In a speech that was intended to alleviate confusion and reassure allies in the Middle East following the Trump administration’s decision to pull troops out of Syria last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told leaders in Cairo Thursday that the United States is a “force for good” in the region, painting the Trump administration’s actions as a necessary counter to Iran.
“It’s the truth that I’m here to talk about today,” Pompeo said. “America is a force for good in the Middle East. We need to acknowledge that truth, because if we don’t, we make bad choices.”
The speech served as a rebuke to former President Barack Obama’s famous speech in Cairo in 2009, titled “A New Beginning,” which centered diplomacy, called for a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine, and paid homage to Islam’s historical and cultural influences in the region.
“He told you that radical Islamic terrorism does not stem from ideology,” Pompeo said, referring to Obama and proceeding to lament America’s “absence” during the Arab Spring protests, the Green Movement protests in Iran, and during the civil war in Syria.
“The results of these misjudgments have been dire,” he said. “In falsely seeing ourselves as what ails the Middle East, we were timid … When America retreats, chaos often follows. Now, comes the real new beginning.”
Pompeo listed what he described as U.S. accomplishments under President Donald Trump, lauding the president for violating the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal by withdrawing from it last spring, describing the decision as one borne out of the reality that Iran is a “common enemy.” He spoke in vague declarations, praising Trump for confronting “the ugly enemy of radical Islamism” and celebrating the fact that “our words mean something again.”
But Pompeo’s advocacy for U.S. presence in the Middle East stood in stark contrast to Trump’s unpredictable behavior and rhetoric over the past few weeks, as the president abruptly announced that he’d be pulling U.S. troops out of Syria last month, despite a recent Pentagon report estimating that upwards of 30,000 self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) fighters are still present in Syria and Iraq. The move would put the Kurds, who have been fighting alongside U.S. forces in Syria, at great risk. It is unclear how the United States plans on protecting them.
As the Trump administration, including Pompeo himself, has repeatedly emphasized the need to counter Iran, which supports the government of Bashar al-Assad, in Syria, it also came as a shock to many U.S. allies when Trump said last week that Iran “can do what they want in Syria.”
Pompeo seemed keenly aware of this imbalance and attempted to acknowledge it in the speech, emphasizing a continued U.S. presence in the Middle East, before contradicting himself seconds later.
“America will not retreat until the terror fight is over,” he said. “President Trump has made the decision to bring the troops home from Syria, but this isn’t a change in mission…We’re looking to our partners to do more.”
Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria was deeply unpopular among his cabinet and led to the resignation of both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the U.S. special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk.
The timeline on troop withdrawal has constantly shifted, with Trump initially announcing that it would happen immediately, before administration officials walked back this claim, insisting that the process would be gradual. White House Adviser John Bolton assured Israeli officials last weekend that the U.S. would withdraw troops from Syria only when ISIS has been eliminated and when Iran has also pulled its forces. Pompeo insisted to reporters earlier on Thursday that there have been no contradictions in the timeline or shifting strategy on Syria.
Shortly after announcing the decision to pull out of Syria, officials within the Trump administration told media outlets that the president was planning to withdraw about 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, news that came as a shock to Afghan leaders.
Lawmakers within Trump’s own party criticized the decision to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan. Weeks earlier, the Senate, in a strong rebuke to the Trump administration, voted in favor of two largely symbolic resolutions — one to cease military assistance to Saudi Arabia and its coalition airstrikes in Yemen, which have resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and a massive humanitarian crisis in the impoverished country, and another to condemn Saudi’s role in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Pompeo spent the bulk of the speech portraying Iran as a dominating force in the region, warning Arab allies that if Iran “persists on its current course,” there can never be peace in the region. Iran, he said, must behave like a “normal country” if it wishes to have the crushing sanctions imposed by the Trump administration lifted. It is unclear how Pompeo measures normalcy, however. If America is intended to be the yardstick, it is likely that Pompeo’s words rang hollow in a region that has suffered under U.S. interference for decades.
“We’ve never dreamed of domination,” he said, ignoring the years-long history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. “Can you say the same of the Iranian regime?”
Following the speech, Pompeo, along with Bolton, plans to continue his weeklong trip throughout the Middle East. Earlier in the week, the secretary traveled to Jordan and Iraq and he plans to visit Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia over the next few days.