Pompeo’s Appointment Bodes Ill for the Middle East

by Emile Nakhleh

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s departure and his replacement—current CIA director Mike Pompeo—will not move the Middle East to a better place. Nor will the possible elevation of the current deputy director of the CIA Gina Haspel to the director of the Agency bring clarity to American policies and intentions in the region. Even if one were to give both nominees the benefit of the doubt, serious concerns persist about the long-term American strategy and relations between the Trump administration and the strongmen and peoples of the region.

To be clear, under Tillerson’s stewardship, American diplomacy toward the Middle East almost vanished over the past year. His tenure as the chief American diplomat toward Middle East conflicts—and regime repression and corruption—has been abysmal. History will not judge him as one of our stellar secretaries of state. His absence from the diplomatic arena created a vacuum that Russia, China, and Iran—and terrorist organizations—have happily filled. Tillerson signaled to the world that the golden age of American diplomacy over the past 70 years—led by such larger-than-life diplomats as John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger, Cyrus Vance, James Baker, Madeline Albright, Colin Powell, John Kerry, and others—was over.

From 1947 until the end of the Obama administration, friends and foes alike viewed American diplomacy as constant, predictable, flexible, dependable, clear, and engaging—regardless of whether they agreed with its goals and methods. Since the advent of the Trump administration, with Tillerson at the helm, American diplomacy has suffered from improvisation, contradiction, and a lack of clarity. Tillerson basically relinquished his role as chief diplomat and allowed the White House to run foreign policy through tweets without deliberations. He failed to realize that unless policy is grounded in strong intelligence, deep expertise, and clear endgame objectives, it will remain hobbled by unintended consequences and wild cards and will ultimately be doomed to failure.

Dealing with Iran and Saudi Arabia

Arab autocrats will initially warm to the new secretary of state because some of them have come to know him as the director of the CIA (DCIA). He will appeal to Arab autocrats, in particular, because of his rabid anti-Iran position. They anticipate that, based on his earlier statements against Iran, he will strongly encourage Trump to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Pompeo’s appointment will exacerbate several important challenges in the Middle East.

By scuttling the JCPOA as expected, Pompeo will push the newly empowered hardliners in Iran who never supported the deal in the first place to accelerate the development of the country’s nuclear program. It shouldn’t take Iran much time to move from being a nuclear-capable country to a nuclear power. To thwart such a development from happening, will Pompeo and the Trump administration wage war against yet another Muslim country? As Iran watches American diplomacy unfold toward North Korea, thereby reaffirming the principle that the United States does not go to war against a nuclear power, Iranian leaders will quickly expand their stockpile of highly enriched uranium and proceed with developing a nuclear weapon.

The Saudi de facto ruler and crown prince Mohammad bin Salman has stated recently that his country will develop its own nuclear bomb in response to Iran going nuclear, which will signal the abject failure of Washington’s traditional diplomacy in support of nuclear nonproliferation. If the secretary of state designate is truly interested in protecting America, he should realize that nuclear proliferation is inimical to U.S. interests. Accordingly, he should encourage President Trump to recertify the nuclear deal, not scuttle it.

As secretary of state, Pompeo will likely continue Washington’s strong support of the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen under the guise of containing Iran. The Saudis expect him to maintain intelligence-sharing to buttress their war effort. The military support—including the provision of devastating bombs, aircraft, ammunition, mid-air refueling, and anti-missile systems—is also expected to continue. Should this happen, the United States will soon become party to war crimes committed by the Saudis and its coalition partners against women, children, and innocent civilians in Yemen.

The growing famine, malnutrition, and hunger among Yemeni children, caused mostly by the Saudi embargo on food supplies ,has caused a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. Pictures of emaciated Yemeni children evoke images of skeletal children under Nazi Germany. The campaign also resembles what the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is doing against the residents of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, and what the Saudis are doing against Qatar.

Acquiescing in this barbarism would be a serious indictment of Washington’s foreign policy. Pompeo must extricate himself and the United States from the grip of this Saudi-driven Sunni front against Shia Iran. Taking sides in this bloody power struggle in the name of religion does a disservice to U.S. national interest and threatens the security of our presence and personnel in that part of the world. Furthermore, the pro-Saudi bias and ignorance of the facts on the ground in Yemen are also unwittingly energizing AQAP, the al-Qaeda affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula.

Meanwhile, if Pompeo decides to side with Saudi Arabia in its childish, manufactured, and potentially dangerous feud with Qatar, he would be dragging the United States into a maze of tribal jealousies that Washington can ill afford. Qatar hosts al-Udeid Air Base, one of the largest American military bases in the region with over 10,000 troops. Tillerson was a lone voice in the administration urging the Saudis to settle the feud diplomatically. Neither President Trump nor Pompeo seem to share such sentiment. America should stay out of this internecine dispute among tribal potentates within the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Mohammad bin Salman and his “mentor” Muhammad bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, have always resented Sheikh Tamim Al Thani of Qatar and viewed him as an upstart, a self-declared modernizer. They have succeeded in selling the Trump administration on a questionable bill of goods against Qatar, often using shady methods and operatives, which have recently come to the attention of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. It behooves Pompeo not to get ensnared in this Sunni-Sunni tribal divide.

Engaging Mainstream Political Islam

Secretary Pompeo does not have a good record toward Muslims and Islam in general. So, he will have to rethink his approach to mainstream Islam and deepen his expertise about Islamic cultures, historical narratives, complexities, and grievances. Having originally come from the Tea Party, he perhaps does not appreciate the complexity and diversity of Muslim cultures.

Here are a few facts he would need to learn about Islam:

  • There is no such a thing as one monolithic Muslim world but many “Muslim worlds.”
  • Vast majorities of Muslims do not engage in politics, do not support violence or terrorism, and believe in the gradual, peaceful change of their societies.
  • Muslims have suffered death and destruction at the hands of terrorism much more than Western societies.
  • Most Muslims live under authoritarian regimes and therefore are denied the basic human rights of speech, assembly, thought, and peaceful political activism.
  • Most politically inclined Muslims are basically interested in being good citizens and decent human beings; they have families to raise, children to educate, and bills to pay.
  • Those who get involved in politics, do so through lawful political parties, movements, and non-governmental organizations.
  • Autocratic regimes have sold the West on the untruthful narrative that all Islamic anti-regime opposition groups are terrorists that should not be afforded the most elementary human rights to live as free citizens.

If Pompeo is interested in delegitimizing the radical narrative, he should find ways to engage the vast majorities of Muslims and their political and social organizations worldwide, from Egypt to Indonesia and from Marrakesh to Bangladesh. This applies to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, PAS in Malaysia, AKP in Turkey, and many other political parties. Sunni-Shia sectarianism has been used by regimes to divide their peoples and maintain their hold on power. Islamophobia, whether coming from Western countries or from Islamic dictatorial regimes, should be rejected.

The CIA and other US government agencies have engaged these parties over the years until some regimes put a stop to it. If no more than half a percentage point of the 1.7 billion Muslim engage in terrorism, what about the other 99.5 percent? Secretary Pompeo should explore ways to widen his view about Muslims and frame a message to appeal to them. To work well domestically, “See Something, Say Something” must rely on the Muslim community’s involvement in the wellbeing of the country and trust in the institutions of government. Islamophobia is a cancer that erodes this trust and involvement. Similarly, engaging Muslim communities globally is the best way to combat terrorism and radical messages. The secretary of state must project a message of inclusion, cultural engagement, and commitment to job creation and entrepreneurship in Muslim societies. Sales of sophisticated American weapons to authoritarian regimes should not be a default substitute for robust diplomacy.

Gina Haspel as the DCIA Designee

Although Gina Haspel is a quintessential intelligence professional with over 30 years of experience, she comes to the office as a flawed candidate. To be clear, many former senior CIA leaders have offered sterling recommendations of Haspel and have strongly endorsed her appointment as DCIA and highlighted her experience as an operations officer.

At the Senate confirmation hearings, Haspel must address the morality and efficacy of water-boarding and must proclaim clearly and unequivocally that she does not support torture or tolerate the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

The 9/11 environment was of course much different than it is today. At the time, the Bush administration gave the intelligence community marching orders to use whatever means at their disposal to extract as much intelligence as possible to avoid another 9/11. Department of Justice lawyers issued findings and opinions justifying the use of severe interrogation methods as lawful. Many of these methods were later identified as torture.

Yet, even at that time some senior officers at the CIA questioned the morality of using such methods and more importantly their effectiveness. After being water-boarded dozens of times, a detainee was ready to tell the interrogator anything that could stop the torture. Corroborating the thinking of some senior Agency analysts, the Senate report argued that much of the information gotten through this type of interrogation failed to provide “actionable” intelligence about terrorist leaders’ intent, motivations, and plans.

What is worrisome about Haspel’s nomination is that Arab dictators will perceive her previous experience as license to practice the same methods today. Thousands of political prisoners languish in Egyptian, Bahraini, and Saudi jails today with no recourse to legally acceptable trials and evidence gathering. The intelligence community has participated in intelligence-sharing with many of these regimes in the fight against terrorism. But with their expansive legal definition of terrorism, which covers all forms of peaceful opposition, Arab regimes will see Haspel as a sympathetic partner in this continued repression. Pompeo and Haspel must formulate a joint policy to nudge these regime toward a less draconian application of their comprehensive, and legally questionable, definition of terrorism.

They should tell the Bahrainis, Saudis, Egyptians, and others that peaceful resistance does not equal terrorism. On the contrary, the more repressive a regime becomes, the more terrorists emerge. When peaceful dissidents lose all hope of gradual change, some of them turn to violence as the only way to express their opposition to repression and corruption.

The Arab world today is not at a good place. Unless Pompeo and Haspel work to change the narrative, their new positions as secretary of state and director of the Central Intelligence Agency will not move the needle forward.

Photo: Mike Pompeo (Mark Taylor via Flickr).

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Why is the loss of US hegemony in the Middle East, a failure of the Carter Doctrine, a bad thing? Actually it isn’t, because US power there has been misused to the detriment of he people who have resided there, especially the dead, the injured and the displaced, millions of people. The current crop of amateurs doing US foreign policy will accelerate the loss, that’s good.

  2. America has NEVER had diplomats….It dictates and presumes the world is theirs to do as they please. They have engaged in terror around the Globe as they fund/train/arm jihadists to do their dirty work. I like to know why Lobe posted this misleading article

  3. Mr Nakhleh, pretty good advice for the American foreign policy conductors but does anyone listen? This administration, different than many preceded, is led by someone who suffers from a severe case of OCD and has not had and will not have a well thought out and coherent foreign policy strategy. The administration will try to “wing” any situation as it may arise as they have demonstrated for the past 14 months! In other words, the past behavior is definitely an indicative of their behavior in the future no matter who leads the state department or the CIA! Pinning one tribe against another or a country against another country just to sell more arms is not a policy and a 4th grader would know that! “Winging” the foreign policy will NOT work and it will eventually backfire with disastrous consequences and in general the next administration will have to deal with it!

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