Latin American travels and an exclusive chat with Secretary of State Pompeo
You may find yourself spoiled for normal airline travel if you ever get to hitch a ride with the chief diplomat of the United States government. No more ticket counter hassles, no TSA pat downs. You are suddenly part of Uncle Sam’s overseas diplomacy entourage. The only better way to fly is Air Force One (or so I’m told).
I was fortunate enough to have this experience recently, and now I get to tell you, my dear reader, about the most interesting parts.
Pompeo’s senior staff brought me along in July as a special media guest, added on to the usual gaggle of reporters present (“the pool”) to document, photograph, and memorialize every incident on the trip. The pool reporters tend to be from the large but declining newsrooms on the coasts, and generally take a dim view of Republican administrations. No surprises there.
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Then there are the camera guys, who from the moment the plane wheels hit the tarmac, are on constant standby to sprint to the next location to set up for a shot. It is frenzied and often fruitless work. Those guys work hard for their money.
The Secretary of State’s schedule is rigid, and the time spent in the sky feels relentless. I asked some of the veterans of his staff and the press pool if this was standard, and they confirmed it. Government travel at this level means you get to see a lot of countries, but never experience them. You might stop in Paris on your way back from Kiev, but you’ll be lucky if you have time to get a croissant before you head back to the airport.
This was in line with my experience. We covered thousands of miles and touched down in five countries in four days. Our itinerary was Buenos Aires, Argentina, then Guayaquil, Ecuador, then Mexico City, Mexico, then Salvador, El Salvador, and finally we landed Orlando (woohoo, America!) for a Veterans of Foreign Wars rally.
As a radio host and political analyst, the single most important part of this journey was the 10 minutes or so I got to spend with the Secretary of State, one-on-one, in a spacious but charmless hotel suite in Mexico City. We covered a lot of ground in a short time, just like the trip itself.
Pompeo is that rare combination of a man who balances gravitas with humility. The guy is a Harvard Law-educated military veteran, graduated No. 1 in his West Point class of 1000 cadets, former congressman, and ex-CIA director. Nothing about him feels pompous or forced.
The Trump administration has had more than its share of lackluster Cabinet secretaries, but the White House and the State Department rank and file at least respect (if not like) Secretary Pompeo. If you speak to the guy for a few minutes, this is entirely unsurprising.
And I did just that… Here are some of the most important exchanges on critical foreign policy issues I had with the Secretary of State, Michael R. Pomeo, in Mexico City on July 21:
Q: What can you tell us about the status of the ongoing discussions with the Chinese to get some kind of trade agreement? Obviously, what has been called a trade war has been going on for quite some time. I know the president said there’s been some good stuff recently without a whole lot of specifics. Where are we and what are the stumbling blocks?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Buck, I can’t give you many more specifics either. I had an update earlier this week on the status of the negotiations between the Chinese and Secretary Mnuchin and Ambassador Lighthizer. They’re moving forward.
In the end, the stumbling blocks are this central set of issues. It is how is China going to engage in the world. Are they going to continue to steal intellectual property? Are they going to continue to force American businesses that participate and invest in their economy to transfer technology? Do they want the rule of law? Are they prepared to lower their tariffs so that they’re equitable, fair, and reciprocal? Those are the things that are being negotiated. Those are sort of the set of demands that we put on every country that we trade with. We hope the Chinese will see that that’s in their 1 billion people’s best interest, but so far, the Chinese Communist Party has said that this is not something that they’re prepared to live with.
Q: What needs to be done by our Mexican counterparts to meet the Trump deadline? What have they done so far and where are there still some areas that might need to be further negotiated?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So we’re now just about 45 days after the agreement that the State Department worked out with Marcelo Ebrard and his ministry, foreign ministry here in Mexico. We’ve made real progress. There’s a whole lot more enforcement on the Mexican side, both on their southern border and increased enforcement on their northern border as well. We now have processes – the Migration Protection Protocols – that are being executed. It has reduced the number of illegal transits coming across our border, but it’s still too high. There’s still more work that needs to be done. We need to do this cooperatively; we [need to] find methodologies. There’s no silver bullet, but we need to create a model that deters these people from taking this track which is so dangerous and so harmful to so many people leaving the Northern Triangle and transiting through Mexico.
Q: I understand you’ll be in El Salvador, part of the Northern Triangle. How are they handling their end of the partnership here to deal with this crisis? What do we expect from them, what do we want from them, and what can they do?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Buck, we have broadened our diplomatic engagement with the Northern Triangle. We’ve taken this very seriously. Many of the folks that we apprehend today at our southern border are not only from those three countries but are transiting through those three countries. They have an obligation. It’s interesting – I saw some statistics on how many Guatemalans have left, how deep the level of migration is. This isn’t good for Guatemala to have their citizens leaving, either. They need their people to want to stay in the country, and their leaders need to create rule of law and systems that will convince them that that’s the right thing to do.
But in the interim, we have enforcement measures and deterrence measures that we have to put in place, so I’ll be with the new leader in El Salvador and I’ll speak with the Guatemalans later this week as well by phone. There’s still a lot of work to do as they are – there are too many people leaving the Northern Triangle and transiting Mexico.
Q: Now, switching to Iran for a moment, there was obviously a downed drone, an Iranian drone. The Iranian foreign minister seems to think it did not happen. You’ve already confirmed that did in fact happen. The Iranians have a doorway to move away from bellicose behavior. They have a path. What is that path?
SECRETARY POMPEO: [The] path’s really simple. What President Trump is asking of the leadership in Iran is to behave like a normal nation. Last night I saw Foreign Minister Zarif say what about the things that Pompeo asked for? There were these 12 points that we laid out. Really, these are a set of simple requests – that the Iranian regime refrain from killing people in Europe, assassination campaigns around the world; release our hostages, stop their nuclear enrichment and weapons program, cease preparing missiles that threaten Israel – some simple demands. And Foreign Minister Zarif said, well, this would be annihilation for my country. I have the words a little bit off, but he said this would be national annihilation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What we’ve asked the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran to do is to behave like a normal country – grow your economy, take care of your own people, stop arming proxy forces that are killing people all around the world and threatening American interests around the world. If they do those things, President Trump is happy to engage them in the way that we engage other countries around the world.
Q: [Moving on to] the status of the ongoing talks with North Korea. What reasons should the American people have right now for optimism? Some obviously have been frustrated from the beginning; others are willing to give the president more leeway because there’s been pretty bipartisan failure on this for a while. Why should people think this is going to work?
SECRETARY POMPEO: When we came into office, it was in a bad place. President Trump made the decision to engage with them in a serious way. We’re continuing to try to do that. We hope that the working-level discussions will begin in a couple of weeks. The North Koreans have to go fill the promise that Chairman Kim made. He promised that he would denuclearize his country. He did so publicly in a written document; he said so to President Trump. He has told me that half a dozen times personally. They have to make a decision that they’re prepared to go execute that.
In exchange for that, President Trump’s been very clear: We’re prepared to provide a set of security arrangements that gives them comfort that if they disband their nuclear program, that the United States won’t attack them in the absence of that; and second, a brighter future for the North Korean people. That’s the outlines of the agreement that Chairman Kim and President Trump have made. We now need the North Korean negotiators to begin to build out on those principles that the two leaders have set forward.
Q: And if I could just bring us back to Latin America quickly, Venezuela, a place where people have been thinking for a while maybe there would be a shift in who’s ruling the country… who the president of the country is obviously still in dispute with. What has the U.S. been doing recently and what should our role be trying to help oust somebody who is illegitimate, Maduro, and push into power someone the Venezuelan people have already – the parliament has already decided should be in power with Guaidó?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Two things, Buck. First, the transformation – you saw a little bit of it yesterday when we were in Ecuador together. The transformation here in South America – in Brazil, in Ecuador, in Paraguay – is enormous, moving towards freedom, moving towards democracy, trying to get their economies back on free market footings. That’s closely related to what we’re trying to do in Venezuela. We’re trying to get Venezuela back to that same place. You can see what socialism did there. A decade of destruction has now put the Venezuelan people in a place where as many as 5 million Venezuelans will have fled their country by the time we get to the end of this year.
Our mission set is to work with allies. We have almost 60 countries now who have recognized the correct, proper, duly elected leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaido. We have the OAS and the Lima Group each working towards the same objective. One, Maduro leaving is important. He needs to leave. He’s not the duly elected leader and there can’t be free and fair elections while he’s there in Venezuela, but second, while that’s necessary, the Cubans need to leave as well. A new leader with thousands of Cuban intelligence and defense officials still inside the country won’t have the capacity to deliver for the Venezuelan people. So we’re using tools in the American arsenal that cause the incentive system to change so that we can get to that objective.
Buck Sexton is host of the nationally syndicated talk radio program, The Buck Sexton Show, heard on more than 100 stations across the country. He’s also a former CIA analyst and NYC police department intelligence officer.