Pompeo uses Obama as foil in Middle East speech
Secretary of State says U.S. a ‘ force for good’ in the region
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a scathing rebuke of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy in Cairo on Thursday in an address centered on exerting maximum pressure on Iran, and doubling down on U.S. alliances with Sunni autocrats and Israel.
In establishing his own vision for the Middle East, Pompeo set up the Obama administration as a foil for what not to do, whether striking a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 or leaving Egypt’s autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, in the lurch during that country’s protests in 2011.
“The United States has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region,” Pompeo told an audience at American University in Cairo. “We’ve learned from our mistakes.”
The speech served as an explicit rebuttal of the address that Obama delivered in Cairo in 2009, extending an olive branch to Iran and calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conf lict. In that address, Obama criticized Israel’s settlement activity and underscored the suppression of political rights by Arab monarchies.
Pompeo, by contrast, praised Israel and credited countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain for pushing back against Iranian aggression. He did not raise their human rights records, in particular the Saudi kingdom’s killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October or the Bahrain government’s suppression of its majority Shiite population.
Instead, he depicted those countries as victims of an Obama administration unwilling to stand proudly behind its allies. “The Trump administration has moved quickly to rebuild links among our old friends and nurture new partnerships,” Pompeo said.
While Obama’s 2009 address cautioned that the United States did not have the answers to all of the Middle East’s “complex” problems, Pompeo castigated that approach as insufficiently prideful.
“The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering,” Pompeo said in a speech that ended with muted applause.
Pompeo spoke amid confusion among U.S. allies over Trump’s announced plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria immediately, a proclamation that was followed by remarks that the withdrawal will happen “slowly.”
Pompeo said the U.S. would continue airstrikes in the region “as targets arise,” and continue its mission of overseeing the full defeat of the Islamic State and the expulsion of Iranian forces from Syria, a job that analysts said would take much longer than an initial 120-day U.S. timeline for withdrawal.
U.S. officials say there is now no timeline for withdrawal.
Exerting pressure on Iran has been a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. The president withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed punishing sanctions on the Islamic Republic despite opposition from key European allies. Pompeo has repeatedly called the country the “leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
“Iran does sponsor terrorism, but not the variety that tends to threaten the U.S. homeland,” said Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert and author of the book “Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History.”
Pompeo’s outlook “is driven by his support for Israel. Iran poses a major terrorism threat to Israel, much less so the U.S. homeland,” he said.
To many of those listening, Pompeo appeared to have ignored decades of collective angst in the region toward the U.S. and its policies, seemingly rewriting historical perceptions.
“Clearly, when Pompeo insists that ‘America is a force for good in the Middle East,’ he’s not thinking about a local audience at all … ,” tweeted H.A. Hellyer, a Middle East analyst with the Atlantic Council.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to students at the American University, Cairo, east of the capital, on Thursday.