Pompeo’s genocide label on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
Biden has also kept in place Trump-era measures designed to penalize China, such as significant tariffs on Chinese goods, while continuing US Navy “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea to prevent it from becoming a Chinese lake.
Biden and Ukraine
Speaking of Biden, Pompeo inhabits a parallel universe where the 46th President’s “weakness is the gift to (Vladimir) Putin that keeps on giving.” That’s a truly bonkers assertion given that the Biden administration has authorized $48 billion of humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, including highly accurate HIMARS missiles and soon M1 Abrams tanks.
As a result, Russia is being pushed back on many fronts during the largest land war in Europe since World War II. The US-led NATO alliance may also expand to include formerly nonaligned Finland and Sweden. All this demonstrates real leadership coming from Biden and Pompeo’s successor as secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
Red meat for Republican voters
The January 6, 2021, assault on Congress is almost completely absent in Pompeo’s memoir. He mentions the insurrection briefly only in the context of denying reports that he ever had a discussion with a fellow Cabinet member to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office after the attack.
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Pompeo’s tweet on the day of the insurrection goes unmentioned in his memoir. “The storming of the U.S. Capitol today is unacceptable. Lawlessness and rioting — here or around the world — is always unacceptable.”
Pompeo surely knows that if he is to do well in a Republican presidential primary, the base takes it as an article of faith that the election was “stolen,” and so dwelling on the insurrection doesn’t help his cause.
However, he has plenty to say about the “Russia hoax,” which he discusses on a dozen pages. It’s a way to throw red meat to the Republican base, which, after all, seems to be at least half the point of Pompeo’s new book.