Discussing Iran, Genocide, and Moral Policy With Mike Pompeo
Last week I interviewed former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also served in Congress and at the helm of the CIA. The goal of my conversation with one of the most consequential Secretaries of State in American history was to delineate the principles of a moral foreign policy — resolving the tension between national and humanitarian interests, confronting rogue states threatening world peace from North Korea to Iran, and the need for America to demand and protect human rights in allied and adversarial nations alike.
RSB: Let’s begin with the constant tension that exists in foreign policy between the individual needs and interest of a nation and the humanitarian interests of the higher and moral-ethical questions. How does a nation like the United States find the balance between enforcing a human rights agenda and protecting its own interests?
MP: Well, the tension is often real. But sometimes frankly nations overplay the tension in the aim of doing nothing. We always begin with the focus as follows. We knew we had an obligation to be a force for good in the world, but we also knew that at the end of the day we swore an oath and allegiance to the US to defend our people here in the US. The short hand, for us, was America First. But it didn’t mean, ‘America Alone.’ It didn’t mean that we didn’t care deeply about the lives and the human dignity of every human being around the world. But we struck that balance by recognizing that we had so many tools in our kit-bag, and we could deploy in ways that were broad and differentiated to achieve our objective. First, to make sure we secured freedom for America. But then, to do good and be a force for good wherever we went. No matter whether we were talking about a security partner of the US or an adversary, we were always clear about our expectations with respect to treating every human being with the dignity they deserve simply because they were a human being. We created a commission called the “Unalienable Rights Commission” to reground our foreign policy and the American founding tradition. Those are the pieces that come together to help think about how American policy ought to be placed and empowered around the world to confront evil where it is, but also to make sure you’re doing so in a way that’s consistent with America’s understanding of its own place in the world.
RSB: O.K. So, as America asserted its interests, simultaneous with that was this constant emphasis on human rights. Let’s look at some of the issues you dealt with as Secretary of State, and some of the countries that might be labeled the worst offenders, the worst of course being Iran.
MP: Look, as for human rights inside of their own country they’re among the worst offenders. They throw homosexuals off of buildings; they treat their own people horrifically; the capacity for women to have freedom and autonomy there is greatly limited. They’re nasty people with respect to their own people, and one of the things we did was to make sure that we always supported the Iranian people and to differentiate that against the kleptocratic, theocratic regime that has taken charge and has the weapons today. But as for America’s more broad interest, this is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. The State Department’s reporting and the intelligence collected makes that unambiguously clear. They’re protecting terror campaigns all across the world. So seldom do we recall that it was Iran who supported Syria in expelling six million people from Syria, for goodness’ sake. This happened in the Obama administration where these people were forced to flee their homes and today reside all over the middle east, with a million and a half in Lebanon and many, many inside of Turkey. This is a tragedy of epic proportions.
Add to that a nation that has a missile program and a nuclear program that is — you need only ask Iranian leadership — intent on the destruction of a free, democratic, and sovereign Israel. This is something America has a deep national security interest in pushing back against. And the mistake that I think the administration before ours made was to allow Iran free rein to conduct its terror campaign across the world; to build out its missile program; and at best, delay their advancement in nuclear weaponry by a handful of years.
RSB: Holding Iran accountable was one of your greatest achievements. I was always confused by the Obama administration’s desire to grant Iran not quite hegemony in the Middle East, but at least to have Iran serve as an anchor; that they could somehow change Iran from a terror-funding to a peace-exporting actor. Are you concerned of seeing some of that same errant policy with the current administration?
MP: Well, you need only listen to what President Biden and those around him said during his campaign. They’re so deeply wedded to that agreement that I think they’d be prepared to give up an awful lot in order to do that. Look, we also wanted to enter an agreement with Iran. But it had to be an agreement that would never let them have a nuclear weapon. We weren’t willing to give them an inch to go and do that. This is something that normal nations would agree to. But a country that has threatened that the destruction of Israel, with the ‘little Satan’ there and the ‘big Satan’ here in America? And so I’ve watched in these opening days enormous concessions being made just to try and convince the Iranians to come to the negotiating table. That does not bode well. In the end, the regime is a deeply immoral regime, and the US should treat them as such. They understand strength and power and determination. When they see appeasement, when they see a weak United States of America, they’re very likely to continue to extract value — value for themselves, value for the Quds Force, value for Qasem Soleimani’s successor, value for Hezbollah and the militias inside of iraq. Those are the Iranian objectives; they make it very clear.
“IN THE END, THE REGIME IS A DEEPLY IMMORAL REGIME, AND THE US SHOULD TREAT THEM AS SUCH.”
RSB: Just before we move on from Iran, let’s focus on their genocidal intent. How is it that the current administration or the previous administration could negotiate with a government threatening genocide against an American ally?
MP: It’s a real head scratcher, I must say. There has often been enormous unanimity about the protection and preservation of human rights around the world that was bipartisan in nature. There’s a long history of that. And yet, for some reason, President Obama and now President Biden are seemingly prepared to give a free pass to the Iranians for this activity, and if not that then certainly to look the other way as they strive to cut a deal which they hope will ultimately reduce the risk of nuclear weapons. I get the seriousness of nuclear weapons in possession of the Iranians, [but] the best way to prevent them from getting that is to ensure that the regime doesn’t have the resources to build out such a program. And we were a long ways there, and we gave them enormous leverage in so doing. But to sit down at the table with a regime that would not forswear its will, its intent to destroy the state of Israel, I simply find confounding.
RSB: Well this was another hallmark of the Trump administration and its foreign policy agenda under your leadership, that the United States was prepared to talk to bad actors but never to relieve them of intense sanctions and economic pressures. North Korea is an example. You walked from a deal that might have earned your administration a Nobel peace prize because you gave no sanction to the removal of sanctions.
MP: This was also the case with Iran, right? The Regime in Iran has told this administration, ‘if you lift the sanctions, we’ll sit down and talk to you.’ But the only rational for the Iranians to actually eliminate their nuclear activity is the sanctions that are sitting in place. If you relieve them, putting them back in place can be done but it’s an enormous and difficult undertaking. It took us months and months to build up the scope and scale and depth and complexity of the sanctions regime that was in place when President Biden took office. It was certainly the case with North Korea. These leaders understand strength. They know how to exert their own influence. These are countries that are not even remotely the size and scale of the United States of America, and yet they’ve used their outsized capacity to threaten the world with nuclear proliferation and gain advantage. To the extent the world permits them to do that, that is an enormous risk. To appease these leaders and permit them to continue to build out these programs that they use to extort and threaten the world is a mistake. And it’s why the United Nations placed global sanctions on North Korea at a scale that it had never done before, under the Trump Administration. It’s why we did the work that we did to put sanctions on the Iranian regime. That pressure is real, we literally had out boot on their throat. We were making the regime pay, and they were paying by being unable to underwrite Hezbollah to threaten Israel. They were unable to pay their soldiers, they had to shrink their foot print inside of Syria. Those are real costs that were imposed as a result of our determination that American security and the security of our friends and allies around the world be foremost in our minds.
RSB: I have deep respect for your Christian faith, which you’ve spoken about openly. In Leviticus 19:15 there is a beautiful and powerful verse with no ancient precedent, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” That we can’t be silent witnesses and innocent bystanders as people are murdered. How much of your policy is it motivated by the Bible?
MP: That is a beautiful biblical verse. Look, I’ve been open about the fact that I am an evangelical Christian and that it informs the way I think about the world and my fellow human beings. I am confident that way I approached foreign policy and the way I presented opportunities to the President was deeply inspired by that. It was comes from a deep understanding that I swore an oath to uphold and defend the American constitution. I know the history of that document as well, and how our founders thought of faith and morality as central to the understanding of this nation as an exceptional nation and its responsibility not only to take care of its own but to look around the world and do its level best to be a force for good there. It doesn’t mean sending soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines always and everywhere. We understand that we are a part of this special place, that humanity has so much in common in terms of the individual dignity of every human being. And whether it is the Christian faith or the Jewish faith, these understandings are central to who we are. And so I was incredibly privileged to have served as Secretary of State and to try and live out both my oath to preserve and protect the United States of America and my understanding of our obligation to each other.