(Bloomberg Opinion) — At the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, there was a running debate among the few right-leaning pundits, scholars and politicians who still opposed him. Is it better, they asked, to mitigate Trump’s policies from the inside, or to hasten his administration’s collapse from the outside?
Back then it was plausible that Trump would not serve out his term. The FBI and the Justice Department were investigating his campaign and administration. There was serious discussion about invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. Any hope for a premature end to the Trump presidency, however, collapsed in July with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s House testimony.
Nonetheless, there is still a debate on the never-Trump right over whether Trump’s cabinet is containing or enabling him. The most recent entry is from New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who argues that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should not help broker a peace plan for Afghanistan that would abandon the country’s elected government. “If he has a sense of honor, he might consider resigning rather than fathering the catastrophe that may soon befall Afghanistan,” Stephens wrote.
His point is that Pompeo is enabling policies that he knows are dangerous, instead of mitigating them. If Trump orders a full withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, or agrees to a sucker’s deal with North Korea, Pompeo would validate those decisions simply by remaining on the job.
That said, Trump has not yet made those decisions. He is an erratic leader, and unlike past presidents, his decrees do not always translate into policy. Consider his contradictory comments on the trade war with China. One moment he was ordering U.S. businesses to find new supply chains that bypass China, the next he was voicing regret for imposing so many tariffs on Beijing.
Such variable opinions mean that the president’s interlocutors matter a great deal. In fact, the most important person in the White House on any given issue may be the last person Trump hears from about it.
Never-Trump hawks such as Stephens should want that last person to be Pompeo. In his year and a half on the job, he has led a global campaign to block China’s largest telecom firm, Huawei, from access to 5G wireless networks. He has overseen a successful diplomatic effort to get most of the Western Hemisphere and Europe to recognize Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela. He has implemented sanctions against senior Russian human-rights abusers and publicized the corruption of Iranian leaders.
One reason Pompeo has had some success in these areas is because he has yet to draw Trump’s ire. As a recent critical profile of Pompeo in the New Yorker makes clear, he has been able to maintain his credibility with the president in private partly because he has projected enthusiastic loyalty to him in public.
Pompeo acknowledged as much in a recent interview. “If we disagree, my duty is to go share with him our disagreements,” he said. “I do that with great frequency. But when he makes a decision, and it’s legal, it’s my task to execute his decision with all the energy and the power that I have.”
This means that there are times when Pompeo will indeed be guilty of the most common sin in politics: hypocrisy. It is the price he pays to influence Trump’s foreign policy.
Consider Syria. In December, it appeared that Trump had decided to pull U.S. forces out of the country. The decision was so sudden and dangerous that Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned in protest. In a sense, Mattis preserved his honor; he refused to pretend that Trump’s decision was defensible.
Had Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton followed Mattis out the door, Trump would have likely stuck with his decision. Instead, Pompeo and Bolton urged Trump to reconsider, and he did. To this day, there are still U.S. troops in Syria.
Make no mistake. The current situation in Syria is not stable. Trump may still change his mind. Mattis was correct when he said in his resignation letter that Trump does not respect the hard-won alliances that make U.S. power possible in the modern world.
Like Mattis, Pompeo also respects those alliances. Unlike Mattis, he is still a trusted adviser to a commander-in-chief who doesn’t. Isn’t it better — for the country, certainly, if not the secretary of state’s pride — that he’s there?
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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