This has been largely forgotten, but one of the big reasons Donald Trump was able to capture the 2016 Republican presidential nomination was his willingness to question the party’s orthodoxy about the U.S. war in Iraq. Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he plans to appoint CIA Director Mike Pompeo to head the State Department ought to put to rest any lingering belief that those criticisms were motivated by a desire for a more restrained American foreign policy.
Though Trump initially supported the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, he later reversed himself and began criticizing the second Iraq war as a “stupid” move that destabilized Middle Eastern politics and contributed to the rise of the self-described Islamic State.
That analysis is so uncontroversial that Gallup has stopped asking Americans whether they think the war was a mistake. But among Republican elites, at least until Trump came along, it was still an article of faith to proclaim that George W. Bush’s removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime had made the world safer.
Trump’s willingness to criticize the Iraq decision made him an object of hatred among GOP foreign policy elites. The smash-mouth billionaire had no more fervent opponents on the right than the interventionist hawks who had purged the "realists" who dominated Republican foreign policy through the presidency of the elder George Bush. Party apparatchiks were sure Trump had doomed his chances by challenging neocon orthodoxy.
“It is a huge miscalculation, on Donald Trump’s part, of the appetite of Republican primary voters, to believe that somehow [George W. Bush] is to blame for 9/11,” Katie Packer Gage, a veteran GOP consultant, told the Washington Post in October of 2015. “To Republican primary voters, it’s simple: [Bush] kept us safe because he was tough, he had an immediate response.”
Some of the people who once described themselves as neoconservatives, like author and pundit Bill Kristol, have remained opposed to Trump during his presidency. But others, such as interventionist extraordinaire Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., soon realized that Trump was criticizing Bush from the right, not from the left.
Though he made noises about a “restrained” foreign policy during his campaign, there were plenty of signs that Trump actually envisioned an even more militaristic international stance. The former reality TV star frequently condemned Barack Obama as “weak” on the fight against the Islamic State. Trump has also repeatedly claimed that the nuclear nonproliferation arrangement that Obama reached with Iran was a “bad deal,” and was positively gushing in his support for the uncompromising militarism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Barry Posen, an MIT professor who directs that university’s security studies program, saw what was in store in an interview published before Trump’s inauguration:
“It does not look to me as if this is a ‘eureka’ moment for the ‘Restraint’ strategy. Instead, this looks a bit like hegemony without liberalism,” he said. “President-elect Trump has promised to increase U.S. military spending. This is not consistent with Restraint. His appointees seem to be people who wish to militarily confront those states and groups who challenge the U.S. in any way. China and Iran seem to be at the head of the list. Some of his appointees seem hostile to Russia as well. The President-elect seems to wish to do something more aggressive vis-a-vis Al Qaeda and ISIL than the outgoing administration. It is hard to see how this many military confrontations would be consistent with Restraint.”
Now that he’s had a full year of the presidency under his belt, Trump appears to have moved even further away from a restrained foreign policy and into the “conflict of civilizations” perspective that views America as waging a global war with Islam. That view was once relegated to the fringes of Republican foreign policy, too extreme even for the Paul Wolfowitz types who called the shots in the second Bush presidency. Trump's nomination of Pompeo, a man noted for his hostile attitude to Muslims, to lead U.S. foreign policy makes this point blatantly obvious.
Trump never quite got along with Rex Tillerson, his now-departed secretary of state. In part, that was because Tillerson actually did seem to have some belief in a restrained foreign policy. The former ExxonMobil CEO’s attempts to avoid war in Syria and to pressure Saudi Arabia over the crisis it created in Qatar are two of many areas where Trump publicly reversed Tillerson. Long before the president began chafing at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for refusing to shut down the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, Trump was raging to close associates about Tillerson’s “totally establishment” worldview.
By contrast, Pompeo has been unremittingly militaristic throughout his public career. As a congressman from Kansas, he called for air strikes against Iran instead of negotiations. “It is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” he said in 2014.
Tillerson generally refrained from controversial statements or extremist actions. Pompeo, on the other hand, has a history of controversial statements, including a tweet during his first congressional run in 2010 which endorsed an article that condemned his Democratic opponent, an Indian-American, as “evil” and a “turban-topper.”
Sebastian Gorka, the former Breitbart columnist who briefly held a White House foreign policy job, apparently thanks to his willingness to make sweeping, bigoted remarks about Islam, has reportedly been pushing Trump to appoint Pompeo at State for some time.
After being asked in a radio interview last year by Breitbart editor Alex Marlow whether Pompeo was a “MAGA guy,” Gorka waxed rhapsodic. “He doesn’t seem to be, he is, 101 percent,” he said. “This guy is fully on board, very loyal to the president. He’s one of us. He is a MAGA man. It would be fabulous if he was given any position outside of the CIA as well. He’s doing superb work there.”
Pompeo has a long record of consorting with some of the most extreme anti-Islam voices in the country, including a group called ACT for America that frequently proclaims that an observant Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.”
Two years before that, Pompeo told a Wichita church group that he believed it was America’s job to spread Christianity throughout the globe.
In his speech, Pompeo denounced a “minority of Muslims” who he said will continue to oppose America violently “until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ is our savior is truly the only solution for our world.”
Beyond Gorka, Pompeo seems to have fans across the Republican constellation. “I cannot think of a better choice for our new Secretary of State than Mike Pompeo,” Lindsey Graham enthused on Twitter.
Tillerson’s record on LGBT issues was also much better than Pompeo’s is likely to be. The former secretary retained the department’s envoy on LGBT issues despite some right-wing complaints, and even touted “the fundamental freedoms of LGBTI persons to live with dignity and freedom” in a press release.
In contrast, Pompeo has many Christian nationalist cheerleaders who hail him for his anti-LGBT views. As a congressman, Pompeo co-sponsored the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which would have forbidden the Internal Revenue Service from revoking the charitable status of organizations that discriminate against same-sex couples, and also empowered government employees to refuse to perform official services for lesbian and gay families.
As CIA director, Pompeo has kept up his opposition to LGBT rights, refusing to attend agency meetings and conferences about the topic.
"I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of state we've had," Eliot Cohen, a former adviser to George W. Bush, said on Monday. He was referring to Rex Tillerson, but it's entirely possible people will look back fondly on the former ExxonMobil CEO's tenure at State a few months from now.