Admittedly, we didn’t have high hopes for what CNBC billed as a “wide-ranging” interview with Mike Pompeo, who by some accounts knowingly presided over an intimidation campaign at the State department and refused to protect career diplomats like Marie Yovanovitch from political persecution.
The first clips from the chat found Pompeo admonishing China for taking an adversarial approach to US companies expressing solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters. With all due respect to the demonstrators, it’s wholly disingenuous for Pompeo (or any other US official or lawmaker for that matter) to act as though the Trump administration would be totally fine with pro-democracy protesters ransacking an American city and attacking police with Molotov cocktails. One could argue that Beijing has shown remarkable restraint in not directly intervening.
Based on the exchange around Hong Kong, it didn’t appear that CNBC’s Wilfred Frost was prepared to push Pompeo very hard on sensitive subjects. But in a testament to the notion that you can’t judge an interview by a few promo clips any more than you can judge a book by its cover, Frost in fact pressed Pompeo very hard on at least one issue – Syria. Have a listen:
That opening bit from Frost is damning. Here is the transcript:
WILFRED FROST: You were very critical of President Obama’s drawing of a red line in Syria and failing to then enforce it. And in Cairo in January, you were setting out your Middle East agenda in a speech. And you proudly contrasted that by saying, quote, ” The Trump administration didn’t stand idly by when Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his people.” You went on to say, quote, “Our words mean something again, as they should. West Point taught me a basic code of integrity. If we commit American prestige to an action, our allies depend on us to follow through.” How, Mr. Secretary, is letting Turkey seize the land of an ally not a major contradiction of all the promises you made personally in that speech in January this year in front of your Middle Eastern allies in Cairo?
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: Oh yeah. Oh, it’s fundamentally different. Turkey didn’t– the country that Turkey invaded, they conducted an incursion into, is Syria: a sovereign nation. We worked with Kurdish friends, the SDF up and down the Euphrates River. We jointly took down the threat of the Caliphate of ISIS. It was to the benefit of the SDF, it was to the benefit of the United States of America, and indeed, to the benefit of the world. The commitment that we made to work alongside them we completely fulfilled. We continue to fulfill. Even as we sit here today, to fulfill our commitment to counter ISIS not only there in northeast of Syria, but in Western Iraq, in the Philippines, in Western Africa, all around the world. This nation has fully lived up to the commitments that President Trump and I have made to challenge radical Islamic extremism wherever we find it. And we entered into the discussions with Turkey after they decided to make this incursion against President Trump’s wishes. And then clear aim to reduce the risk to the very people that you suggested that we somehow abandoned.
That, frankly, is not a good answer from Pompeo. In some respects, it’s not an answer at all. Frost didn’t ask anything about ISIS. Irrespective of what the overriding goal was in the partnership between the YPG and the US military, America abandoned an ally knowing that doing so would lead directly to the deaths of hundreds of people. Period.
There is no question that Trump was informed that allowing Turkey to invade northeastern Syria would result in the loss of life for the Syrian Kurds who fought alongside US special operators for more than three years. And it’s not as though this was a new debate or Trump didn’t have time to consider it. He has known for at least a year that a US withdrawal from the northern border region had the potential to catalyze a bloodbath. Indeed, that was one reason (among several) why Jim Mattis opposed Trump’s original declaration on Syria in December.
Pompeo proceeded to dig himself an even deeper hole with Frost.
“So, the fact that the Kurds… are not a sovereign nation means that they can be sacrificed”, Frost said, summing up Pompeo’s non-answer. “Or at least their land certainly has been sacrificed and certainly, tens of their lives, probably hundreds of their lives, have been sacrificed”.
The secretary then shamelessly tried to suggest that he and Mike Pence are in the business of saving Kurdish lives. As proof of that, he cited the farcical “deal” they struck with Erdogan last week, which effectively ceded Kurdish territory to the Turkish military.
“Well, the work that we did was very clearly aimed at exactly the opposite of that. Indeed, I am highly confident that we saved lives”, Mike said.
Frost wasn’t amused.
“So, the ceasefire may well do that. And we all pray and hope that it does. But nonetheless, as you just said… President Trump explicitly told President Erdogan not to do this in that phone call [and] he went ahead and did it”, Wilfred remarked, flatly. “And lives have been lost, as a result”.
Yes, they sure have. Hundreds of them, in fact, including that of Hevrin Khalaf who, at last check, was still just as dead after Pence’s “ceasefire” with Erdogan as she was starting two Saturdays ago, when she was pulled out of an SUV and murdered by Turkey-backed militants. (And yes, that constituted a war crime.)
(A funeral for Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf in the Syrian Kurdish town of Malikiyah, on Oct. 13, 2019. Delil Souleiman/Afp Via Getty Images)
Washington offered a perfunctory statement following her killing at the hands of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a militant group operating under the umbrella of the rebel Syrian National Army, which is backed by Turkey in northeastern Syria.
“We condemn in the strongest of terms any mistreatment and extrajudicial execution of civilians or prisoners, and are looking further into these circumstances”, a spokesman for Pompeo’s State department said last week.
Khalaf – and the dozens upon dozens of other people who were killed by Turkey and its allied militias following Trump’s October 6 phone call with Erdogan – are dead today because America has a leader who can’t stand up to autocrats, who is beholden to them or, in many cases, some combination of both.
Mike Pompeo knows that (his despicable attempts to deride Barack Obama as an inferior commander notwithstanding), just as well as everyone else. And while he probably wouldn’t have succeeded in stopping Trump from green-lighting Erdogan’s operation, he could have at least tried. Who knows, maybe he did.
All we know for sure is that, just as Wilfred Frost suggested, Pompeo has not lived up to what he described earlier this year as the “basic code of integrity” he learned at West Point.
Someone who noticed that shortcoming is Hevrin Khalaf’s mother.
Ironically, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sharqiya told The Washington Post that Hevrin was no politician, but rather “an agent of US intelligence”.
That’s clearly ridiculous, but in some parallel universe where it’s true, the takeaway would still be the same: America failed miserably at protecting an ally.