Mike Pompeo on Syria, China and Playing the Long Game

Zev Chafets

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Jerusalem on Friday morning, the city was full of evangelical pilgrims celebrating the Festival of Tabernacles. Like Pompeo, the many thousands of evangelical pilgrims were all Christian Zionists. But he arrived in the Israeli capital to deliver a reassuring message — and also a warning.

Earlier that week, the U.S. announced its decision to abandon their wartime allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to the tender mercies of Turkey’s President Erdogan. The Kurds are “no angels” President Trump pronounced. This naturally left Israelis wondering if their alliance with the U.S. would depend on meeting this new angelic criterion.

Pompeo waved that away. “It would be a fundamental misreading of these last few weeks to suggest that there is any risk to our relationship,” he told me when we met at the official residence of the U.S. ambassador in Jerusalem. “Our relations with Israel are founded on pillars of culture, institutions, shared values and defense interests. That relationship is so strong that it could even withstand peace breaking out in the Middle East.”  

I asked Pompeo if he, as a former military officer, felt discomfort over the U.S. government turning its back on its Kurdish comrades in arms. “It is fundamentally wrong to say the U.S. abandoned the Kurds,” he said.

“We remain in close touch with the SDF and we will continue to work together to take down the threat of radical Islamic terrorism in Syria and western Iraq.”

Now that the Kurds have made an alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, will the U.S. now need to coordinate policy with Damascus? Pompeo waves away the suggestion. “We won’t seek the approval of Damascus. We’re in constant contact with the SDF. Even in the last few minutes.”

Pompeo rejects that idea that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria gives the Russians a permanent stronghold there. Russian forces have taken advantage of the vacuum left by Trump’s withdrawal, a fact that has been much celebrated in the Russian media.

None of that seems to bother Pompeo. “Syria is in desperate condition. Six million people have fled. The country is in ruins. It will need four to five hundred billion dollars, depending on how you count it, for basic reconstruction. There are many stories yet to be told,” he says.

I asked Pompeo about President Trump’s contention that the U.S. stations troops in many countries where they are not needed. Wouldn’t withdrawing these forces send a message of American weakness?

“Never mistake troop strength for security. Counting battalions is an unsophisticated way of measuring strength. If you build your economy and have military power that stands behind your diplomatic might, you can actually achieve outcomes in a way that deters and reduces the need for increased forces.” 

So far, the Trump administration has shown a decided preference for this sort of preventive warfare, using sanctions and tariffs all over the globe. Pompeo sees it as an effective weapon, especially in the case of Iran.

“Iran’s economy will shrink 10% to 15% in 2020,” he said. “That means the regime has fewer resources to build out its terror campaign, to improve its missile program or to invest in a new generation of military technology.” He also insists that the people of Iran are increasingly aware of how corrupt and inept the regime is.

Until March, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Jerusalem had been the U.S. consulate. It served as the de facto American embassy to the Palestinian Authority. The change symbolizes this administration’s unequivocal support for Israel. 

U.S. Ambassador David Friedman recently said that the much-awaited American peace proposal will not force people to leave their homes. Does that mean Israeli settlers would be able to stay?

“Ambassador Friedman’s statement is certainly true,” responds Pompeo. “Our vision would deliver an outcome that Ambassador Friedman just described.” Pompeo refused to be drawn on whether the result would be similar to former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Autonomy Plan, which did not allow for an independent Palestinian state. 

When one of Pompeo’s aides signaled that his time was up, I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to say. His answer surprised me.

“Yes. The only thing we didn’t talk about that impacts this region is China. For a decade and change, the democracies of the world slept while China began its march. Today the strategic opportunity and the strategic threat emanates from the Chinese Communist Party.”

 “The strategic threat? The main threat?” I ask. Israelis aren’t used to thinking of China as their biggest worry.  

“Yes. The Chinese Communist Party has begun to engage in activities that expose the world to infrastructure and networks controlled, operated and accessed by the Communist Party. They are also building out their military capacity. Democracies that value liberty, freedom and the rule of law will need to respond to the Chinese Communist Party’s model which is fundamentally at odds with those central ideas. I think the people of Israel need to watch how they are addressing it.”  

I asked if he meant that Israel should back off some of its infrastructure and telecommunications projects with China.” China and Hong Kong are Israel’s second largest export market and the proportion of Israeli trade with China has been rising fast. China is also heavily invested in Israeli infrastructure projects, such as the Tel Aviv light rail.

“We never tell sovereign nations what to do,” Pompeo said. “Every sovereign nation gets to make its own decisions. But we think it needs to be with eyes wide open.”

To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.