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World

Pompeo Takes Over At State

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had an unusual - Pompeo had an unusual start to his tenure. Rather than going first to his department to get a handle on things, he hopped a plane to Europe and the Middle East. He takes this job on at a time when some big decisions are being made, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Iran is likely to loom large on this weekend's stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel. President Trump has to decide next month whether to stay in the Iran nuclear deal and to continue to uphold the U.S. side of the bargain with sanctions relief. Pompeo started his trip in Brussels with a warning for European allies.

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MIKE POMPEO: Absent a substantial fix, absent overcoming the shortcomings, the flaws of the deal, he is unlikely to stay in that deal past this May.

KELEMEN: May is also the month when the U.S. is moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, another big theme of his stops in the region. And while he's starting off with a full plate in the Middle East and at NATO headquarters, there is also some business awaiting him back at the State Department. Nancy McEldowney is a former U.S. diplomat and former director of the Foreign Service Institute.

NANCY MCELDOWNEY: There are dozens of political vacancies. Hundreds of career staff have departed the agency. And there is a malaise throughout the organization because many people feel both undervalued and in some cases under attack.

KELEMEN: Partisan attacks, that is. McEldowney, who's now with Georgetown University, says many in the State Department are in a wait-and-see mode about Pompeo. They remember the partisan role he played in Congress in the Benghazi investigation. He's also known for controversial rhetoric about gays and Muslims.

MCELDOWNEY: And they are going to be looking to see if Pompeo is going to support the law on protecting their rights - their professional rights, their individual rights - and if he is going to drive the kind of diversity that the State Department cherishes amongst its workforce because we have always said diplomats are the face of America.

KELEMEN: Secretary Pompeo insists he is committed to diversity in the Department. And though he was warned about the low morale at State, he says that's not what he found at the U.S. mission to NATO this week.

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POMPEO: They may have been demoralized, but they seem to be in good spirits. They're hopeful that the State Department will get its swagger back, that we will be out doing the things that they came on board at the State Department to do, to be professional, to deliver diplomacy, American diplomacy, around the world. That's my mission set, to build that esprit and get the team on the field.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration has yet to fill many key ambassadorships and other high-ranking posts in the Department. Some candidates already in the confirmation process have also been put on hold until Pompeo can weigh in on their candidacies. He's expected to be in the building on Tuesday. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, traveling with the secretary in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.