Eight days in Middle East puts Pompeo’s diplomacy to the test

From tomorrow until Jan. 15, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo: US 'absolutely not' getting out of the Middle East Pompeo taking meeting about running for Kansas Senate seat: report Ex-US envoy in ISIS fight: 'There's no plan for what's coming' after US troop withdrawal in Syria MORE is visiting the Middle East. Government shutdown or not, so far it looks as though the trip will proceed.

Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; Manama, Bahrain; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE); Doha, Qatar; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Muscat, Oman; Kuwait City, Kuwait. Wow, even with his own jet and no immigration hassles, that’s an exhausting itinerary.

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What’s up? The short answer is that Secretary Pompeo is trying to sell/explain President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump claims media 'smeared' students involved in encounter with Native American man Al Sharpton criticizes Trump’s ‘secret’ visit to MLK monument Gillibrand cites spirituality in 2020 fight against Trump’s ‘dark’ values MORE’s “we are leaving Syria” policy to America’s friends. (National security adviser John Bolton has been in Israel and Turkey on a parallel mission.) The Financial Times on Saturday reported it as “reassuring allies.”

None of these countries’ primary concern is Syria, as such. They are all much more interested in Iran’s influence and military activities there.

But the main elements of the trip clearly were being planned in advance of President Trump’s Dec. 14 telephone conversation with President Erdogan of Turkey, which abruptly changed Washington’s Syria policy. There is a speech planned for Cairo, and an annual bilateral strategic dialogue with Qatar and another with Kuwait. The fact that there now are eight stops in eight days probably reflects the amount of explaining that needs to be done.

Perhaps there is some diplomatic coup in the making. A Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Sunday entertained the prospect of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu going to Riyadh. That seems a long shot, but maybe a meeting is being engineered elsewhere.

In the meantime, the likely headline item will be the speech to an Egyptian audience on “the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Middle East.” What will it say? Will it be significant?  It certainly will be important, but will it be definitive? Perhaps only until the next presidential tweet.

For many of the stops, the photographs of the meetings are likely to be more revealing than the press statements. When Pompeo met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in October to talk about murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, the secretary’s smile, in the words of the New York Times, “fueled widespread criticism of his trip.” This time the meeting will be held in the atmosphere created by an unnamed senior State Department official last week, who briefed the media to say the kingdom’s explanation of the circumstances of Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 has not yet hit the “threshold of credibility and accountability.”

There is a particular tension among Washington’s allies that may be slightly improved — the rift between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. Washington clearly regards the diplomatic cat-fight as being absurd and a distraction from what should be shared Arab Gulf concern about Iran’s malign influence. (Qatar hosts the largest American air base in the region.)

A sliver of optimism is warranted. At a late hour the UAE allowed a Qatari soccer team to take part in the 2019 Asian Cup it is now hosting. The team is due to play Saudi Arabia in Abu Dhabi on Jan. 17. (Spectators need to be warned that, since the diplomatic break started in 2017, it has been illegal in the UAE to show support for Qatar.) Additionally, an Egyptian official delegation is visiting Qatar, notionally to examine the conditions of Egyptian laborers there.

The word “thaw” is a curious word to use in the Gulf and Americans don’t often care much for soccer (which the rest of the world calls “football”), but other positive outcomes related to the trip are hard to discern at this stage.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.