US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for regional unity against Iran in a speech in Cairo, one of several stops on his regional tour to reassure allies following President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement of a US withdrawal from Syria.
In an address entitled “A Force for Good: America’s Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East”, Pompeo told his invited audience at the American University in Cairo that the United States was embarking on “the real new beginning”.
With those words, Pompeo took aim at the foreign policy of former US President Barack Obama, who delivered a speech in Cairo in 2009 outlining “a new beginning” for his country’s relationship with the Arab world.
The Trump administration has learned from the “mistakes”of its predecessor, the secretary of state said, and would seek to drive “every last Iranian boot” from Syria.
Pompeo rebuked the Obama administration’s approach to the region as “misguided”, blaming it for the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group and for empowering Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Yemen. He said that Obama, who he did not name, “grossly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism”
Pompeo used his platform to blast Obama for saying “the United States and the Muslim World needed a ‘new beginning'” following eight years of George W. Bush’s administration and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pompeo promised that “the age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering.”
Now, said Pompeo, “comes the real ‘new beginning.'”
However, is what Pompeo mentioned as the “new beginning” is a real one?
Is Pompeo’s Speech a New Beginning or an Old Cliche?
In fact, US Secretary of State’s speech triggered widespread criticism, as it believed that it is not a new beginning, as he called it, but just in what was as some called : an “old cliché”, depending on old traditional authoritarian allies in the region.
According to critics, If there is a new thing so it would be that Pompeo’s speech suggests that the US – like Egypt – has also gone full circle, returning to the days when loyalty and stability (and now the commitment to the “war on terror”) trump all else.
Glaringly absent in his 15-page address were references to the dismal state of human rights in the region, where the vast majority of people live under corrupt, authoritarian regimes.
It’s worth pointing out that many of those regimes are close allies of the United States.
That omission caught the eye of commentator Wael Eskandar.
“In the name of fighting terrorism, he’s supporting the despotic leaders of the region. His message is clear: the US will intervene to serve its myopic interests and all countries in the region have to fall in line, ” according to Eskandar.
The government of Egypt, led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Trump administration’s anti-terror rhetoric, so much so that Kassem quipped, “they’re turning this country into the ‘Egyptian Arab Republic for Countering Terrorism.'”
Side by side with the war on terror in the speech was the challenge of containing Iran’s influence in the region. Pompeo mentioned Iran more than 25 times.
Pompeo Doubled-down U.S. Support for the Authoritarian Regimes
Missing from the speech was any reference to protecting human rights or democracy, initiating economic reforms to deal with chronic unemployment, or opening up society to address the hardships that triggered the Arab uprisings in 2011.
Since the military coup, in 2013, which installed the current government, Egypt has arrested or charged at least sixty thousand people, forcibly disappeared hundreds for months at a time, handed down preliminary death sentences, and tried thousands of civilians in military court, according to Human Rights Watch.
Trump has only deepened ties with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former field marshal who led the coup, who is now the country’s President.
Pompeo “simply doubled-down on blanket U.S. support for the authoritarian regimes that have driven decades of instability in the Middle East,” Brian Dooley, a senior adviser at Human Rights First, said in a statement.
He said nothing about how Sisi is about to change the constitution and to try and install himself as president for life. He said nothing about how the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has repeatedly violated international law and is driving the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.
Whereas, Chris Murphy, U.S. Senator from Connecticut, tweeted that Pompeo’s Cairo speech was la-la land fantasy. Here’s the terrible stuff we’ve done since Trump took office to destabilize the Middle East ” help kill thousands of civilians in Yemen, abandon Egyptian democracy movement, and let Saudis get away with chopping up a journalist under American protection.”
In the same context, Shadi Hamed, Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy, said that This was a doubling down on President Trump’s “dictators first” Middle East policy.
There was almost nothing in Pompeo’s remarks for anyone holding out hope for even a mere mention of democracy as a U.S. goal or aspiration. In this sense, Pompeo’s speech was just as much a rebuke to the administration of George W. Bush as to Obama.
In her own Cairo address in 2005, Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course.”
According to Hady Amr, Visiting Fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings, considered Secretary Pompeo’s Cairo speech largely addressed autocrats, not citizens—that’s why it rings hollow.
He also added Pompeo’s, was aimed at the region’s leaders—not its citizens. ‘Pompeo’s framing of the U.S. relationship with the greater Middle East as largely through its not-particularly-democratic leaders may yield some policy successes in the short term but will ultimately fail to deliver on strengthening the mutual interests of Americans and the citizens of the Middle East in building prosperous, vibrant democracies that can partner with the United States in security and prosperity.’
Trump’s Approach Misguided Real Terrorist Threats : Egypt’s Al-Sisi as Example
Much of the initial reactions to Pompeo’s remarks understandably focus on comparisons with Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech or the role of the United States in the region.
However, the speech also serves as a stark reminder of some of the misguided elements in the Trump administration’s approach to addressing the very real terrorist threats in the region, an approach that seems driven by politics and assumptions rather than evidence, according to Eric Rosand, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy.
Pompeo, like his boss, subscribes to an overly simplistic view that the “twisted,” “radical Islamist” ideology lies at the root of the jihadi violence in the Middle East and that the problem would be solved if more political and religious leaders would “denounce” it, as Egypt’s al-Sisi has.
Not only does this overstate the influence that such leaders may have in the communities that are most susceptible to terrorist propaganda, “but it also ignores both the role that some countries in the region play-in exporting this ideology (even while denouncing it at the same time) and the evidence,” said Eric Rosand.
The data on what drives support for terrorism and violent extremism shows that support for this violence strongly correlates with human rights violations and other violence perpetrated by states against their own populations as part of, or in the name of, counterterrorism operation.
Perhaps nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than in Egypt where authorities are increasingly using counter-terrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts to unjustly prosecute journalists, activists, and critics for their peaceful criticism.
Such behavior creates serious grievances against the state and its security forces, radicalizes historically marginalized communities, and diminishes the societal resilience against violent extremism that President Trump’s own counterterrorism strategy calls for strengthening.
In 2019, leaders of most democracies (apart from President Trump and his team) would highlight the importance of addressing grievances linked to human rights violations and feelings of exclusion and marginalization when discussing how to reduce the threat of terrorism.
Eric Rosand added, “Yet, I have little doubt that al-Sisi and other authoritarian leaders facing terrorist threats—and in some cases exacerbating them through their over-reaction—will happily continue to follow the Trump team’s lead.”