I want to begin by saying something nice about Mike Pompeo: He has an absolutely gorgeous singing voice, a great booming baritone issuing from his barrel chest. I know this because he sat behind me and my family at my church on Easter Sunday a few years ago. This also allows me to point out that my criticism of this cranky and vindictive book is not coming from a place of secular dismissal of Pompeo’s faith. I was raised in the Christian evangelical community, and the ostentatious piety on display throughout this memoir is quite familiar to me.
The book opens with a verse from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.” (I Corinthians 16:13) In light of what follows, I think a more fitting scripture could be found earlier in the same book, in I Corinthians 13:1: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Singing voice aside, I wouldn’t say Pompeo writes like an angel, though the writing is tight and the narrative moves quickly. There is little love in this book. There’s a lot of venom. There’s a lot of settling of scores. There’s shade thrown in all directions, especially toward his presumed competition in the Republican presidential primary. (Nikki Haley, the Trump Administration’s U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who recently launched her own presidential campaign, is dismissed as a “bit player.”) There is also a self-righteous, posturing, and thoroughly unscriptural form of Christianity that has become familiar in our politics and that Pompeo exemplifies. It is as dangerous a form of political religion as the Islamism of which Pompeo was previously one of Congress’s most outspoken critics.
Importantly, it is utterly devoid of any reflection on the Christ of the Gospels, at least as I have understood Him. It is a mutant, nationalist form of Christianity that has unfortunately become dominant among white American Christians. If you excised all the grievance-airing, score-settling, and countless stories of how Mike Pompeo cleverly outmaneuvered all the people who underestimated Mike Pompeo, this book would be considerably shorter. This is a book that throws haymakers while pretending to be above the fray. Pompeo desperately wants to show how little he actually cares about the critics over whom he can’t stop obsessing.
The book became a New York Times “bestseller” upon release because of bulk purchases by Pompeo’s PAC, which he then followed up with a Facebook ad campaign claiming “Even the New York Times admits that my new book is a must-read!” But even by the standards of Washington memoirs, there’s little actual historical value in this book.
There is great value, however, in what it tells us about the foreign policy conversation on the right. This book is a dominance display, the literary equivalent of a gorilla beating its chest and flinging poop. It’s tempting to lay the blame for this style of politics on Trump, but that would be wrong, or at least incomplete. Trump wasn’t a break from the status quo but a product of it. He didn’t invent the conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace, or about the Iran nuclear deal, or about “creeping sharia”; the serious Republicans did. Trump merely deployed them more aggressively. He just said the quiet part out loud. I wrote in 2016 that Trump had simply refined to its essence the bombastic, racially coded alarmism that conservative foreign policy hawks had long cultivated. As the University of Kentucky’s Robert Farley noted, “When you establish that vaguely coherent bluster is the most important contribution a President can make on the foreign stage, then you shouldn’t really complain when someone comes along, drops the ‘vaguely coherent’ bit, and just keeps the bluster.”
That is essentially a capsule review of Pompeo’s book. Start with its title, Never Give an Inch. It’s striking that the country’s former top diplomat would give his book a title that is literally the opposite of diplomacy. Perhaps it explains why Pompeo left office with vanishingly few diplomatic accomplishments. And the title is all the more remarkable an exhortation in light of Pompeo’s own reputation for sycophancy: In an administration full of Trump yes-men, Pompeo was the acknowledged champ. At West Point he may have been first in his class, but in the Trump White House he was, according to a former American ambassador, “a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.”
The story Pompeo tells of his own rise to power isn’t very surprising or original. Basically, Trump came to clean up the swamp and rescue America from the clutches of liberal elites who hate real Americans and want to sell the country out to its enemies, and he asked Mike Pompeo, a humble congressman from the heartland of Real America, to help him.
Like his boss, Pompeo’s petulance could get him in trouble. In January 2020, Pompeo found himself in the middle of his own mini-scandal after news broke of his having berated NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly with a profanity-laced tirade—which earned him a rebuke from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—because he didn’t like the questions she was asking about Ukraine. According to Kelly, “He asked me, ‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’” (events of the last year seem to have answered yes) and then challenged her to identify Ukraine on a map. In a press statement after NPR reported on the meeting, Pompeo suggested that Kelly, who holds a master’s degree in European studies from the University of Cambridge, could not do so, and had instead accidentally marked Bangladesh. It’s a comically unconvincing claim that he repeats in the book.
We also learn that Pompeo’s stunt was not just a one-off temper tantrum, but a habit going back to his son’s school days. “My dad would often distribute his own pop quizzes, usually around eight on Saturday mornings,” Nick Pompeo recounts in the foreword. “I specifically remember once being handed a blank map of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.” One doesn’t want to challenge a son’s tender memories, but something that might have seemed merely annoying around the breakfast table takes on a whole different character when it’s a demand made of an accomplished professional who is simply trying to do her job.
Pompeo is eager to correct the record throughout the book, and to show how the elite media have failed to give him appropriate credit for policies that he continues to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, were actually successful. One of the most significant in this regard is Pompeo’s account of the January 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite foreign unit. Soleimani had for years commanded Iran-aligned groups against U.S. forces in Iraq and managed the regime’s relationships with militant groups across the region. There’s no question that he had the blood of hundreds, probably thousands, on his hands. The question of whether it was legal for the United States to kill him, however, is not something that Pompeo addresses.
Describing the planning as guided by “God’s hand,” Pompeo repeats the claim that the Soleimani assassination restored U.S. deterrence. In truth, Iran ramped up both its activities in the region and its nuclear program in response. In the immediate aftermath, it also launched a retaliatory ballistic missile attack on Iraq’s Al Asad base that lasted for 80 minutes and resulted in traumatic brain injuries for at least 100 U.S. soldiers and airmen. (General Frank McKenzie, then head of U.S. Central Command, estimated that had he not ordered an earlier evacuation, 100 to 150 Americans would have been killed or wounded.)
The Trump Administration emphasized that there had been no casualties in the attack and pressured officials to downplay the injuries as they came to light. Ex-Defense Department press secretary Alyssa Farah later said on a podcast that the Trump Administration “ended up glossing over what ended up being very significant injuries on U.S. troops after the fact.”
The fact that this glossing over got so little attention demonstrates the asymmetry between the Democrats’ and Republicans’ willingness to exploit the other side’s foreign policy disasters versus those of their own parties. If such an attack had occurred under a Democratic administration, and that administration had then slowly dribbled out increasing estimates of American injuries after initially denying any, it would have been relentlessly attacked by the likes of Mike Pompeo. But in this case, Pompeo gives the question of service member injuries all of one sentence.
Ironically, maintaining the pretense of “never giving an inch” requires Pompeo to misrepresent one of the Trump Administration’s few notable diplomatic accomplishments, the 2020 Abraham Accords normalizing cooperative diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and several other Arab nations. Commenting on the potential of more nations joining the accords, he surmises: “While I don’t know who is next, I do know the conditions that will permit the next country to enter. First among them is to acknowledge the right for Israel, in all of its rightful land, to exist as the eternal homeland of the Jewish people.”
But not only is recognizing this right not a condition for the current signatories (it remains a demand made only of the Palestinians, for the purposes of making an agreement politically impossible for them), the immediate impetus for the announcement of the accords was the Israeli government’s threat to annex portions of occupied territory. The UAE obtained a commitment from Israel to suspend formal annexation of the West Bank, or what Pompeo would refer to as Israel’s “rightful land.” In other words, the agreement, like most deals, was possible only because the parties rejected the sentiment of this book’s title.
But all of this is beside the point, because these aren’t arguments about policy, but declarations of faith. “Showing strength” isn’t a strategy—it’s an ideology. It’s unfalsifiable. If it doesn’t achieve the stated outcome, it can only be because not enough strength was shown, and therefore more strength is needed. This is a test for all of us, on both left and right, who want to help foster a more responsible and reality-based conversation about foreign policy: How do we bring our policy debates back within the realm of a set of agreed-upon facts?
Part of the answer, I think, is recognizing that populist right attacks on Washington’s out-of-touch establishment elites are not based on nothing. That establishment has failed to deliver for millions of Americans. Indeed, accepting that premise is what underlies the Biden Administration’s “foreign policy for the middle class”: U.S. foreign policy has become disconnected from the lived realities of most Americans, and needs to be reconnected. Biden’s April 2021 speech to Congress, which could have been titled “The Era of Big Government Being Over Is Over,” was a remarkable and still underappreciated rhetorical turn away from neoliberalism and toward reinvestment in American labor and industry. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act backed that rhetoric with legislation. The challenge for Democrats is to continue this work while avoiding being drawn into the hawkish foreign policy posturing (i.e., “We’re doing this to beat China”) that inevitably advantages the bellicose right.
Pompeo desperately wants to be seen as a great man of substance, a maker of history (he actually compares himself favorably to George Kennan at one point). The tale he spins about himself offers a reflection of what he believes it takes to be seen as such. Pompeo recently announced that he would not be a candidate for President in 2024, performing yet another service for Trump by getting out of the way, probably in hopes that he’ll be considered for the vice president slot. But his book is useful to the extent that it offers us a snapshot of what qualifies as statesmanship in today’s Republican Party. It’s a disturbing view.