Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech Thursday at the American University in Cairo struck out at the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East.
“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,” Pompeo said.
He didn’t refer to Obama by name. But he called out a speech by “another American” in the same city in 2009 – an address that was a hallmark of the early years of the Obama presidency.
His harsh comments on the past administration prompted critiques of the Trump administration’s strategy for the region.
Among the critics was Gerald Feierstein, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen during the Obama administration.
“Two years into the Trump administration, people are less interested in what they think was wrong about a speech Barack Obama made in Cairo 10 years ago and more interested in what the Trump administration is doing,” Feierstein told NPR. “And on that score what they would have heard in the speech today is a lot of empty rhetoric.”
Pompeo asserted that President Trump had “unleashed the fury of the U.S. military not once, but twice” after Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his people. “And he is willing to do it again.”
He contrasted that to Obama’s decision not to make a military response after Assad used chemical weapons – even though Obama had threatened that such an action would cross a red line and would be punished. Obama said Congress should authorize any military intervention, and that didn’t happen. “We condemned (Assad’s) actions,” Pompeo said Thursday. “But in our hesitation to wield power, we did nothing.”
Pompeo said the previous administration “grossly underestimated the tenacity and the viciousness of radical Islamism,” which he said allowed ISIS to grow in Syria and Iraq.
But Pompeo used the speech to try to counter criticism that the U.S. decision to withdraw its 2,200 troops from Syria could lead to an ISIS resurgence.
“This isn’t a change of mission,” Pompeo said. Instead, he said, the U.S. will use diplomacy and work with allies to finish dismantling ISIS and “to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria.
That remark caught Feierstein by surprise.
“He said we’re going to continue to push back against Assad and that we’re ready to re-engage if Assad uses chemical weapons, but clearly the administration’s position now seems to be to give Assad a clear path to victory,” Feierstein said. “What he’s saying is … good enough, but it doesn’t seem to comport with what we’re seeing on the ground.”
John Hannah, senior counselor at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he thought Pompeo had a challenging mission in Cairo.
“He was attempting to reassure an audience that has been entirely confused and I think in some ways demoralized by the president’s announcement in December that he was withdrawing all troops from Syria,” Hannah said. “I think he did about as well as he could.”
A major focus of Pompeo’s speech was Iran. He lamented that the U.S. under Obama was silent as the “Ayatollahs and their henchmen murdered, jailed and intimidated freedom-loving Iranians off the streets.” He said Trump has “reversed our willful blindness” to the danger of Iran and withdrawn from the “failed nuclear deal.”
Trita Parsi, author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, said he thought Pompeo was wrong to celebrate withdrawing from the deal, brokered by Obama, that lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran agreeing to curb its nuclear program.
“The only time the United States in the last 40 years actually have managed to change a key Iranian policy in a significant way has actually been through the multilateral diplomacy that led to the nuclear deal,” he said. “None of the sanctions, none of the pressure, none of the coercion, sabotage, cyberwarfare in any way shape or form have achieved anything even remotely close.”
Still, Parsi said, Obama did not do enough to solidify that 2015 deal and protect it from future attempts to dismantle it. Last year President Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the deal. Washington has also pressured other signatories of the deal to suspend business dealings with Iran or face consequences in the U.S.
Parsi said he was surprised that Pompeo was quick to criticize Iran but quiet about the excesses of allies like Saudi Arabia. For example, U.S. intelligence officials believe the Saudi crown prince was involved in the killing of a journalist in the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
“The silence on Saudi Arabia, the silence on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, further cements the impression that when the Trump administration talks about human rights, it simply is not serious,” Parsi said.
In Cairo, Pompeo praised Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi for his “efforts to promote religious freedom. … I was happy to see our citizens, wrongly convicted of improperly operating NGOs here, finally acquitted.”
“You would think as the head of our State Department he would talk about human rights in Egypt,” said Fahmy, author of the forthcoming book, The Rise and Fall of The Muslim Brotherhood and the Future of Political Islam. “What it tells Arab leaders is that this is an administration that does not take democracy seriously.”
Hannah of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies read Pompeo’s comments differently.
“I do think the Secretary in his speech in Cairo did clearly speak to the issue of what’s happening internally in Egypt,” Hannah said. “I think he did so in a relatively soft way but the point will be taken, I think, by Egyptians, that America is concerned when NGO workers get locked up unfairly.”
Regarding Yemen, Pompeo declared, the U.S. has helped coalition partners “take the lead in preventing an Iranian expansion that would be disastrous for world trade and regional security.”
The U.S. has supported a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen for three years, beginning with Obama. NPR’s Greg Myre reported the American help was aimed at evicting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have taken over key parts of Yemen. Half of Yemen’s population faces starvation as a result of the war, and members of Congress have pressed the White House to end U.S. support for the Saudis.
Pompeo said the U.S. has supported United Nations-led talks to bring peace to Yemen.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., told NPR she felt “ashamed” listening to Pompeo.
Omar began her term this month as one of the first two Muslim women House members. She said recalibrating the U.S. position in the Middle East is a priority.
“I’m really interested, once we deal with the current issue of reopening the government, in making sure we’re holding Saudi Arabia accountable, that we are really putting our foot down in our involvement with the Saudi-led Yemen war,” said Omar.
Responses from the Middle East were mixed.
The United Arab Emirates welcomed the speech. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter, “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech … is important in supporting regional stability and identifying the dangers faced by the region.”
Israelis, too, saw the speech as favorable. Pompeo mentioned Israel more than a dozen times, and in each instance asserted the U.S. priority on maintaining its ally’s security. Dore Gold, former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, said Pompeo’s “critique of Iranian expansionism was very important for Israel.”