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.

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