Main takeaways from congressional testimonies of Mattis and Pompeo

It seemed at times as if Mattis was trying to counter Trump’s bombastic tweets about Syria.
Sunday 15/04/2018
Measured words. US Defence Secretary James Mattis testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, on April 12. (AP)
Measured words. US Defence Secretary James Mattis testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, on April 12. (AP)

It always is a big day in the US Congress when a cabinet officer is summoned to testify before a committee, and August 12 was a mega day: Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s nominee to become secretary of state, was grilled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while on the other side of Capitol Hill, Secretary of Defence James Mattis was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee.

The primary focus of the senators’ concern was whether Pompeo would challenge his boss and be an independent voice on foreign policy. It is a relevant concern because so far, people who challenge Trump’s impulse-driven policies,  such as former national security adviser HR McMaster, have ended up being ousted. While assuring senators that he would speak his mind with the president, Pompeo also expressed full backing for Trump’s position on Iran. The president has said that he will take steps to withdraw from the nuclear accord on May 12 unless European powers agree to “fix” the terms of the deal.

Surprisingly, the Senate did not take the opportunity to question Pompeo on his views toward Syria and the diplomatic approach he would take to help bring about a resolution. He did, however, say that he did not believe a “surgical strike” against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad would require further congressional authorisation, as some in Congress have suggested.

No questions were asked about the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process nor the Palestinian protests and recent violence along Israel’s border with Gaza, perhaps because the State Department and its professional diplomats have largely been sidelined from this issue ever since Trump took office and dumped the peace process into the lap of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

In what appeared to be an effort to distinguish himself from John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish new national security adviser Pompeo said: “Every day at the forefront of our mind is how can we find solutions that achieve the American objective but avoid us having to put a single American in harm’s way.” Nice words, but Pompeo’s past comments suggest that he values coercion over compromise and dialogue.

A few Democratic senators questioned Pompeo about his management style and whether he intended to replenish the State Department’s empty offices. He acknowledged that morale at the department was low, an implicit criticism of his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who allowed many positions to go unfilled and promised to fill vacancies.

Pompeo’s approval by the Senate is likely but far from certain. Many Democrats are wary of some of his past public statements and one Republican – Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky – has declared that he will vote against Pompeo’s confirmation because of his support for the 2003 Iraq war and his past comments on torture.

Given that Republican Senator John McCain remains in his home state of Arizona receiving cancer treatment, Pompeo will need some Democratic support in order to be confirmed. He received the votes of 14 Democrats for his confirmation as CIA director, but this time Democrats may oppose his confirmation as a means of expressing displeasure with Trump’s foreign policy.

Mattis told members of the House Armed Services Committee that Trump had not yet made up his mind on a response to the Syrian government’s alleged chemical weapons attack on Douma. But the very next day, the US launched air strikes against Syrian government targets.

It seemed at times as if Mattis was trying to counter Trump’s bombastic tweets about Syria or to at least put them into context. He suggested that deliberations between the White House and the Pentagon were being carried out carefully and with awareness of the possible consequences of a US military strike and announced that he was headed to the White House after the hearing to meet with Trump’s national security council staff.

“We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people. But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that,” Mattis said. He also indicated that no decision would be made on how and when to respond to Syria until after Trump had spoken with British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, thus revealing a rare instance of multilateralism in an administration that has so far pursued a unilateral foreign policy.

For those who are alarmed by Trump’s foreign policy instincts and the views of his new foreign policy team of Bolton and Pompeo, Mattis remains the last senior administration official who speaks in measured and cautious terms and, although a retired general, he is not trigger-happy. He is, indeed, the brake on a potentially out-of-control vehicle.