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Pompeo coronavirus: The secretary of state turns pandemic bully



The rhetoric is in keeping with Pompeo’s aggressive anti-Beijing posture. In late January, Pompeo said during a speech in London that “the Chinese Communist Party is the central threat of our times.” In the weeks that followed, as the outbreak that emerged in China morphed into a global pandemic, Pompeo maintained a hard line, spoiling a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven nations with his insistence on branding it the “Wuhan virus” in the group’s joint statement.

The U.S. intelligence community has cast doubt on the possibility of the virus being “man-made” or genetically modified. “While intelligence analysts and many scientists see the lab-as-origin theory as technically possible, no direct evidence has emerged suggesting that the coronavirus escaped from Wuhan’s research facilities,” my colleagues reported last week. “Many scientists argue that the evidence tilts firmly toward a natural transmission: a still-unknown interaction in late fall that allowed the virus to jump from a bat or another animal to a human.”

The secretary of state seems to have misled the public before. In early January, he made evidence-free claims that Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat to American lives — an argument the Trump administration used to justify its lethal strike on the commander. (A two-page White House memo in January, made public by a congressional committee in February, made no mention of an imminent threat.)

Indeed, no matter global efforts to reckon with the pandemic, America’s top diplomat seems more invested in the Trump administration’s confrontations with China and Iran. On Monday, neither Trump nor Pompeo participated in a high-level meeting led by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a half-dozen countries that sought to raise billions of dollars to fund research for a coronavirus vaccine and mass-produce drugs and testing kits that can counteract the virus. Efforts are underway to find an effective vaccine, but rather than helping shepherd the process, the Trump administration may see it as a competition.

“It’s the first time that I can think of where you have had a major international pledging conference for a global crisis of this kind of importance, and the U.S. is just absent,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who worked on the Ebola response in the Obama administration, to my colleagues. “Against that kind of uncertainty we should be trying to position ourselves to be supporting — and potentially benefiting from — all of them. And instead we seem to be just focused on trying to win the race, in the hopes we happen to get one of the successful ones.”

Briefing my colleagues, a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity did not explain why the United States skipped the meeting, but pointed to the “significant funding” it already provides to international efforts. Numerous world leaders at the event praised the World Health Organization, the U.N. agency at the heart of coordinating the public health response to the pandemic. The Trump administration has opted to drag the WHO into its squabbles with China, moving to cut funding to the agency last month.

Some analysts welcome Pompeo’s hawkish role amid the pandemic. In a Monday webinar, Mary Beth Long, a former senior official in the George W. Bush administration, said the secretary of state’s “appropriately tough statements” helped “put the kibosh” on China’s own attempts to launch a coronavirus charm offensive.

Others weren’t so sure. “While more responsible leaders have struggled to contain the pandemic, Pompeo has pursued pet causes as if nothing else were happening,” wrote The Post’s deputy opinions editor Jackson Diehl. “That’s especially true of the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran, which he, more than any other official, has promoted.”

And even that campaign is facing trouble.

Pompeo dismissed calls in Washington to offer temporary sanctions relief to Iran as it battled its coronavirus outbreak. Now, he and his deputies are aiming to extend a conventional arms export ban on Iran, which is set to expire in October. To circumvent a possible veto from either Russia or China on the U.N. Security Council, Pompeo and his deputies plan to argue they remain an active “participant” in the nuclear deal with Iran (which, of course, they abrogated first) to then invoke a mechanism that would allow them to “snap back” punitive sanctions, including the arms ban.

Critics see the irony in the Trump administration now clinging to the diplomatic agreement it has spent months trying to destroy. “More than two years after the U.S. exit, the deal still stands while the Trump administration is running out of options to force a re-negotiation,” wrote Trita Parsi and Tyler Cullis in a blog administered by the Quincy Institute think tank. “It is now so desperate it is seeking to convince the United Nations Security Council that it never quit the deal in the first place. The lesson to the U.S. is clear: Diplomatic vandalism carries costs — even for a superpower.”



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