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Pompeo’s Cairo speech revealed the total incoherence of Trump’s Middle East policy

The secretary of state rebukes Iran and Obama but fails to make a compelling case for the administration’s strategy in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to students at the American University in Cairo, in the eastern suburb of New Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday, January 10, 2019.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to students at the American University in Cairo, in the eastern suburb of New Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday, January 10, 2019.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an address in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday that was billed as a major policy speech laying out the Trump administration’s vision of “America’s Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East.” What we got instead was a disconcerting realization that the administration’s Middle East policy is a hot mess.

Pompeo’s speech, titled “A Force for Good: America’s Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East,” presented a rosy picture of the US’s historical involvement in the region that was largely at odds with historical reality. It described a vague vision of US involvement going forward that seemed both incoherent and largely at odds with President Donald Trump’s America First approach to foreign policy.

The result was a speech that essentially boiled down to: Iran is bad, the Obama administration was bad, and Trump’s America is awesome.

Speaking at the American University in Cairo — the same city where almost 10 years ago, then-President Obama delivered his own speech laying out his vision for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” based on “mutual interest and mutual respect” — Pompeo proclaimed that “the age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering.”

“Now comes the real ‘new beginning,’” Pompeo added. He continued:

In just 24 months, actually less than two years, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes. … We have rediscovered our voice. We have rebuilt our relationships. We have rejected false overtures from enemies.

But in trying to denigrate Obama’s approach to the Middle East at every turn, Pompeo — purposely or accidentally — expressed a sentiment that flies in the face of Trump’s latest moves in the region.

“So today, what did we learn from all of this?” he asked, referring to the “dire” lessons of Obama’s failed approach. “We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.”

Warning that chaos results when America withdraws from the Middle East is quite a statement for Pompeo to make, given that the entire reason he’s in the Middle East right now is to try to reassure allies following Trump’s abrupt announcement that he is withdrawing all 2,000 US troops from Syria.

Trump, in making his case for pulling out of Syria, argued that ISIS has been defeated and that there’s no reason for the US to be involved there anymore. That decision stemmed from his deep skepticism of US foreign engagement, particularly in the Middle East. He’s long griped that the US has spent trillions in the Middle East with nothing to show for it.

So all of Pompeo’s talk about a more robust US role in the region seemed weirdly at odds with Trump’s worldview. Yet Pompeo failed to go into specifics about how America is actually going to go about its renewed engagement; instead, he dedicated most of the rest of his speech to painting Iran as the sole cause of the region’s ills.

Pompeo’s speech contradicted Trump. It also revealed the incoherence of the US’s Middle East strategy.

Pompeo’s speech made two things clear: The Obama administration’s Middle East policy was bad, and so is Iran. The rest was a jumble of vague statements about building and strengthening partnerships and confronting terrorism. Democracy and human rights were largely absent in a speech that was supposed to be about America being a force for good.

But if Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 was an implicit rejection of past US policy, Pompeo’s was explicit. “Remember: It was here, here in this very city, another American stood before you,” Pompeo said. “He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from ideology. He told you 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East.”

“The results of these misjudgments have been dire,” he added. “In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid about asserting ourselves when the times — and our partners — demanded it.”

Much of Pompeo’s ire seemed to be wrapped up in Obama’s approach to Iran, specifically his focus on the Iran nuclear deal — at one point, he described the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with the Islamic Republic as “willful blindness.”

Pompeo, along with other hawks in the Trump administration like National Security Adviser John Bolton, see Iran’s aggression in the region as the ordering principle for Middle East policy. The administration has put pressure on the regime, including tough sanctions.

But if the secretary of state was clear on the failures of past policies, he didn’t exactly make a compelling case for the Trump administration’s current policies. Pompeo was frustratingly opaque about how, exactly, the US planned to engage in the region — and be that “force for good” — other than simply not being Iran. And what he did say clashed with Trump’s past statements.

“For those who fret about the use of American power, remember: America has always been a liberating force, not an occupying power, in the Middle East,” Pompeo said. “We’ve never dreamed of domination. Can you say the same of the Iranian regime?”

Again, America as a “liberating force” doesn’t exactly fit with Trump’s America First policy — and Pompeo’s statements suggest long-term, indefinite commitments that run up against the president’s usual desire to “get out” of these conflicts, as in Syria.

Pompeo did attempt to reconcile those contradictions, but he largely failed. He argued that the region should depend on America’s partnership, while simultaneously suggesting that the US didn’t want to stick around. He said Trump had made the decision to bring troops home from Syria but that America was committed to the “complete dismantling of ISIS.”

The result was a speech that highlighted not just the push-pull between Trump and the rest of his top foreign policy advisers, but also the utter incoherence of the administration’s Middle East policy. Rather than clarifying Trump’s decision-making for the region and for America’s allies, Pompeo’s speech revealed the murky mess that it is.