The January 10, 2019 speech delivered by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo, Egypt was titled ‘A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East.’ Pompeo offered his remarks at the American University in Cairo, and in many ways, his comments were a direct repudiation of former President Barack Obama, who also delivered a high-profile speech in Cairo at the start of his first term in 2009. Pompeo never mentioned Obama by name, but dismissively referred to the former Commander-in-Chief as ‘another American.’ Pompeo proclaimed, ‘Remember: It was here, here in this city, that another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology. He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East. He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed, quote, a new beginning’ end of quote. The results of these misjudgments have been dire.’
The notable contradictions in Pompeo’s speech struck many in the region as tone deaf. At one point he proclaimed, ‘now comes the real new beginning’ by stressing a return to American foreign policy in the Middle East prior to Obama, ignoring the strategic mistakes of the George W. Bush administration, including the disastrous invasion of Iraq that led directly to the formation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the so-called Islamic State. He also boasted that ‘the age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering,’ a statement that reflects a stunning lack of awareness and tenuous grasp of how the United States is perceived in many parts of the Arab and Islamic world. Pompeo stressed that the U.S. is always a force for good and that the mistakes of the past administration stemmed from its reluctance to act, arguing that the Obama administration erred by failing to do enough to help stabilize the Mubarak regime following the Arab Spring protests that swept throughout Egypt and the broader region beginning in 2011.
The speech contained only oblique and half-hearted references to human rights and implied that American values are for sale to the highest bidder. Reinforcing this perception will only encourage more malicious behavior on the part of the Saudis, Emiratis, the Assad regime and its backers. In the Trump administration’s vision of foreign policy, human rights are not a determinative factor in Washington’s relations with other countries. In this version of uber Realism, political access and economic transactions drive foreign policy. Accordingly, there was no mention of any adverse side effects of U.S. intervention in the region, even as the U.S. continues to support the Saudis’ Yemen policy, which is responsible for prolonging the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Pompeo described U.S. direct support for this calamity as assisting ‘our coalition partners as they take the lead in preventing an Iranian expansion that would be disastrous for world trade and regional security.’ Yemeni civilians do not factor into the administration’s decision-making calculus.
Secretary Pompeo reiterated President Trump’s surprise announcement that the U.S. would be withdrawing its military personnel from Syria while, without apparent irony, also observing, ‘when America retreats, chaos often follows.’ He said the withdrawal was not a change in mission and that the U.S. would continue airstrikes against the Islamic State ‘as targets arise.’ As with every issue in the Middle East, Washington’s focus in Syria is countering Iran’s presence there, although Tehran and Damascus have long maintained close ties. To the extent that the blueprint for a foreign policy approach was articulated, it was highly reactive, focused solely on the threat posed by Iran. Pompeo suggested that the U.S. would ‘use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot’ from Syria, once again eschewing mention of a strategy that included some of the other major players involved, including Russia and Turkey. The Secretary of State also downplayed Washington’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia and by neglecting to mention the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi the same day as an event in the U.S. Capitol was honoring him, implicitly gave Riyadh a pass on the Kingdom’s odious behavior. Overall, the speech dedicated more bandwidth to attacking Obama than it did to lay out a coherent vision for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, revealing an administration living in the past with no clear plan for the future.