Trump replaced Tillerson, a realist, with Pompeo, a hawk -- and it could set up confrontation with North Korea

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesCIA director Mike Pompeo was ordered by Trump to meet with an official who has cast doubt on his own agency’s work
  • President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that he would replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in a move that could make the US more hawkish towards North Korea.
  • Tillerson was thought to be a voice that cautioned Trump against striking North Korea while Pompeo has come off consistently hawkish.
  • The US has a tricky patch of diplomacy coming up with North Korea as Trump and Kim Jong Un prepare to meet, and if diplomacy fails, the US could get even tougher on Pyongyang.

President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that he would replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in a move that could shift the balance of power in his inner circle in a dangerously hawkish direction.

Tillerson, during his time as secretary of state, played an important role in defining Trump’s emerging foreign policy by acknowledging political realities and giving up on some of the US’s more high-minded ideas like human rights advocacy when it gets in the way of strategic goals.

Importantly, Tillerson was reported to be one of the members of Trump’s innermost circle cautioning the president against striking North Korea, while Pompeo has taken a hawkish line against Pyongyang.

Pompeo, as head of the CIA, has said that his organisation assessed that North Korea didn’t just want nuclear weapons to deter a US attack, but to coerce its neighbours, and that it could export nuclear weapons or sensitive technologies to other states.

Rather than petition Trump either way when it comes to military action against North Korea, Pompeo said his role was to simply provide informed options to the president. As secretary of state, Pompeo may move towards advising the president, as Tillerson was seen as pushing back on the idea of a strike.

The most pressing North Korea issue is currently the upcoming May summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, one in which Pompeo has declared the US will make “no concessions.”

“Tillerson’s firing comes at a moment of volatility on both strategic and economic fronts. Tillerson has been a calm and steady voice, especially on North Korea and the Middle East, though often contradicted by presidential tweets,” Robert A. Manning, a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security said.

“Pompeo has been more alarmist and a bit more hawkish on North Korea than Tillerson, so in regard to the path ahead, the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit and beyond, it may presage a more rocky road,” continued Manning.

Should the talks fall through, or play out as a kind of trap to generate positive propaganda for North Korea while laying the blame for the burgeoning nuclear crisis on the US, as some experts fear, Trump’s White House will be without one more voice urging against strikes.

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