Mike Pompeo’s speech in Cairo on Thursday might not be the worst address ever delivered in a foreign country by a sitting secretary of state, but I don’t know what beats it.
His goals were to refute the speech that President Obama gave at the same site in June 2009 and to clarify President Trump’s policies in the Middle East. By both those measures, the speech was a blatant failure—a gross distortion of what Obama said a decade ago and a comically unrecognizable description of his own administration’s policies.
The speech—delivered to an invited audience of Egyptian officials, foreign diplomats, and students at American University in Cairo—went after Obama, while never mentioning his name, from nearly the outset. His first remarks on the unnamable:
Remember, it was here, here in this city, that another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from ideology. He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East. He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed “a new beginning.” The results of these misjudgments have been dire. 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.
Let’s begin parsing the falsehoods here. It is untrue that Obama claimed radical Islamic terrorism does not stem from ideology. The word ideology appears nowhere in that earlier speech. What he said was that the 9/11 terrorists did not represent the full face of Islam. Nor did Obama say that 9/11 led the United States to abandon its ideals. Rather, he said that the attacks “led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile.” This was the context—and the motivation—behind Obama’s speech. He was condemning the “small but potent minority” of “violent extremists” who “exploited these tensions” between Islam and the West—and calling on both sides to end their long-churning “cycle of suspicion and discord” to find “common ground.”
Nor did Obama blame the United States for the Middle East’s ails. He did note that tensions have “been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims” and by “a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” Can anyone who’s ever read a history book dispute this analysis?
Obama criticized Israel’s expansive settlements policy and called for a two-state solution to its conflict with Palestinians (the standard U.S. view at the time), but he also called on Hamas to reject violence and “recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
Where are the “misjudgments” here, much less the “dire” consequences? Pompeo claimed that as a result of the Obama era’s self-criticism, “we were timid in asserting ourselves.” This, he said, led to the rise of ISIS and the “failed nuclear deal,” which spurred the expansion of Iranian influence.
Then came the chest-puffing part of the speech. “The good news is this,” Pompeo proclaimed. “The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering.” In “less than two years, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region. We’ve learned from our mistakes. We’ve rediscovered our voice. We’ve rebuilt our relationships. We’ve rejected false overtures from our enemies. And look at what we’ve accomplished. … America has confronted the ugly reality of radical Islamism,” withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, launched two large airstrikes on Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and “bolstered a coalition of allies and partners to dismantle the Islamic State’s caliphate.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First, for better or for worse, Obama was hardly “timid” about asserting U.S. power. Seven months after his speech, he sent about 35,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan and authorized a new counterinsurgency strategy. It was Obama who assembled the coalition against ISIS, and while Trump’s looser rules of engagement may have sped up the collapse of the caliphate by several months, his generals were intensifying the Obama administration’s strategy, not reversing it. Yes, Obama decided not to strike when Assad fired chemical weapons at his own people, and maybe he should have (it’s a complicated story), but Trump’s airstrikes have had little if any effect on Assad’s strength or cruelty. (One day after the first volley of cruise missiles, against a Syrian air base, Assad launched planes to attack civilian protesters from the very same base.)
Second, it is sad to see Pompeo adopt Trump’s juvenile rhetoric about the Iran nuclear deal, which is similar to his description of the “failed New York Times” (another Trump trope) only in the sense that both are stunning successes. The Times’ paid circulation is higher than ever since Trump took office, and international inspectors have attested, time and again, that Iran is abiding by the terms of the deal.
Pompeo touted that Trump had “reversed our willful blindness” to the Iranian regime’s danger and “reimposed sanctions that should never have been lifted.” But the only sanctions Obama lifted were those that had been imposed after the discovery of Iran’s covert and illegal nuclear program. Once Iran dismantled that program, it only made sense to lift the sanctions. Sanctions that had been imposed for other reasons—Iran’s missile program and support of terrorists—remained in place.
As for Pompeo’s boasts that, under Trump, the United States has “learned from our mistakes … rediscovered our voice … rebuilt our relationships,” one can only imagine the smirks and raised eyebrows this elicited from some in the audience. (The speech prompted only tepid applause at the end and some loud but confined clapping midway through when he thanked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for his “courage” in opposing the “twisted ideology” of Islamic terrorism.)
In the wake of Trump’s mixed signals over whether U.S. troops are actually withdrawing from Syria, his failure to make a single diplomatic overture to mend the Syria crisis, his indifference to advances in that country by Iran and Russia, and his feeble effort at an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, it takes a certain amount of twisted courage, I suppose, for Pompeo to stand before a global audience and make such claims.
What about Trump’s announcement of a troop withdrawal and John Bolton’s assertion that the troops will stay, pending certain conditions? Pompeo hardly cleared up the confusion. “President Trump has made the decision to bring our troops home from Syria … but this isn’t a change of mission,” he said. “We remain committed to the complete dismantling of ISIS—the ISIS threat—and the ongoing fight against radical Islamism in all of its forms. But … we’re looking to our partners to do more, and in this effort we will do so going forward together,” including helping to “expel every last Iranian boot.” Let’s leave aside the fact that Trump has said the Iranians can do “whatever they want” in Syria. Pompeo did not explain how we will do anything in this “ongoing fight” without some military presence on the ground. (He suggested that U.S. airstrikes will continue, but even pilots and aircrews require ground troops for their security.)
“America is a force for good in the Middle East,” Pompeo said at the start of his speech. But to the extent he defined good, it was solely in terms of helping certain allies (mainly Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) while hurting certain enemies (ISIS, terrorists, and especially Iran). There was no recognition of complexity: Nothing was said about the Saudi bombing of Yemen (only Iran was painted as a force for bad, contrary to human-rights organizations); nothing was said about Trump’s divisions with Europe over Iran; nothing was said (one way or the other) about the role of Russia or Turkey in the Syrian conflict, or the Saudi murder of a U.S.-based journalist.
Obama may have been naïve in hoping that the pursuit of common ground and mutual interests might soothe the ancient tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims or upend the chessboard of Great Game geopolitics that have played on those tensions for centuries. But Pompeo’s speech makes clearer than ever that Trump has no interest in trying to soothe anything: He wants to take sides in the conflict, join the war—but even here, he has no idea how to do so with authority or effectiveness. He is indulging in partisan mythologies that bear little relation to the actual past and shed little insight on a fruitful way forward.