Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to the Middle East summed up America’s limited policy vision for the region.
Nearly a year after his predecessor embarked on a similar mission, on January 15 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concluded a tour of the Middle East that included stops in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman. A planned stop in Kuwait was canceled. The ostensible reason for Pompeo’s hastily scheduled tour was to explain his boss’ sudden and unexpected announcement of the US troop withdrawal from Syria.
President Donald Trump’s December decision to leave the fight in Syria shocked more than America’s Middle East allies. His most senior officials, including former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and others, were also caught off guard. Mattis, after subsequently failing to persuade Trump to reconsider, resigned. The president’s special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, also resigned.
Left questioning whether this was Trump’s first step toward Middle East disengagement — he also later announced that Iran can do what it wants in Syria — Arab states were once again whipsawed by an unpredictable administration. Could they no longer count on American security support, diplomatic power and considerable economic clout to maintain regional order, especially in the face of the Iranian challenge, continuing extremist activity from the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda, and economic uncertainty? For many, the announcement might portend a period of great power competition in the region, increased Iranian adventurism and consequent instability, all of which the US had resisted since it first became embroiled in the region after World War II.
No Fear: Pompeo to the Rescue
Enter Mike Pompeo. America’s friends needed reassurances and a way forward on the region’s many challenges. At last, America would speak from the pulpit on its broad strategy for the region, heretofore missing since Donald Trump assumed office two years ago.
On what was his biggest stage at the American University of Cairo, Pompeo delivered what may now be called the clearest statement yet of US policy in the Middle East. In essence, however, it boiled down to continuing resistance to extremism, blunting Iranian influence and not being the policy of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. In 2009, President Obama had attempted to deliver his own version of an American reset of US policy, specifically as it related to Islam and Muslims, and seemingly apologized for the US role in the troubled region’s problems.
In a not-so-veiled criticism of Obama’s decision to withdraw US forces from Iraq in 2011, Pompeo declared that the Trump administration has learned much from its predecessor’s naiveté and miscues: “We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.” On its face, that would appear a fair and accurate statement for any administration. Against the backdrop of Trump’s announcement proclaiming the war against ISIS effectively won and the consequent US troop withdrawal, it’s downright mystifyingly contradictory.
Indeed, ISIS has been set on its back foot, having lost more that 95% of the “caliphate” it once ruled between Syria and Iraq. But US intelligence experts still assert the presence of some 2,000-3,000 ISIS fighters in the two countries, and another 25,000-30,000 elsewhere around the world. One of the ostensible reasons for Mattis’ resignation was that in the career marine general’s judgment, the war against ISIS and other extremists had most definitely not yet been won.
Moreover, America’s friends, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Syrian Kurds, who have been fighting valiantly beside the American forces for years now, must have been flummoxed to hear Pompeo’s statement on the US having been “absent too much” and his reference to “neglect (of) our friends.” How else to describe Trump’s Syria withdrawal without as much as an advance notice or pre-announcement consultation with those most affected?
Not a Message for Everyone
Arabs in the region would have found little to address what is most on their minds today. Pompeo neglected to state where the US stood against the alarming increasing harshness of government rule, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Nor did he attempt to address the dearth of respect for fundamental human rights, as Obama at least attempted to do 10 years before. The US secretary seemed to lay all the ills of the Middle East at the feet of the Iranians, who certainly deserve a share of the blame for ongoing instability in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
But Iran is only taking advantage of existing circumstances of depressed economies and lack of economic opportunity, declining rule of law, absence of governmental accountability, government repression and insecurity. Would Pompeo address those underlying challenges for which Arab governments seem to have no answers?
In effect, Pompeo seemed to say to governments — as opposed to the people — that if you keep up the fight against the extremists and back the US in resisting Iran, then there is a basis for a relationship with this administration. That only reinforces the hopelessness that plagues the psyches of many in the region, especially young people, and offers encouragement for terrorism, Iranian troublemaking and instability.
In Saudi Arabia, Pompeo reasserted America’s position that “all those involved in the murder of [Jamal] Khashoggi will be held accountable.” Yet, he had extended meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, the official deemed by the CIA, his State Department and the US Senate to have ordered the execution of the Saudi journalist last October in Istanbul. He even seemed to have gone out of his way to excuse the crime, asserting that Saudi Arabia’s “leaders are going to act in their country’s interests.”
To the average person on the street, that must have sounded like a blank check for governments to behave as they wish to preserve themselves, regardless of consequences for their citizens. America is ostensibly out of the business of erecting human rights guardrails for autocrats, except when it doesn’t like them, like in the case of Iran.
Also mysteriously missing from Pompeo’s sojourn was much of an effort to patch up the Gulf Cooperation Council, which Saudi Arabia and MBS set asunder over a year and a half ago in a misguided effort to get neighboring Qatar to bend to Saudi will. Forced to address it in Qatar without much effect, it doesn’t seem to have figured too prominently when the secretary met with the engineer of the boycott, MBS. The GCC had been the most effective multinational organization in the Middle East for dealing with the region’s many challenges and a key security partner for the US. Yet the Trump administration, never one to embrace multilateralism, appears little motivated to bring the key Gulf partners together.
Aside from the Sturm und Drang against ISIS, Iran and the Obama policies, there was hardly a mention, if at all, of America’s vision for the Middle East, its approach to ongoing civil wars and humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen, or its prescriptions for the underlying economic and human problems still afflicting the Arab world. It still has no answer for the infectious ideologies of extremism, however odious Pompeo wants Arabs to find them. Nor does the US have a plan for taming Iran’s adventurism other than using sanctions, which few others seem to want, and the threat of regime change, which no one believes practical, much less possible.
Secretary Pompeo may claim some success for his limited agenda for the trip. Middle East autocrats may also claim success, the Trump administration having again blessed them. But for the people of the Middle East who ultimately bear the region’s many difficulties, Pompeo offered nothing.
*[An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the cover photo to the White House rather than the US State Department. Updated 01/17/2019.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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