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Here are the facts behind Mike Pompeo’s fight with NPR

Either the NPR journalist is unusually terrible at geography, or the State Department has issued a misleading statement.

- January 25, 2020

Social media is full of angry comments about an interview NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly conducted with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and its aftermath. Kelly asked Pompeo a series of questions about Iran and Ukraine. Pompeo objected to the questions about Ukraine, claiming he had never agreed to talk about it, and angrily rebuked Kelly after the interview took place.

According to Kelly’s account, Pompeo cursed her out and demanded she point out Ukraine on an unlabeled map (which she says she did), asking her whether Americans cared about Ukraine. Saturday morning, the State Department issued an official statement complaining of media bias, claiming the conversation after the interview had been off the record and Kelly had lied twice. It implied she had mistakenly pointed to Bangladesh instead of Ukraine.

Both the contentious interview and the follow-up argument touched on questions political scientists have written on for the Monkey Cage. Here are the facts behind what Kelly and Pompeo were arguing about.

The State Department seems to think Kelly is really bad at geography

The most widely read post the Monkey Cage has ever published explained what happened when Americans were challenged to find Ukraine on a map. Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff reported on a research project where they asked over 2,000 Americans to find Ukraine on a map. Only one-sixth of Americans were able to succeed in the challenge. Most had some vague idea it was located in Europe or Asia, but the median respondent was wrong by about 1,800 miles.

This suggests one of two things is true. Perhaps the State Department statement is correct in insinuating Kelly pointed to Bangladesh rather than Ukraine. If so, then Kelly did much worse than the average American (Bangladesh is a little over 3,600 miles away from Ukraine). Alternatively, it is possible the State Department’s suggestion about Kelly is misleading. One piece of evidence in favor of the latter is Kelly has a master’s degree in European studies. Unless she paid no attention at all to her studies, it is unlikely she would think Ukraine was in Asia.

It is unusual for the secretary of state not to defend his employees

The moment at which Pompeo started to get angry in the interview was when Kelly asked him whether he owed an apology to former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who has gotten caught up in the impeachment inquiry. He replied that he had not agreed to talk about Ukraine and effectively refused to answer a question asking when he had defended her.

This is ironic. As Elizabeth Saunders wrote when Pompeo was appointed, there was a lot of optimism that he would establish a better relationship with State Department employees than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who was widely perceived as disengaged from the people working for him. Political appointees usually have strong incentives to protect the people working for them, since they need those people’s active cooperation to succeed. Of course, Pompeo was presented with an unusual situation, where the president, apparently at the request of outside people, seems to have wanted to “take [Yovanovitch] out.” It is also possible Pompeo did more for Yovanovitch in private than he is willing to reveal in public.

The sanctions against Iran aren’t having the desired effect

Before bringing up Ukraine, Kelly asked a series of questions about the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran. She suggested it was not leading Iran to back down, but instead provoking it to return to its nuclear program, and to increased aggression in the region. Pompeo retorted that sanctions were “absolutely working” and that the Trump administration had “built out a significant coalition that has put pressure on the Iranian regime to do what the we’ve asked: to cease its processing of uranium, reprocessing of plutonium, to stop its missile program and the development of its missile program.”

He suggested Iran had “lied” to get into the nuclear deal that the Obama administration helped negotiate to get Iran to abandon its nuclear activities, and that the agreement “guaranteed [Iran] a pathway to having a nuclear program.”

These factual claims are at odds with the relevant political science. Bryan R. Early described how U.S. allies were very unhappy with the Iran sanctions — despite relentless U.S. pressure, they have declined to pull out of the deal, although they have taken measures to push back against Iran’s resumption of nuclear activities. Jeff Colgan described how Trump administration sanctions have provoked Iran into seizing foreign oil tankers. Finally, as Nicholas Miller noted just before the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, “Iran has not violated the agreement or restarted its nuclear weapons program.”