WASHINGTON – CIA Director Mike Pompeo faced questions from Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner about United States foreign policy toward Asia on Thursday at the director’s confirmation hearing to become secretary of state.
Pompeo would replace Rex Tillerson as America’s top diplomat, leading an agency riddled with critical vacancies during a time when many contentious and consequential foreign policy decisions are being made by the government across the globe.
The U.S. is facing critical issues, including Russia’s cyber threats, its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and nuclear weapons in North Korea.
Pompeo’s hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations committee comes at a time when the State Department has numerous top vacancies in the senior ranks, including more than 40 open ambassadorships – including South Korea.
Gardner plays a central role in the U.S. policy approach to the North Korean nuclear program as chairman of the subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific. The Colorado Republican has continuously called for “verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization” of North Korea.
Gardner asked a series of questions about North Korea, including if the country was the biggest international threat the U.S. faces. Pompeo affirmed that North Korea does present the biggest threat and later told Gardner that the proliferation of North Korean nuclear technology is an “enormous threat.”
With a potential summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump in the next few months, Gardner asked Pompeo what the U.S. priorities would be in meeting with the country’s leader.
“(The goal) is to develop an agreement with the North Korean leadership such that the North Korean leadership will step away from its effort to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons, completely and verifiably,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also agreed with Gardner that the U.S. needs to sanction countries or companies that trade with North Korea.
Other senators asked Pompeo if he supported preventive, pre-emptive strikes in the country. Pompeo said the U.S. should exhaust all diplomatic options before striking North Korea and made clear he isn’t currently advocating regime change in the region, but said he could imagine a scenario where the U.S. “moved past diplomacy.”
Gardner also outlined the importance of a U.S. presence in Asia, then asked Pompeo how he viewed the U.S.’s role in the region given the rise of Chinese economic and political influence.
“(There is) a Chinese government that is intent on expanding their capacity to have not only economic influence on those countries, but using that economic tool to achieve political influence in those countries as well,” Pompeo said. “We need a thoughtful, long-term strategy that prevents that from taking place.”
Gardner said in a tweet last month that he will support Pompeo’s nomination. Gardner’s position was reconfirmed Thursday by a spokesperson.
“From graduating first in his class at West Point to his current role as director of the CIA, his record and experience is unmatched,” Gardner said in a statement to The Durango Herald. “He’s exactly the type of person we need representing our nation abroad.”
Gardner and Pompeo have worked together since they sat next to each other on the House Energy and Commerce Committee when Pompeo was a Kansas congressman, a Gardner spokesperson said. Gardner said Pompeo’s record in the House impressed him.
“No one came better prepared, more understanding of the issues and always looking for a creative answer,” Gardner said during the hearing.
Pompeo faces a tough confirmation vote with Republicans having only a 50-49 majority in the absence of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Republicans will likely need Democratic votes to confirm Pompeo with Kentucky Republican Rand Paul threatening to vote against his confirmation.
Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet hasn’t decided how he’ll vote and will evaluate Pompeo’s performance at his hearing, according to a Bennet spokesperson.
“Michael opposed Mr. Pompeo’s nomination as CIA director and continues to have concerns about his temperament and independence,” a Bennet spokesperson said.
Committee Democrats expressed concerns to Pompeo over the president’s foreign policy approach, which ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., described as “impulse, not strategy,” that may lead the U.S. into a “pointless war.”
Pompeo, who graduated from West Point and served on the border of East and West Germany during the Cold War, said he views war as the option of last resort.
“There’s no one like someone who served in uniform who understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war,” Pompeo said. “It’s the last resort. It must always be so.”
Andrew Eversden is an intern with The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.