WASHINGTON - As the world waited for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to decide what to do next in response to last weekend's drone and missile attack on two major Saudi oil fields, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the most bellicose statement yet on the attacks, unambiguously accusing Iran of launching them and declaring the attacks an "act of war."
Almost as soon as the attacks were reported, Pompeo, a former member of Congress and director of the CIA, asserted himself as the person driving the U.S. response. "Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world's energy supply," he wrote on Twitter. "There is no evidence the attacks on Saturday came from Yemen."
The Houthis, a rebel group that controls much of Saudi Arabia's neighbor, Yemen, has claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it retaliation for years of bombing by the Saudi Air Force that has killed thousands of Yemenis and left others on the brink of starvation. U.S. and Saudi officials have denied that the Houthis could have carried out the attack, calling it far too sophisticated, and instead pointing the finger at Iran, which has been providing the Houthis with support.
In fact, there was little public evidence that pointed in either direction in the immediate aftermath of the attack, and the accusation of Iran put Pompeo far out front of President Trump, who as late as Tuesday was still reluctant to say definitively that Iran, not the Houthis, was responsible.
Although Trump had yet to reach a definitive conclusion about the source of the attacks or what to do about them, many interpreted Pompeo's "act of war" declaration while conferring with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to mean retaliation was imminent.
Already a dominant voice in the foreign policy apparatus of the Trump administration, Pompeo assumed a commanding role over the past 10 days, with the departure of former National Security Adviser John Bolton from the White House. This marked the culmination of nearly two years of chaos within the ranks of national security, intelligence and defense, when practically every one of Trump's original cabinet members and senior officials fell by the wayside. Pompeo has shown himself to be not only a master tactician but a political survivor, according to some analysts. Further strengthening Pompeo's position was the announcement Wednesday that Bolton's place would be taken by Robert C. O'Brien, a Pompeo protege who has been serving under him as the State Department's chief hostage negotiator.
Warnings of "all-out war"
In an interview with CNN Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif repeated earlier denials by top officials of his country's involvement and said that a military strike by the United States or Saudi Arabia on Iran would lead to "all out war." While insisting that Iranian leaders "don't want to engage in a military confrontation," Zarif added, "But we won't blink to defend our territory."
On Thursday, as he prepared to leave the Middle East, Pompeo was asked about Zarif's comment, and painted Iran as the party moving the situation toward conflict.
"We'd like a peaceful resolution -- indeed, I think we've demonstrated that," he said. "They've taken down American UAVs, conducted the largest attack on the globe's energy in an awfully long time. And we're still striving to build out a coalition."
He described his trip as an "act of diplomacy" undertaken "while the foreign minister of Iran is threatening all out war to fight to the last American. We're here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution to this. That's my mission set. That's what President Trump certainly wants me to work to achieve and hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran sees it the same way. There's, there's no there's no evidence of that from his statement."
Pompeo's first major diplomatic test
The crisis in the Middle East is the first major diplomatic test for Pompeo, who took over the State Department in April of last year, after Trump fired his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
Under Tillerson, the State Department's influence in the administration was notably diminished. When he took office, Pompeo saw his role as restoring State to the center of the foreign policy establishment.
To all appearances, he has been very effective in doing so. Spoken of as the "Trump whisperer," Pompeo appears to have more influence over the president than any other member of the administration.
Experts believe his close relationship with Trump has helped restore the sense among Pompeo's foreign counterparts that the State Department truly speaks for the Trump administration.
"For any secretary of state the international community wants to know they reflect the views of the president," Kelly Magsamen, Vice President for National Security and International Policy, Center for American Progress said in an interview with Voice of America. "I think for the most part Secretary Pompeo does do that very well despite some of his own instincts."
A West Point graduate
Pompeo, an Army veteran who graduated first in his class at West Point in 1986, is a longtime national security hawk. After five years of service in the Army he earned a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School and eventually settled in Kansas, where he launched a company that manufactured aircraft parts.
Four years after selling his interest in the firm, he became deeply involved with politically active groups funded by the conservative Koch Brothers. Amid the Tea Party wave of 2010, he launched his first run for Congress, winning the right to represent the state's fourth district, and would go on to win re-election three times.
In Congress, he made a name for himself as a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence with controversial stands on issues including restoring the government's ability to conduct surveillance of American citizens and resuming the use of the torture technique known as waterboarding in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Pompeo was also an active member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and publicly broke from his colleagues who determined that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the aftermath of the attack on a US diplomatic compound in Libya in 2012.
It was reportedly his stance on Benghazi that drew the attention of President Trump, who tapped Pompeo to serve as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in January of 2017. Pompeo won over many at the agency with his willingness to break with President Trump on some key issues, including Russia's malign interference with the U.S. election in 2016.
A tempting open Senate seat
The biggest question surrounding Pompeo's role in the administration is how long he intends to hold on to it.
Never far from the surface in discussions about Pompeo is the fact that there will be an open Senate seat in his home state of Kansas next year, due to the planned retirement of Sen. Pat Roberts. The former Kansas Secretary of State Ken Kobach is currently the best-known Republican in the race to succeed Roberts, but his struggles in the polls against Democratic former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom have many in the party hoping that Pompeo will make a run for a seat that has been in Republican hands for more than 100 years.