Will Korea gambit change Senate minds on Pompeo?

Until late yesterday, the conventional wisdom on Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as Secretary of State sounded somewhat glum. Thanks to Rand Paul’s opposition, the current CIA director needed at least one Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to support him. The two who voted to confirm Pompeo in his current role announced yesterday they’d take a pass, in part because they didn’t trust his diplomatic instincts:

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who voted to confirm Pompeo as CIA director, said in a statement Tuesday evening that she could not do the same for his bid to be top diplomat, citing concerns with Pompeo’s positions on gay rights, Muslim Americans and women’s reproductive rights.

“His previous roles are fundamentally different from that of Secretary of State, who represents American values around the world,” Shaheen said in the statement. “The Secretary of State is a policymaking position and I continue to have deep concerns regarding Mr. Pompeo’s past statements and policy views.”

Shaheen joined Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who also backed Pompeo as CIA director, but announced his opposition to Pompeo’s secretary of state bid over the weekend, complaining that Pompeo “would exacerbate President Trump’s weaknesses rather than uphold our diplomatic legacy” — particularly when it came to the use of force in approaching Iran.

The Washington Post prepared this report on Pompeo’s status just as Donald Trump disrupted it. First came news that the two Koreas planned on discussing a permanent peace treaty to end their 68-year conflict status, a stunning development that appeared to be connected to the meeting proposed between Trump and Kim Jong-un in the next few weeks. And then Trump announced that Pompeo had met with Kim himself, making the diplomatic connections necessary for what might be a comprehensive end to hostilities:

“Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed,” the president wrote online. “Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!”

The meeting between Pompeo and Kim marks the highest-level known talks between the U.S. and North Korean governments since 2000, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim Jong Il, the now-deceased father of the current North Korean leader.

That’s not a bad precedent to keep in mind when considering all of the potentialities of these meetings. The Kim regime made promises two decades ago too, but never intended to keep any of them. They never went quite as far as they are today in suggesting denuclearization and a full peace treaty with the South, but much depends on their definitions on both. Do they want peace or reunification on Kim’s terms? Will they agree to deconstructing their nuclear program in exchange for diplomatic relations with the US and an end to sanctions, or does “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” require the US to withdraw all of its nuclear platforms from the region — including ballistic missile subs? China wouldn’t mind that definition, certainly, but Japan would.

Nevertheless, it’s an opportunity for peace that the US has to explore, and explore carefully. Pompeo got the call, presumably in anticipation that he would soon run the State Department and would quarterback the diplomatic effort. His time with Kim — a rare event in any case — appears to have advanced the effort, and more importantly gives him vital experience that may not easily transfer to another.

Having succeeded so far at an extraordinary diplomatic assignment, can Democrats on the fence justify blocking his advancement on the bases offered by Democrats thus far? Are they willing to damage this delicate diplomatic moment just to score a few hobby-horse political points?

Is it worth risking the momentum and the work Pompeo has already done just to force Trump to pick someone else … someone who may be even less acceptable to the Senate? Politico reports that Democrats were already hedging bets on blocking Pompeo. With the White House pushing for a confirmation vote before recess, Democrats will feel maximum pressure to either confirm Pompeo or be accused of sabotaging Korean diplomacy at the worst possible moment for the worst possible reasons.

Update: Presumably, Richard Blumenthal drafted this statement prior to yesterday’s news: