On January 10, the Trump administration became the third successive U.S. administration to give a major policy speech in Cairo. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that repressive regimes are a threat to stability and that the U.S. government would support the democratic aspirations of the region’s citizens. In 2009, President Obama promised a new U.S. relationship with the region “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect” and described how U.S. policy would shift in this regard to address seven key issues facing the region. Last Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech that lacked any overarching policy message. Pompeo did spell out what this administration sees as the main problems in the region: the Islamic Republic of Iran, radical Islamist terrorism, and even the policies of the Obama administration. But he failed to outline a coherent vision, strategy, or policy approach for addressing these problems.
I’ve seen several reactions by Arab citizens to Pompeo’s speech: sadness, mockery, and the shrug of indifference. To many, Pompeo confirmed widespread fears that the Trump administration simply lacks seriousness of purpose in the Middle East. The speech strongly resembled the rhetoric of many of the region’s own authoritarian regimes—full of bluster, hyperbolic language, attacks on political rivals, and boasts of the administration’s tremendous policy successes that felt divorced from reality.
Although Obama sought in Cairo to distance himself from the policies of the Bush administration, he nonetheless shared the observations of Bush and Rice on the need for democratic reform, while outlining different policy approaches for pursuing this goal. But Pompeo appears to reject the notion that authoritarian repression breeds instability and radicalism, except in the single case of Iran. An obvious and fundamental contradiction of Pompeo’s speech—and of this administration’s view of the Middle East—is the refusal to apply its own logic regarding Iran to the Arab regimes viewed as allies. If Iran’s brutal repression of its own citizens and its support for violent and radical actors beyond its own borders are so dangerous, then is it not dangerous that Saudi Arabia and Egypt do the same?
Both the Bush and Obama administrations failed to live up to the lofty promise of their rhetoric, and their Cairo speeches are perhaps best remembered today as ambitious speeches not successfully backed up by policy. Pompeo instead may have managed to lower the already-low expectations of the region’s citizens for U.S. engagement in a speech that may not be remembered much at all.
Deputy Director for Research
I see three audiences for Pompeo’s remarks:
- Trump’s evangelical base. There was plenty in the speech for them, starting with Pompeo talking in the very beginning about his evangelical faith and the Bible he keeps open in his State Department office to remind him of “God and His Word, and the Truth”;
- Middle East rulers who are favorites of the Trump administration—Netanyahu, the Saudi and Emirati ruling families, al-Sisi. There were many lines to reassure them of Trump’s unshakeable support, including by implying that Obama’s (cautious) support for the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings was a huge mistake—one of the former president’s “fundamental misunderstandings,” Pompeo said; and
- “freedom-loving Iranians,” whose struggle against their leaders’ “tyranny” Pompeo praised and endorsed, while he was utterly silent on the fate of Arabs living under equally oppressive systems.
If there was a conceptual through line in the somewhat disjointed speech, it was: “radical Islamism,” whether of the Sunni or Shia variety—and extending from the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS to the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran—is the threat to the region and to the United States, what matters most to this administration in the Middle East, and the United States will support Israel and Arab authoritarian leaders to defeat it. Pompeo said very little about how this would be done, nor did he distinguish between peaceful Islamic activism and violent jihadism. But one can surmise that as his speech included not a single word about human rights and democratic freedoms in the Arab world, the administration has no objection at all to the wide-ranging repression used by al-Sisi and other authoritarian “allies” to stifle dissent in the name of counterterrorism.
My main takeaway from the speech is that it probably doesn’t matter that much. The Trump administration played up Pompeo’s remarks as a big deal, but a clear policy roadmap and announcements of any new initiatives were missing. The language on Syria, the most newsworthy topic, did little to end confusion over U.S. policy. The speech’s vacuity likely is because President Trump is simply not interested in the Middle East, and is known to make sudden foreign policy declarations on Twitter. Pompeo seemingly had little policy substance to work with and probably didn’t want to get out ahead of his boss.
Follow Amy @awhawth.
Deputy Director for Policy
Pompeo’s speech was not a statement of foreign policy strategy, but rather a rambling screed dominated by distortions, falsehoods, and outright lies. His claims fall into three categories: (1) gratuitous potshots at former President Barack Obama; (2) dubious defenses of the Trump administration’s reckless foreign policy decisions, such as withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran; and (3) misrepresentations of the administration’s policies. Let’s be clear: this was a political stump speech, not a statesman’s address.
In particular, I was struck by Pompeo’s emphasis on coalition building, which does not in any way correspond with this administration’s actual policies. The secretary of state claims credit for forging a coalition against the Islamic State, when in actuality this front had already been stood up by the time Obama left office in January 2017. Moreover, Trump’s initial endorsement of the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Qatar helped to solidify a fissure between the Gulf states that persists to this day, complicating the region’s capacity for unified action. The fact that General Anthony Zinni [Ret.], the administration’s point person for resolving that dispute, announced his resignation just two days before Pompeo’s speech attests to the bankruptcy of Trump’s coalition-building endeavors.
The reality is that, aside from several authoritarian regimes who profess unbridled support for Trump but do little to advance U.S. interests, the United States has never before been more alone. If the administration genuinely wants to cultivate stronger relationships with regional states, it should start by restoring both the State Department as an institution and the foreign assistance that does more to make friends than do American bombs. Until, and unless, that happens, I hope Secretary Pompeo will spare us the platitudes about being a “force for good” in the Middle East.
Follow Andrew @AndrwPMiller.
Program Associate for Civil Society Partnerships
I found three things notable about Secretary Pompeo’s speech in Cairo. First, the number of those in attendance, which was very modest compared to the widely attended speeches of President Obama and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that took place in the same city ten and 14 years ago, respectively. Pompeo’s small and homogenous audience of elites reflects the very limited and narrow relationship the United States has chosen to have with the societies in the region.
Second, Mr. Pompeo focused his speech on the danger of Iran and radical Islamists to the region and the world; however, he completely ignored that all countries in the region—without exception—face short- and long-term disasters due to lack of governance, economic reforms, fair competition, good education, freedom of speech, journalism, and human rights. Ignoring the deteriorating reality of these problems, and the rise of authoritarianism, poses a danger not only to the future of the region but also to the interests and security of the United States.
Third, Mr. Pompeo said that Egypt is a “land of religious freedom and opportunity.” We analyzed the legal, societal, and political reality of religious freedom in Egypt regarding Egyptian Christians in a recent POMED report. This is the truth in Egypt: Only eight building permits for new churches have been issued since the enactment of the “church construction law” in 2016, an approval rate lower than what occurred under Mubarak. Egyptian officials closed several churches in many governorates in violation of Egyptian laws. Christians still suffer from sectarian attacks and the government forces them to participate in and accept “reconciliation sessions” where they are forced to abandon their rights. The representation of Christians in a number of state agencies is almost nonexistent. I would echo Mr. Pompeo’s words and say, we need to acknowledge the truth about Egypt and the region, because if we do not, we make bad choices.
Follow Mahmoud @MahmoudFarouk06.
Secretary Pompeo began his speech by suggesting he would speak the truth and be direct. But rather than speak sternly and honestly to the Egyptian regime, for all of the Egyptian people to hear, he praised al-Sisi for his tolerance and progress despite the totalitarian direction the Egyptian president has taken the country since he led the coup in 2013. This praise not only comes in stark contrast to the recent 60 Minutes interview where correspondent Scott Pelley noted the harsh crackdown al-Sisi has carried out on his own people, including the massacre in August 2013 of over 800 people in one day at the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in and the 60,000 political prisoners, many of whom reportedly have been abused and tortured. It also provides unhelpful and unnecessary adulation to a repressive autocrat in the midst of one of the harshest crackdowns on civil society in Egypt’s history.
Follow Seth @seth_binder.
Photo: U.S. Department of State