Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out a sweeping vision for U.S. policy in the Middle East, using a major speech Thursday in Egypt to reassure allies of America’s staying power as a “liberating force” to blast the Obama administration’s approach to combating radical Islamic terrorism and to call on states in the region to join the Trump administration’s push to isolate the “common enemy” of Iran.
Speaking at the American University in Cairo, Mr. Pompeo framed the administration’s strategy as a “new beginning” after an era of “retreat” and “misjudgment” under the Obama administration. Mr. Pompeo said that misguided approach resulted in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Mr. Trump defiantly repudiated last year.
The secretary of state delivered the address amid mounting questions over President Trump’s policy after his surprise announcement last month of an imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria who had been battling remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group.
Mr. Pompeo and other Trump aides have been struggling to clarify the time frame, the conditions and the rationale behind the withdrawal ever since that announcement.
While never mentioning former President Barack Obama by name, Mr. Pompeo explicitly framed his remarks as a rebuttal to Mr. Obama’s high-profile address to the Muslim world in Cairo shortly after he took office in 2009.
The secretary of state called on Arab allies to “shoulder new responsibilities for defeating Islamic extremism” and insisted that Washington is now committed to taking a far more assertive role — specifically toward containing Iran.
Mr. Pompeo said the 2015 Iran deal that Mr. Obama helped negotiate showed that “when we partner with enemies, they advance.” Washington has “learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows,” he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif quickly mocked Mr. Pompeo’s remarks on Twitter. “Whenever/wherever [the U.S.] interferes, chaos, repression and resentment follow,” he tweeted. “The day Iran mimics U.S. clients & @SecPompeo’s ‘human rights models’ — be it the Shah or current butchers — to become a ‘normal’ country is the day hell freezes over.”
Mr. Pompeo gave the speech on the third leg of a nine-nation Middle East tour aimed in part at reassuring America’s Arab partners that the Trump administration is not walking away from the region despite the Syria decision.
He said the U.S. has no plans to occupy Arab lands but noted that Mr. Trump — unlike Mr. Obama — has not hesitated to use force directly to defend U.S. interests, notably against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for its suspected use of chemical weapons.
“President Trump unleashed the fury of the U.S. military not once, but twice, with allied support” in Syria, Mr. Pompeo said. “And he’s willing to do it again, although we do hope that he does not have to.”
Mr. Pompeo rejected arguments that a U.S. troop pullout will hand victory to Iran and its proxies backing Mr. Assad in Syria’s civil war.
“The United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot and work through the U.N.-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people,” he said. “There will be no U.S. reconstruction assistance for areas of Syria held by Assad until Iran and its proxy forces withdraw and until we see irreversible progress towards a political resolution.”
New ‘strategic alliance’
Although other world powers continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, Mr. Pompeo said “nations are rallying to our side to confront Iran like never before.”
He echoed Mr. Trump’s arguments that the 2015 deal had only emboldened Tehran to pursue destabilizing behavior such as increased ballistic missile testing and the backing of militant proxies around the Middle East.
Mr. Pompeo touted the Trump administration’s push to “establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance to confront the region’s most serious threats and bolster energy and economic cooperation.” Although he did not explicitly say its focus would be to counter Iran, U.S. officials have suggested on background briefings that it would be a core goal.
Officials have also said a key tenet of the push is to end the nearly 2-year-old diplomatic standoff that pits Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt against Qatar over claims that it is too closely aligned with Iran, supports the Muslim Brotherhood and turns a blind eye on terrorism financing activities. Retired U.S. Gen. Anthony Zinni, Mr. Trump’s representative seeking an end to the feud, quit in frustration this week.
Mr. Pompeo did not directly mention the feud but called on the region’s Arab powers to “take the next step and help us solidify” the strategic alliance.
Trump vs. Obama
The secretary of state roundly blamed the former administration for misunderstanding the revolutions that rocked the region in recent years. He said Mr. Obama and his advisers dangerously underestimated the threat that Islamic extremists would exploit the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring.
“At this critical moment, America, your longtime friend, was absent too much,” he said. “Why? Because our leaders gravely misread our history and your historical moment.
“It was here, here in this city, that another American stood before you,” Mr. Pompeo said. “He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology. He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East. He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed ‘a new beginning.’
“The results of these misjudgments have been dire. In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid in asserting ourselves when the times and our partners demanded it. We grossly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism — a debauched strain of the faith that seeks to upend every other form of worship or governance.”
The Islamic State, he said, subsequently “drove to the outskirts of Baghdad as America hesitated. They raped and pillaged and murdered tens of thousands of innocents.”
The unusually blunt attack by a secretary of state on a previous American president brought a sharp response from a group of former Obama administration security and foreign policy aides working for a group known as National Security Action.
“That this administration feels the need, nearly a decade later, to take potshots at an effort to identify common ground between the Arab world and the West speaks not only to the Trump administration’s pettiness but also to its lack of a strategic vision for America’s role in the region and its abdication of America’s values,” the group said in a statement.
Rob Malley, who was Mr. Obama’s national security council director for the Middle East and is now at the International Crisis Group, told The Associated Press that Mr. Pompeo appeared to be speaking from a “parallel universe.”
“Back on Planet Earth,” he added, Arab audiences “will see it for what it is: a self-congratulatory, delusional depiction of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.”
Mr. Pompeo, meanwhile, appeared eager to tie what he described as the former administration’s hesitant policy to the rise of an increasingly emboldened Iran over the past decade.
“America’s reluctance, our reluctance to wield our influence, kept us silent as the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in the Green Revolution,” he said in a reference to protests that were crushed by Iranian authorities in 2009.
He said Mr. Trump’s willingness to reinstate harsh sanctions on Iran’s economy showed that the U.S. was not making the same mistake.
Mr. Pompeo also blamed the former administration for failing to crush Iran-supported rebels early in Yemen’s raging civil war and for ignoring the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement’s growing influence in Lebanon.
With Mr. Trump now entering his third year in office, the secretary of state said, the game has changed.
“The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering …,” he said. “In just 24 months, actually less than two years, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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