Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1426, (17 - 23 January 2019)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1426, (17 - 23 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

US in-fighting spreads

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised eyebrows with his sharp criticisms of former US president Barack Obama during his Middle East tour last week, breaking a tradition that US domestic politics stop at the water’s edge, reports Khaled Dawoud

US  in-fighting spreads
US in-fighting spreads

In his speech at the American University in Cairo (AUC) late last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo carried overseas the bitter infighting at home against one of US President Donald Trump’s main foes, former Democratic Party president Barack Obama.

America’s top diplomat invoked Obama’s speech in the same city a decade ago to offer a point-by-point assessment of the two administrations’ policy moves. In his 25-minute speech, Pompeo accused the former president of “fundamental misunderstandings” in his 2009 speech that was widely praised at the time as a major shift from the “shock and awe” and war-oriented policy of his predecessor George W Bush.

The US secretary of state did not even mention Obama by name, but instead called him “another American” who had given a speech in the same city.

“He told you that radical Islamist terrorism doesn’t stem from ideology. He told you 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East,” Pompeo said. “He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed ‘a new beginning.’ And the results of these misjudgements have been dire.”

Pompeo listed a series of what he said were mistaken decisions taken by the Obama administration: underestimating “the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism;” a failure to act against Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad after his use of chemical weapons; and silence “as the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in Tehran in the Green Revolution.”

“What did we learn from all this,” Pompeo asked. “We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.” Pompeo declared that “the age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real new beginning.”

Pompeo also faulted what he called Obama’s “desire for peace at any cost” that had led him to the 2015 nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for an easing of international economic sanctions.

The Trump administration’s top diplomat raised eyebrows with his criticisms of the former president, a breach of the core US idea that domestic politics stop at the waterfront and US officials don’t air their political spats overseas.

Pompeo’s remarks were also ironic, since his own boss, Trump, is being criticised for an ambiguous plan announced last month to pull US troops out of Syria. While the decision’s timing is still unclear, it is being widely seen as part of an abandonment of the region to the benefit of US rivals Russia and Iran.

In his June 2009 speech at Cairo University, Obama called for better mutual understanding between the Islamic world and the West and said both should do more to confront violent extremism. As a result, Republicans have long accused Obama of apologising to the world for US actions abroad, a point that Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney emphasised during his 2012 attempt to unseat Obama.

Pompeo’s speech drew immediate criticisms from Middle East experts as well as from officials who served under Obama. They accused the secretary of state of violating the American tradition that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”

“It feels a little bit as if the approach is to ‘talk loudly and carry a small stick,’” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

“There is a lot of ambitious language, but very little actual commitment of US resources. You could read this as obscuring a continued US retrenchment from Middle Eastern commitments,” Alterman added.

On Twitter, Martin Indyk, who served in the Obama administration, called the speech “shameful Obama-bashing.”   

National Security Action, an organisation helmed by former Obama administration officials, also slammed Pompeo’s speech. “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,” it said.

“Secretary Pompeo’s speech was remarkable for its disconnection from reality,” said Andrew Albertson, executive director of Foreign Policy for America, a think tank. “It marked another missed opportunity to lay out a serious diplomatic strategy to secure our interests in the Middle East.”

US Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass noted on Twitter that Pompeo “articulated ambitious goals – to expel every last Iranian boot from Syria, to reduce Hizbullah’s missile arsenal, to help build an Iraq free of Iranian influence – while backing reduced US presence in the Middle East.”

“No policy can succeed with ends and means so divorced,” Haass said.

However, Nile Gardiner, director of the US Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom, praised the speech, calling it a “powerful defense of American leadership in the Middle East and also a robust warning to Iran that the United States will confront it at every opportunity and ensure it does not gain a foothold in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.”

Uzra Zeya, a former acting assistant-secretary and principal deputy assistant-secretary in the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, said that “Pompeo’s claims of reinvigorated American leadership in the region fell flat.”

She cited the fact that many of the countries mentioned in his speech do not have US ambassadors in place. Five of the nine nations visited by Pompeo on this trip do not have US ambassadors.

Zeya also took issue with the secretary of state’s treatment of religion in his speech. At the outset, Pompeo mentioned his own evangelical Christian faith, noting that “we’re all children of Abraham: Christians, Muslims, Jews.” He criticised Obama for his supposed “eagerness to address only Muslims” in his 2009 speech.

“Pompeo’s emphasis on his evangelical Christian background, ‘radical Islamism,’ and criticism of the prior administration’s Muslim engagement suggests continued animus towards Muslims writ large,” Zeya said. “His assertion that ‘we are all sons of Abraham’ ignores the diversity of a region that includes Yazidis, Bahai, Zoroastrians and other religious minorities under grave threat.”

Pompeo received a warm reception from one key Gulf ally, however. The United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, welcomed the speech, describing it as an important message for stability in the region and saying it highlighted the “importance of alliances and the support of friends.”

“Listening to Secretary Pompeo’s speech is like listening to someone from a parallel universe,” said Robert Malley, Obama’s coordinator for the Middle East. He called the speech “a self-congratulatory, delusional depiction of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.”

Jeffrey Prescott of National Security Action said the speech had showcased the Trump administration’s obsession with Iran and with Obama. “Pompeo sees his audience as the region’s autocrats rather than its people,” he said.

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