The U.S. may have a foreign policy in the Middle East but it hardly resembles what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described in Cairo on Thursday.
In between bashing President Obama and American journalists to foreign audiences, Pompeo tried to make the case that the Trump administration has brought a tough new American engagement to the region. His main messages seemed to be that, despite Trump’s surprise troop withdrawal from Syria, America will stand fast with its security partners — and implicitly, that Trumpian foreign policy reflects a strategic throughline rather than the whims of an inexperienced and erratic celebrity.
But he offered those in the face of far too much evidence to the contrary. From pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal to passivity in the face of the Saudi killing of a U.S.-based journalist, Trump has reduced American leadership and leverage in the region.
One exchange seemed to sum up Pompeo’s situation. Before his Thursday speech at American University in Cairo, the BBC’s Barbara Plett Usher noted that President Trump’s had said ISIS was defeated and that he would quickly order U.S. troops home, and then other administration officials had said that neither was the case. “How is that not a contradiction?” she asked the secretary of state.
Here is Pompeo’s answer: “There’s no contradiction whatsoever. This is a story made up by the media. That’s fine. You all write what you’d like. The president’s been very clear, and Ambassador [John] Bolton and I have been very clear about this too.”
But they have not been clear, and their words and frequent policy shifts and on-the-fly adjustements have been documented extensively. Pompeo couldn’t even finish his answer without contradicting himself. One breath later, he said that what he meant was the U.S. will pull out of Syria but continue to fight ISIS everywhere else.
The Trump administration has an established track record: today’s foreign policy may not be yesterday’s or tomorrow’s. And no matter how hard Pompeo tried to portray chaos as stability, it simply is not true. Administration officials have too often been caught unawares or contradicted outright by their mercurial chief executive. For Syria, it’s happened twice in less than one year.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wasn’t one to sugarcoat Trump’s shifts. He would just say that he and the Defense Department were there to serve the unconventional decision-making of an unconventional president — until Mattis finally resigned in protest over one of those surprise policy outbursts. (Trump’s second national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, used to say the same thing, until he quit.)
But Pompeo, a former Congressman, takes Trump-forgiveness to a new level. His Cairo speech was a full-blown Potemkin village of U.S. history, policy, and achievements in the Middle East.
Before he spoke, the State Department issued a basic outline of its Middle East strategy which, like the Pentagon’s defense strategy, the president does not follow. A “fact sheet” of its major themes highlighted “Confronting Radical Islamist Terrorism Together” and “Opposing the Iranian Regime and its Proxies.” Pulling U.S. troops from Syria achieves neither of those, many critics have argued. But Syria is not mentioned on that sheet, and by the end of Pompeo’s speech it was clear why. The administration’s new messaging strategy is to highlight other U.S. engagement in the region and proclaim that Trump’s team is doing everything differently and better than Obama’s.
It took just eight paragraphs for Pompeo to rip into Obama. Standing beyond the literal and proverbial water’s edge, Trump’s second secretary of State wasn’t brave enough to utter the 44th president’s name. (Former ambassador Martin Indyk called it “shameful.”) But to set the stage, the secretary framed the former president as indecisive and weak as ISIS rose across Syria and Iraq.
“In our hesitation to wield power, we did nothing,” he said of the United States.
But that’s not true. The Obama administration and the GOP-controlled Congress certainly chose to limit early U.S. military intervention and refrain from direct attacks on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his forces. Obama essentially opted out of the Syrian civil war, one of his many hesitations that remains controversial. But he also sent thousands of American troops into Iraq and Syria to attack ISIS, with tens of thousands of air strikes and targeted military and CIA paramilitary missions. Obama began building today’s 74-nation anti-ISIS coalition, reforming the Iraqi military and approved the creation of an indigenous force of Syrian fighters who did the vast majority of the ground fighting and dying. Trump, who inherited these forces and strategy, changed little beyond making it easier for commanders to strike.
Reframing history, sounding more like a politician than America’s top diplomat, Pompeo treated his foreign listeners to a partisan attack.
“America, your long-time friend, was absent too much. Why? Because our leaders gravely misread our history, and your historical moment. These fundamental misunderstandings, set forth in this city in 2009, adversely affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Egypt and all across the region.”
“Remember: It was here, here in this city, that another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology,” he hissed.
Evoking his own evangelical Christian faith, Pompeo painted Obama as naive about the dangers bred by Islam and underestimating the ideology and violence Islamists wrought. He blamed the rise of ISIS on America’s “reluctance to wield our influence” and “penchant for wishful thinking,” concluding, “The results of these misjudgments have been dire.”
Pompeo’s not all wrong. The state of security in much of the Middle East is dire. It’s just not all Obama’s fault. Iraqi forces in 2013 ran away from ISIS, and neighboring regimes stood idly by, unwilling or incapable of leading counterterrorism ground operations. And yes, some say Obama’s reluctance to strike ISIS and Assad sooner should forever be an albatross for him to bear.
But he shifted course, sent troops, and ordered up air, ground, and intelligence campaigns to turn the tide on ISIS. With limited cost and troop commitments, the U.S. persuaded locals to stand and fight for themselves — exactly as Trump says he wants.
Pompeo continued, “So today, what did we learn from all of this? We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.”
And with that statement, Pompeo fell into his own trap. He was talking about the larger region, not U.S. ground troops in Syria. But on this point, he was accurate. Where America has reduced its troop presence since the height of the post-9/11 wars, chaos has followed.
Trump says the U.S. ground mission against ISIS in Syria is accomplished. But the mission, as commanders have described it for years, is not just retaking territory, but to keep ISIS down and Assad in check long enough for all sides to come to a peace agreement that ends Assad’s reign and the civil war that gave ISIS fertile ground to grow.
So there’s a fundamental disconnect between what Trump says and what ground commanders say. And that’s just for starters. With Turkey’s predictable refusal to step in for the Americans and become protectors of the U.S.-allied Kurds in northern Syria, nobody knows if the U.S. really will pull out, in part or whole. The day before his Cairo speech, Pompeo promised Kurdish leader Massud Barzani in Iraq that the U.S. would defend the Kurds who fought ISIS. “These have been folks that have fought with us and it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected,” he said then. One day later, the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge arrived in the region to “back up troops at the vulnerable moment they are leaving the country,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Pompeo said airstrikes against ISIS will continue, as other U.S. officials continue talking to the Turks. Meanwhile, all U.S. military commanders have remained silent.
So that’s the plan, for today.
Pompeo, just before his speech, reassured allies in the region that the United States still stood with them, or at least behind them. “You’ll not fight these battles alone. Our robust battle against ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups will continue,” he said. But he did not say how that would happen in Syria. If the U.S. can’t convince Turkey to play nice with the Kurds there, Trump’s pullout may not be much of a pullout, and Pompeo’s vision of an U.S. enduring presence may come true.
It wasn’t until halfway through Pompeo’s speech — after the Obama bashing, history cherry picking, truth spinning, religion baiting, and chest thumping — that the secretary began to talk about the topic the Trump administration calls its biggest priority: Iran.
Three months ago, the policy was that the U.S. military would remain in Syria as long as Iran is there. That was then. This is now.
“In Syria,” Pompeo said, “the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot, and work through the UN-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people.”