When defeated armies are retreating, they always lay mines behind them if they have time. The mines slow pursuit, they may inflict casualties on the victors, and they give the losers something purposeful to do amidst panic and despair.
That’s what Mike Pompeo has been doing just before time is called on his ideologically driven term as United States Secretary of State.
Pompeo started last Saturday by declaring the US State Department would end its restrictions on direct intergovernmental dealings with Taiwan—a policy in place since the US transferred its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC-Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
“No more,” said Pompeo. “I am lifting all these self-imposed restrictions.” But they were not ‘self-imposed’. They were a key part of the 1979 deal that let the US have its cake and eat it too: to go on protecting Taiwan’s de facto independence while formally accepting that Taiwan is legally a province of China.
So the United States agreed there was only one China (without actually saying Taiwan was not its legitimate government), while China agreed “the American people” would continue to carry on “commercial, cultural and other unofficial contacts with the people of Taiwan”. They could talk and trade all they like; just no public, official contacts.
This is why we all employ diplomats. They can square the circle and let us be friends, or at least trading partners, by coming up with a formula of words that veils our differences. The US could go on selling arms to Taiwan, sail the Seventh Fleet down the strait between Taiwan and the PRC, pretty well anything—except have US government officials talk openly to ROC officials.
Then, 41 years later, Pompeo springs his little surprise. China exploded, of course, accusing Pompeo of “seeking to maliciously inflict a long-lasting scar on China-US ties”. Fair comment, but Pompeo’s real target was the incoming Biden administration, which will have to reverse this policy while the Republicans shower it with accusations of being “soft on China”.
Sunday: another landmine. Pompeo designates Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organisation. That means nobody can deal with them, so attempts to broker an end to the long and devastating war between the Houthis and the Saudi Arabian-backed “internationally recognised” (but no more legitimate) government are now outlawed.
It wins more time for Saudi Arabia to go on bombing the place in the hope of restoring its candidate to power, but it makes it far harder to bring aid to the diseased and starving millions in most of the country (which is controlled by the Houthis, who are not terrorists). It will take the Biden administration some time to unpick this mess.
Monday: Pompeo puts Cuba back on the list of “state sponsors of terrorism”. It’s nothing of the sort, but this will please the older generation of Republican-voting Cuban refugees in south Florida, and the Republicans can call Biden a “Commie-lover” while he’s reversing it. Besides, it was Obama who took Cuba off that list, and all his works must be destroyed.
Tuesday: Pompeo announces Iran is now the main home of Al Qaeda, the Islamist terrorist organisation that planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and later created the “Islamic State” that devastated Iraq and Syria for a number of years.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called Pompeo’s assertions “warmongering lies”, which seems about right. They are certainly lies—nobody who knows the region believes the Shia Muslim theocracy in Iran would have anything to do with the Sunni Muslim extremists of Al Qaeda. In fact, al-Qaeda routinely murders Shias as heretics.
And they really are “warmongering” lies, designed to sabotage Biden’s policy of rejoining the 2015 international deal that guarantees Iran will not build nuclear weapons. (Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018, presumably because it was Obama’s signature achievement in foreign policy.)
If the United States does not end its savage sanctions against Iran and re-commit to the deal within months, it will finally collapse, and the risk of an eventual nuclear war in the Middle East will move from remote hypothesis to plausible prospect. But it lets Republicans accuse Biden of being “soft on Iran” and “soft on terrorism” when he tries to fix it.
Come to think of it, “landmines” is the wrong image here, because landmines are hidden. Pompeo is setting slow-burning fires in plain sight, which is why a European foreign minister recently described him as a “political pyromaniac”—and this is his “scorched-earth” policy.
That’s the other, bigger thing that retreating armies often do. Burn it all down. If we can’t have it, nobody can. And Pompeo still has time to insult North Korea and start a fight with Mexico before he leaves the scene.
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist