by Emile Nakhleh
Those who had wishfully hoped that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Cairo speech would enunciate a new Trumpian doctrine toward the Middle East were sorely disappointed. The speech was no more than a mean attack on former President Barack Obama and a warmongering harangue against Iran. It was devoid of any serious analysis or thoughtful, constructive scenarios for the region.
Based on Pompeo’s statements in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other countries on his whirlwind tour, the Middle East will remain mostly a place where dictatorships thrive, repression continues unabated, innovation and creativity is stifled, and wars not rapprochement drive coalition-building and alliances. In Trump’s Middle East, terrorism will trump every other human activity.
The tepid reaction to Pompeo’s speech 10 years after Obama’s by publics and some regimes was a verdict on the tone-deaf nature of the secretary’s address and its hubris and naivete. Arab publics saw no hope, and their regimes saw no clear path, for relations among each other and between them and Iran. Their polite applause in reaction to Pompeo was a sign of Arab hospitality, not an endorsement of his thesis. They basically did not buy what he had to sell. Pompeo perhaps forgot that there’s no such a thing as a monolithic Muslim or Arab world.
The “real new beginning” that the secretary of state preached for the Middle East is based on a shallow understanding of the countries and peoples of the region and a rejection of the carefully articulated “new beginning” that infused President Obama’s Cairo speech on June 4, 2009. Obama went to the region “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.” America and the Muslim world “share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Pompeo will have nothing of the sort.
Pompeo accused Obama of telling his Cairo audience 10 years ago that “radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology” and that “9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East.” Pompeo then described Obama’s statements as “misjudgments” with “dire” consequences. Clearly neither Pompeo nor his speechwriters have understood or digested the key message that President Obama wanted to convey.
Pompeo should have read the full paragraph and not focused on a specific sentence for political reasons. President Obama said,
Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.
Nowhere did Obama say that 9/11 led America “to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East.” Where did Pompeo and his speech writers get this false claim?
What Obama conveyed to his Arab listeners in 2009 and Pompeo failed to do in 2019 was that American values and commitment to justice, respect, fairness, and peace are the most effective weapon the United States has in its arsenal to fight the forces of radicalism and terrorism. Bringing hope, educational promise, and economic opportunity to the youth in Muslim societies is the best defense against the false promises of death and destruction promoted by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Focus on Regimes, Not People
Pompeo, instead, told his Arab audiences that containing Iran was their hope for the future. He said nothing about dignity, educational opportunities, and human rights. Obama wanted to engage regimes and peoples, whereas Pompeo reached out only to autocrats, as if their peoples and thousands of innocent protesters languishing in their jails didn’t matter or even exist.
The clearest example of Pompeo’s ignorance of the recent history of the Arab world is the absence in his speech of any references to the deficits of freedom, human rights, and education that Arab intellectuals and thinkers have identified in their annual reports since 2002. Obama was aware of those deficits and said that America would engage with the Arab world to alleviate them. Pompeo, by contrast, urged his audiences to believe him when he says that “America is a force for good in the Middle East.” As if that’s enough to give Arab youth a hopeful future or a decent life of dignity and prosperity.
Obama’s draft speech was reviewed by numerous advisers and experts within and outside the government for weeks before he delivered it. He kept refining the draft up until the last few hours before delivering it. He wanted the speech to reflect the realities of the Arab and Muslim worlds and their peoples’ aspirations for dignity, hope, and respect. He also realized that although a small minority of Muslims engaged in nefarious and violent deeds, vast majorities of Muslims lead ordinary lives focusing on the wellbeing and economic security of their families and the education of their children.
Was Pompeo’s speech vetted by regional experts and analysts within the appropriate government agencies? Why didn’t the speech express these concerns?
Unlike Pompeo’s false claim, Obama did not only address Muslims but the countries in which they live. Unlike Pompeo, he did not equate Muslims with dictators or view Muslims only through the prism of “radical Islamism” or Iran. Obama talked about human rights and human dignity. Not once did Pompeo raise the issue of human rights or repression in his speech. His host, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the strongman of Egypt, took control of Egypt through a military coup, which toppled the first popularly and fairly elected president in Egypt in millennia.
Secretary Pompeo’s speech, much like President Trump’s inaugural address, painted the entire Muslim world with a broad brush of terrorism and dystopia without distinction between the vast majorities of mainstream Muslims and the minority of extremists. He swallowed his autocratic hosts’ message that all peaceful anti-regime, pro-democracy opponents were terrorists and acquiesced in their draconian measures against their people hook, line, and sinker.
President Obama refused to have former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak introduce him in 2009 because of his repressive policies. Sisi’s human rights record is even more horrendous than his predecessor’s with over 60,000 political prisoners now languishing in Egyptian jails. Yet Pompeo did not utter a word about it. On the contrary, he praised his host and applauded his efforts. Pompeo made a similar pitch to his Bahraini hosts. Oblivious to the regime’s despicable human rights record and continued repression of the Shia majority, he told King Hamad to stay the course. The Trump administration has his back.
Contrary to Pompeo’s claim, both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama confronted “radical Islamism” and terrorism head on. They even employed extreme measures in their battle against al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates and against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). President Trump and his secretary of state are latecomers to this fight. Bush and Obama worked with nations and countries to fight the terrorist menace. Whereas Pompeo bragged that “air strikes in the region will continue as targets arise,” President Obama called for a new era of “smart diplomacy.”
What Pompeo Missed
The “new” Middle East will continue to be shaped by what Pompeo did not emphasize in his speech. He did not urge the Saudi crown prince to end to the war in Yemen. Nor did hold his autocratic hosts to account because of the repression of their citizens. The secretary expended no effort to end the illegal and counterproductive Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. He did not urge the Israelis to stop building settlements on occupied Palestinian lands or to push Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiation table. Pompeo’s Cairo speech offered no policy prescriptions regarding investment in education, entrepreneurship, and job creation initiatives and start-ups.
He did urge his hosts to form anti-Iran coalitions. Does Pompeo really believe that Iran is the source of all aggression, poverty, famine, hunger, environmental degradation, lack of innovation, and violations of human rights in the region? Why does he ignore the record of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain? Although Iran has supported some terrorist organizations, much of the “Islamist terrorism” that Pompeo railed against is Sunni, not Shia. And most of it has emanated from Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab neighbors.
Arab and Muslim response to Obama’s Cairo speech was vibrant and hopeful for a new American-Muslim era of engagement based on common interests. Arab and Muslim publics and communities were elated by what they heard from Obama although regimes were not as enthused. Regimes realized that they no longer had a monopoly on access to American leaders. Their peoples’ aspirations mattered. The prevailing view at the time, which was advanced by President Obama’s speech, was that domestic peace and harmony as a result of good relations between regimes and their publics was good for them and was good for the United States.
Several Arab countries, including some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, do not view Iran in the same way as the Saudi crown prince and the American secretary of state do. Nor are they sanguine about a war-like relationship with their Persian neighbor. In fact, they prefer to have an accommodationist neighborly relationship with it.
How long will it take Mike Pompeo to realize that his speech and visit were not the tour de force he had hoped for? When will he realize that his ideological proclivities against Iran and disregard for people’s desire to live freely and in dignity are no substitute for regional progress? The Middle East that Pompeo left behind this week remains as conflict ridden, hopeless, and tyrannical as when he arrived. It’s sad that he wasted such a precious opportunity.