It took the coronavirus for UN skeptic Pompeo to embrace global ties

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Michael Pompeo once warned that international organizations like the United Nations must be “reformed or eliminated.” With the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the U.S. and the world, he’s now embracing them.

At a briefing this week, Pompeo heaped praise on what he called “these important institutions” such as the World Health Organization and touted — as he’s done several times in recent days — America’s financial contributions to global bodies, without mentioning how often he’s supported slashing U.S. funding to them.

“Our generosity, our pragmatism, aimed at saving American lives now and in the future is also exemplified through our work with multilateral organizations,” Pompeo said. “They not only help citizens around the world but they protect Americans and keep them safe here as well.”

It was a jarring shift for a secretary of state who, like his boss, has railed against the United Nations and in 2018 went to Brussels — home to the European Union and NATO — to voice skepticism against the very idea of multilateralism and to question the usefulness of such agencies.

The animosity wasn’t just rhetorical. In its proposed 2021 budget, as in years past, the Trump administration proposed cutting voluntary contributions to the World Health Organization by more than half, to about $58 million, and sought steep cuts to the U.N. writ large.

The sudden turnaround is characteristic of a broader softening in tone for Pompeo and an administration that, after playing down the threat of the coronavirus for weeks, is confronted with a reported caseload larger than any other nation, along with a critical shortage of protective gear.

The change is most evident in the rhetoric toward China, the target of scathing criticism from Pompeo. The secretary of state had previously insisted on calling the global disease the “Wuhan virus,” even after President Donald Trump initially said the term wasn’t appropriate.

State Department officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pompeo, who previously led the CIA, may have been influenced by a U.S. intelligence report concluding that China deliberately concealed the extent of the virus outbreak, undermining international efforts to get ahead of the pandemic.

The top U.S. diplomat helped scuttle a joint statement from Group of 7 nations on March 25 over his insistence that countries identify its origin in China. That earned a rebuke from France, which urged nations to “combat any attempt to exploit the crisis for political purposes.”

A statement from Group of 20 leaders the next day, including the U.S. and China, was far more conciliatory. It called for a “global response in the spirit of solidarity,” and Pompeo has stopped using the term “Wuhan virus.”

“When I read the Group of 20 statement, I was astonished the Trump administration had signed up to it,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It would be a silver lining of this terrible pandemic if this administration moved from its narrow, stingy interpretation of U.S. national interests to one that understands that America engaged in the world achieves our interests.”

The reason for Pompeo’s change can be traced back to Trump, who has taken more drastic action — and sought to protect U.S. supply chains to China and elsewhere — as reported infections in the U.S. overtook the rest of the world’s and deaths continue to rise.

Two senior administration officials said the change was an outgrowth of Trump’s phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 26. One of the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said there was a growing recognition that a shoving match with China was counterproductive to the coronavirus fight and made U.S. officials look petty as American cities including New York became overwhelmed by the pandemic.

That tracks Pompeo’s own evolution: In a press briefing March 17, he used the phrase “Wuhan virus” six times, and then again four times in a March 25 press briefing.

After Trump spoke with Xi on March 27, Pompeo dropped the phrase entirely. He wouldn’t bite when Fox News’s Sean Hannity asked him about the phrase. In a briefing Tuesday, Pompeo referred to the virus simply as COVID-19.

James Carafano, the vice president for national security and foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the decision to call out China was a deliberate move after Chinese officials spread the false claim that the virus originated in the U.S. But China later shifted away from that claim, so the U.S. shifted its rhetoric too.

“The Chinese did a risk calculation and they decided to back off,” Carafano said. “You see senior Chinese officials disavowing some of this reporting, and then you have the personal phone call between Xi and Trump. It seems to me there was a kind of truce negotiated there.”

Pompeo even appeared to soften his commentary slightly on another facet of U.S. foreign policy that has earned him heated criticism: the determination to press ahead with the maximum-pressure campaign against Iran even as its government struggles to contain the coronavirus.

“The United States understands this is a humanitarian challenge, a humanitarian crisis, and we are deeply committed to ensuring that humanitarian assistance gets to the people of those countries,” he said.

Pompeo’s stance may also have been chastened by Congress, where some Republican members wondered why the top U.S. diplomat was initially keeping such a low profile as the virus spread and vented their anger at the State Department over its early reluctance to help the tens of thousands of American citizens stuck abroad amid airport and border closures.

On March 16, a State Department spokesperson said U.S. citizens shouldn’t rely on the U.S. government to get them home. Then, according to one person familiar with the internal deliberations, some members of Congress and their staffs raised their frustration with the department, including by going directly to Trump. Days later, the department created a task force to help Americans get back. It has since arranged flights for more than 30,000 people, boasting of the accomplishment.

For some, there’s more to be done. In a letter to Pompeo on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and several others urged the U.S. to contribute at least $500 million to a United Nations appeal to help displaced people.

“This is an administration that has enthusiastically taken the fight against multilateral institutions to every corner of the globe,” Murphy said. “I think they need to create an impression that they are cooperating with other countries but that just isn’t the truth.”


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