Pompeo’s Cairo speech more ‘back to the future’ than break with past

Pompeo’s Cairo speech more ‘back to the future’ than break with past
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When the most senior American diplomat steps onto the world stage, as Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTurkey's search for oil may spill over into conflict with Greece The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden, Harris's first day as running mates Watchdog: Trump's UK envoy made inappropriate remarks on religion, race, sex MORE did last week in Egypt, a baseline expectation is that he will speak with credibility and the authority of the United States.

Unfortunately, Pompeo’s list of Trump administration accomplishments does not hold up against realities on the ground. Moreover, the secretary of State missed an opportunity to express how America can be “a force for good in the Middle East” — as the speech was titled — while maintaining President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE’s “America first” approach.


In other words, how can America be a force for good in the region while cutting funding for critical diplomatic, assistance and military programs; giving governments who commit grave human rights abuses a blank check; and instituting travel bans and bureaucratic roadblocks to keep individuals from entering the United States?

Starting with ISIS, President Trump’s surprising December announcement that the United States would withdraw troops from Syria was based on the claim that ISIS is defeated. Pompeo doubled down on this point, arguing that liberating of 99 percent of ISIS territory equates with the group’s defeat.

However, most U.S. national security professionals know that ISIS will be defeated only when communities are stabilized, responsible governments exist, and services are provided enabling life and dignified livelihoods free from fear. What is the United States willing to invest to realize these goals when, for example, it cuts the $200 million stabilization program in eastern Syria?

Consider that the nominee to lead U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, testified to Congress in December:“ISIS probably still is more capable than al Qaeda in Iraq at its peak, suggesting it is well positioned to re-emerge if pressure on the group is relieved.” Just last week an ISIS suicide bomber attacked in the terrorist group’s former capital Raqqa, an ISIS missile attack wounded two British soldiers, and the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that it had detained a group of ISIS foreign fighters including two Americans. ISIS is sending a message to the world that its defeat is far from guaranteed. Communities in the Middle East still live in fear of ISIS’ resurgence.

Pompeo’s pledge in Cairo that “airstrikes in the region will continue as targets arise” laid the pretext for the same questionable “forever war” that societies in the region resent and that our government partners now question, given the president’s varying policy announcement. How long will the U.S. military remain in the region to assist with countering terror?

On Iran, Pompeo celebrated a “new pressure campaign” to cut off Iran’s financing of terror. He referenced the reimposition of nuclear-related sanctions and celebrated the efforts of Arab governments to increase the economic pain on Iran.

Yet while some countries previously reduced Iranian oil imports, in November the Trump administration granted waivers to one of the worst violators of U.S. sanctions: China.  Meanwhile, U.S. adversary Russia retains a free hand to engage commercially and militarily with Iran, as well as block actions against it at the United Nations Security Council. Russia and China, along with waiver recipients Turkey, India and Iraq, still do business with Iran.

Sanctions alone are not a coherent strategy for stopping Iran from exporting terror across the Middle East. And now the administration is giving away its deterrent in Syria by removing troops without a clear roadmap for combining all elements of U.S. power to address the Iranian challenge or defeat ISIS.

As expected, Pompeo reaffirmed longstanding U.S. policy on Israel’s right to defend itself. But how can Israel not view the Trump administration’s recent decisions on Syria as leaving it on its own to counter Iran in Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah along the northern border? And Pompeo offered U.S. support for an irreversible political resolution in Syria through the U.N.-led process. But how can trapped Syrian civilians and the millions of Syrian refugees spread across the region not view U.S. actions as abandoning them to the war criminal Bashar al-Assad and his saviors, Russia and Iran?

The Syrian Kurds, our partners in the campaign against ISIS, have begun hedging their bets with the Assad government rather than risk Turkish reprisal in the wake of the U.S. decision to withdraw forces. Their experience of unreliable U.S. partnership is likely a more accurate reflection of the region’s perception of “America first” than “America the force for good.”  

Finally, Pompeo missed an opportunity to speak directly to the people of the Middle East, two-thirds of whom are under age 35. These young people are globally aware, socially connected and fully cognizant that their home countries lack economic opportunities and basic rights.


At the end of his speech to the very students who represent the region’s future, Pompeo encouraged President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to “unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people, unfetter the economy, and promote a free and open exchange of ideas.” But his speech was not accompanied by deliverables — no partnerships or exchanges, no programs, no joint ventures, and no commitments to invest in Egypt's future.

Pompeo’s regional itinerary is more “back to the future” than a break from the past. In four trips to the Middle East, Pompeo has not held one nongovernmental meeting. This time, he toured a mosque and a church in Egypt and visited New York University's campus in Abu Dhabi, but that is no substitute for meaningful dialogue with citizens, nongovernmental or business leaders.

In contrast, Secretaries Condoleezza Rice, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Harris make first public appearance as running mates Trump campaign spox rips GOP congressman over rejection of QAnon conspiracy Biden hits back after Trump's attacks on Harris MORE and John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech Ron Johnson subpoenas documents from FBI director as part of Russia origins probe The Memo: Biden faces balancing act MORE each made a deliberate, public point of meeting with civic groups, youth organizations, or business leaders during visits to the Middle East. The point of these meetings — that the United States is a force for good and the people of the region matter as much as the governments — is precisely the message Pompeo tried to convey. He should focus on translating words into deeds.

If the 2011 revolutions taught us anything, it is that Arab citizens — specifically Arab youths — want economic opportunity and a certain political liberalization, if not Western-style democracy.

Clearly amplifying their voices, while convincingly standing against our collective threats, is the most effective way for the United States to be a force for good in the Middle East.

Ben Fishman is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and member of the Beth and David Geduld Program on Arab Politics. He served from 2009 to 2013 on the National Security Council, including as executive assistant to Ambassador Dennis Ross, director for Libya, and later, director for North Africa and Jordan.

Dana Stroul is a senior fellow in The Washington Institute's Geduld Program on Arab Politics. She served as a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, covering the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.