Around Foggy Bottom there is an old saying that a diplomat is a person who is paid to lie for his country. America’s #1 diplomat—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—took to the stage at the American University of Cairo last week to show how the boss does it…launching an “alternative fact” attack against President Obama’s Mideast policies. Hyperbolic half-truths and trademark Pompeo pomposity was flowing from his lips like the mighty Nile.
Pompeo’s address was advertised as a Trump Administration riposte to the then newly-inaugurated Barak Obama’s June 4, 2009 pilgrimage to Cairo University to reset U.S. relations with the broader Muslim world in the wake of the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq and the U.S.-led war on terror.
Pompeo lambasted the Obama Administration for propagating the Islamic State, ignoring the growing global peril posed by the Syrian civil war, and its “willful blindness” toward an increasingly belligerent Iran. While Pompeo avoided taking on Obama by name, he hammered away at the Obama Administration’s naivete and propensity to embrace Iran’s “false overtures” and for turning its back on traditional friends and allies who he deemed essential to America’s Middle East interests and long-term security (no doubt obliquely referring to the Obama Administration’s legacy of decayed ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel).
But when it came to specific policy prescriptions and remedies such as addressing Iran’s growing threat to U.S. regional interests, including its growing conventional military threat to Israel, Pompeo served up very thin ful (Egyptian gruel).
Was Pompeo’s self-serving critique of Obama’s Mid East policies fair in the face of the Trump Administration’s own Mideast blunders and brazen embrace of the region’s autocrats?
The Obama Mideast Legacy
For the record, there is much to hold the Obama team accountable for in the Middle East—its serial Syria debacles, a contentious Iran nuclear deal that is on life support, its breakneck withdrawal from Iraq, and a cut and run out of Libya. That hit parade of botches parched the region of the very goodwill Obama intended to restore after his Cairo address. But whatever goodwill he created quickly evaporated in the wake of policy forced errors brought about by an Arab Spring that his team simply was out of its depth to manage. Balancing American interests and American values was beyond Obama’s grasp.
Exhibit A:what passed as Obama’s Syria policy could best be summed up as the “Obama red line that Assad crossed.” Syria imploded on Obama’s watch. And at every turn of painstakingly delicate diplomacy by then Secretary of State Clinton to help forge a consensus opposition to Assad, Obama’s incessantly meddlesome and sharped-elbowed White House National Security staff never ceased pulling the rug out from underneath her.
Exhibit B:Obama’s Iran nuclear deal gamble—the very cornerstone of his Middle East policy—temporarily froze Iran’s nuclear weapons program but did nothing to prevent Iran from using its newfound sanctions relief to wreak more havoc in the region and set the stage for Iran’s emboldened mischief in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and against Israel.
Exhibit C:While Obama protested that he had no choice but to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in 2012, that precipitous U.S. run for the doors—whether compelled by Iraq or not—left leaderless Iraqi forces scurrying to the very gates of Baghdad to escape attacking ISIS forces. That ISIS victory over Iraqi forces yielded a horrific humanitarian disaster as hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslim and Christian civilians were savagely slaughtered and incarcerated by the newly emerging ISIS caliphate.
Exhibit D:After John Kerry became the accidental secretary of state, the quixotically naïve former senator infamously flopped in his solo quest to hammer Israelis and Palestinians into a peace agreement, which Kerry promised, yes publicly proclaimed, he would produce in eight months. Instead, Kerry left a bitter trail of disappointment and distrust in his wake among Palestinians and Israelis alike, neither of whom were willing or able to abide by Kerry’s self-promoting enterprise or Obama’s indifference to Kerry’s escapade.
Exhibit D let us not forget how Obama’s White House declared it would “lead from behind” in a NATO mission to support rebels fighting to overthrow Libya’s Qadhafi. Declaring victory with honor after Qadhafi’s brutal murder in the streets of Tripoli, the Obama Administration abandoned war-torn Libya and left it in the clutches of warring tribes and a newly-minted Islamic State franchise. There was no Libya “day after” policy after the White House took its undeserved victory lap for “leading” the enterprise to get rid of a Qadhafi.
The Trump Record
And what has the Pompeo accomplished as he gazed into the Obama policy review mirror? Not much that deserves a victory lap. Ironically, Pompeo works for a president who shares Obama’s wary assessment of overzealous U.S. entanglements in the Middle East.
On the plus side, the Trump Administration unshackled its military commanders from the micro-managed constraints the Obama National Security Council had placed on U.S. forces operating against the Islamic State in Syria. At the end of the Obama Administration, there were only 200 handcuffed U.S. non-combatant Special Forces trying to dismantle the Syrian side of the ISIS caliphate. Defense Secretary Mattis increased that force to over 2000 and constructed an effective, new ground coalition of Syrian Kurds to shoulder the lion’s share of fighting that has virtually destroyed the entire territorial Islamic State caliphate.
That is an accomplishment worthy of a bi-partisan praise.
And in a perverse consequence to Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal—a move voraciously decried by European allies and its U.S. architects—Iran’s economy is in a tailspin…compelling the ayatollahs to keep one eye on their increasingly shaky hold on their people. It’s always better when the fox must keep an eye on its den and not the hen house.
But that is where the one hand clapping should end.
Just as the last die-hard remnants of ISIS fighters were about to be pulverized, Trump decided—following an acrimonious call with Turkey’s Erdogan—to let loose another of his fly-by-night tweets ordering a premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria—setting off a bipartisan Congressional outcry and a calamitous breach with the very allies Pompeo asserted are now more confident of U.S. policies in the region. Trump’s precipitous Syria retreat, or whatever the velocity of the crawl out, effectively yanked the proverbial rug out from Pompeo’s bravado.
Just to bring the point home, the very essential anti-ISIS coalition ground forces composed of Syrian Kurdish forces doing the brunt of the fighting against ISIS were ignored in Pompeo’s speech. So much for U.S. credibility. That brazen and callous omission by Pompeo is symptomatic of the gulf between Pompeo’s rhetoric and reality.
Finally, the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem was a feel-good decision that carried big sticker shock. It effectively torpedoed hope to marshal Arab consensus for Trump’s Israeli-Arab “ultimate peace deal.” And cutting aid to Palestinian refugees may have overjoyed the Sheldon Adelsons of the world, but it only makes the job of bringing about a deal that much harder while penalizing those Palestinians who favor a durable peace with Israel.
Want more? Not only did Secretary of Defense Mattis and Special President Envoy resign, but so did Special Qatar Dispute Envoy General Anthony Zinni, who threw in the towel a few days ago because he was unable to broker an end to the Gulf Cooperation Council dispute with Qatar, which has sapped any semblance of unity among Sunni Arab states. Now, Mr. Pompeo has been left holding that hot potato without having any better idea how to get his Sunni surrogate team on the same anti-Iran/anti-ISIS playing field.
Will Pompeo’s Speech Make Any Difference?
Pompeo’s Cairo declarations have largely fallen on deaf Arab ears. His Middle East trip deteriorated into a hand-holding exercise in Israeli and Arab capitals in a bid to undo the policy carnage wrought by Trump’s Syrian troop withdrawal edict. Think about this: Pompeo boasted in Cairo the U.S. would “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria as his boss orders the Pentagon to hightail out of Syria. Pompeo must believe camels fly. Who will Pompeo convince to fill that breach? Turkey? Russia? The Gulf States? Saudi surrogate troops? Lots of empty Pompeo blabber straining credulity. The Trump Administration is light years away from galvanizing a coalition of Arab States to militarily take on Iran in Syria even though that is a worthy goal.
As for Mr. Pompeo, he can boast all he wants about Trump’s Mideast reversal of fortunes on the back of Obama’s shortcomings. His vainglorious Cairo address was more pie in the sky a la Trump than a blueprint for securing U.S. interests. Coddling autocrats, such as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will get you only so far when it comes to rolling back Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, Turkish planned annihilation of Kurdish allies, and restoring GCC unity. As for Israel, there is growing anxiety in Jerusalem that Trump and Pompeo are exiting stage left and will be MIA just when the going against Iran is about to get especially tough.
If history is any guide in the Middle East, everyone it seems is prepared to die to the last American. Year in and year out, our investment in the Middle East of lives and treasure gets the U.S. no closer to achieving core interests and drawing credible lines in the sand to avoid more costly policy blunders.
Mr. Pompeo may have delivered a “feel good speech” for the Trump supporters back home but let us not forget—a presidential tweet is mightier than a Pompeo speech.