WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration and its new secretary of state -- assuming the Senate confirms Mike Pompeo in time -- will face a confluence of foreign policy decisions and potential national security crises this spring that would challenge even the most experienced diplomats.
A meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, tentatively to be held before the end of May, will bring two volatile leaders face to face with the highest stakes imaginable.
In mid-May, Trump has said he will decide whether to end U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear weapons deal, a determination that could profoundly change the United States' relationships with its closest European allies and throw down a gauntlet before Tehran.
Even before those events, Trump is due to host, beginning Monday in rapid succession, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar for complicated talks on Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Depending on how those bilateral talks go, the administration is hoping to bring the Persian Gulf leaders together for a May summit in Washington to broker an end to a regional dispute among them that has hobbled U.S. policy across the Middle East.
Rex Tillerson, who was fired Tuesday as secretary of state, has been deeply involved in all of those issues, while operating with a skeleton staff that is expected to dwindle even more with his departure. On these and other challenges -- including Russia -- he has often been publicly at odds with Trump's impulsive approach to foreign policy, counseling more traditional diplomacy rather than dependence on gut instinct.
Pompeo is likely to be more amenable to Trump's way of doing business. As a firebrand congressman from Kansas and a Tea Party leader, he sharply opposed the Iran nuclear deal, tweeting just before his CIA nomination his determination to "roll back" the agreement. Earlier, Pompeo was a leader of the Republican House effort to hold the Obama administration responsible for the killings of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, and questioned the wisdom of traditional multilateralism.
As CIA director, Pompeo has followed Trump's lead in declining to directly accuse Russia of interfering in the 2016 presidential election, and withholding direct allegations of recent chemical weapons use in Syria. While Tillerson urged step-by-step caution in dealings with North Korea, Pompeo has congratulated Trump on his boldness in agreeing to meet with a leader who he last year suggested would be a good candidate for U.S.-authored regime change.
In an indication that he knew what was coming, Pompeo told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday that he spent last weekend reading the history of U.S. involvement in "previous failed negotiations" with Pyongyang. "You can be sure that ... I won't make those mistakes again," he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in a statement Tuesday that he expected to hold confirmation hearings for Pompeo in April, and noted that the CIA director had been confirmed in his current role by a vote of 66 to 32.
But much of what the new secretary of state will have on his plate will not wait. It remains unclear whether Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who often joined Tillerson in pressing Trump to be more patient and thoughtful on a range of issues, will be willing or able to continue in that role.
In a statement last fall, Corker said that Tillerson, Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly "are those people that help separate our country from chaos." Since then, Kelly has come under sharp criticism in Congress -- and even in the White House -- for his conduct in the job.
While the White House continues to plan for the North Korea talks, the arrival here Monday of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, poses an early challenge.
Tillerson, as chief executive of ExxonMobil, had long and deep relationships with Gulf leaders. But his calls for caution were sometimes challenged by presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who has formed his own ties, often outside the purview of the State Department, with MBS and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi who is seen as the United Arab Emirates' de facto ruler.
Kushner has been counting on the Gulf leaders to support his still-unrevealed peace plan, a prospect that was already thrown into doubt when Trump announced -- over Tillerson's objections -- U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and plans to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
When the Saudis and Emiratis, along with Bahrain and Egypt, broke relations and instituted a boycott of neighboring Qatar last summer, Trump openly supported them, backing their charges of support for extremism. Tillerson and Mattis, who noted the close U.S. military relationship with Qatar, quickly issued evenhanded statements calling for dialogue.
Eventually, after months of openly criticizing Qatar, Trump was persuaded to change course, offering to broker a deal among them at a summit at Camp David, Maryland. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates refused, and Tillerson and Mattis have spent much of the ensuing months voicing support for Qatar and trying to pressure the others to come to a Trump-led negotiation.