In Cairo, Pompeo Critiques Obama’s Mistakes While Ignoring That Trump Is Repeating Them

January 11, 2019
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his Middle Eastern tour. (Photo by Jordan Pix/Getty Images)

A decade after President Obama gave his famous “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned to the same city on Thursday to announce that America Is Back. After rehearsing the failures of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies, Pompeo listed all the reasons to be glad Rick Perry is president. Or Ted Cruz. Or Marco Rubio.

While the speech hits all the right notes for a robust American foreign policy, it’s most notable for what it ignores: the very ways in which the Trump administration and the president himself are repeating the blunders of the previous administration.

Pompeo gave a useful catalog of those errors. From 2009 to 2017, the United States consistently underappreciated the threat of Islamic extremism, first allowing ISIS to swallow up huge amounts of territory and then insisting that bathtub accidents were a much greater threat.

Just a few examples: The administration was silent in 2009 as the people of Iran rose up against their theocratic oppressors and were met with violence. As Hezbollah stockpiled advanced missiles in Lebanon, the Obama administration allegedly complained that the Israeli prime minister was a “chickensh*t” and refused to defend Israel at the United Nations. And most notably, after the Syrian army defied the “red line” in 2013 and used poisonous gas against opposition fighters and civilians, the Obama administration did … nothing.

Uniting all of these failures, Pompeo points out, was a reluctance to use American power, military, diplomatic, or otherwise. For eight years, America never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Not anymore. “The good news is this,” announced Pompeo, “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.” He went on: “We’ve learned from our mistakes. We’ve rediscovered our voice. We’ve rebuilt our relationships. We’ve rejected false overtures from our enemies.”

Why now? Why halfway through Trump’s term? Why eight months into Pompeo’s tenure as secretary of state? Surely the real new beginning was two years ago, when Trump was inaugurated and Obama left power.

But no. The real real new beginning has yet to arrive. Under President Trump, American policy in the Middle East is largely similar to what it was under Obama, but the rhetoric is different.

Start with Afghanistan. Early in Obama’s term, Gen. Stanley McChrystal advised him to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan for the best shot of pacifying the country. The president chose to send half that many, unwilling to commit to victory in what he once described as a “good war.”

Ten years on, Trump has announced plans to withdraw half of the remaining American forces in Afghanistan and has begun negotiations with the Taliban. Whoever bet that #winning would mean negotiating with terrorists has quite a payout coming.

Have we learned from our mistakes in Iraq? The Obama administration’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq didn’t allow time for Iraqi security forces to establish firm control, and al-Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, ISIS, were able to grow their fighting force from 2,000 to more than 20,000 between 2013 and 2014. Within just a few years, ISIS controlled territory the size of Great Britain.

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to get tough on ISIS. Two years later, his surprise announcement that all American forces would be withdrawn from Syria is a mix between a nightmare and déjà vu. The Department of Defense estimates that ISIS still has about 30,000 members—more than enough to come back from the dead. Yet Trump wants to repeat Obama’s mistake, refusing to leave a residual force to cement the gains made since he took office.

Other members of the Trump administration, notably National Security Adviser John Bolton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford have learned the same lessons as Pompeo, and have tried to reformulate Trump’s announcement by attaching preconditions to American withdrawal. (Those preconditions, as it happens, look a lot like victory.) Trump himself has yet to revise his initial announcement.

Pompeo cited the 2017 and 2018 Tomahawk missile strikes on Assad’s forces as evidence that the Trump administration was willing to go where the Obama administration wasn’t. They deserve credit for those strikes, no doubt. But it’s a mystery how these strikes would have been different from the “unbelievably small” pinprick then-Secretary of State John Kerry described to Congress in 2013.

Pompeo echoed other administration officials, including the president, in his clear and resolute statement of alliance and friendship with Israel. “The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against the Iranian regime’s aggressive adventurism,” he told the Egyptian audience. “We will continue to ensure that Israel has the military capacity to do so decisively.”

That’s an interesting choice of words, given that Israel might not have the military capacity to protect itself from the spillover of the Syrian civil war. From their stronghold along the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, American forces bisect the pathway between Iran to the east and its proxy, Hezbollah, to the southwest. Despite American intervention, the Israeli Defense Forces have attacked targets in Syria at least 13 times since the beginning of 2018, in each case to prevent Iranian arms from reaching Hezbollah.

Without American forces disrupting the Iran-Hezbollah supply routes, the flow of advanced missiles to Lebanon would become a torrent. What was the point of moving our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem if we’re not going to do anything about the missiles aimed at it?

The best part of Pompeo’s speech was his defense of the Pax Americana:

For those who fret about the use of American power, remember this: America has always been, and always will be, a liberating force, not an occupying power. We’ve never dreamed of domination in the Middle East. Can you say the same about Iran?

In World War II, American GIs helped free [Europe] from Nazi occupation. Fifty years later, we assembled a coalition to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Would the Russians or Chinese come to your rescue in the same way, the way that we have?

And when the mission is over, when the job is complete, America leaves.

We’re still dealing with the repercussions of the Obama years, when the world’s most indispensable nation decided to sit out world affairs. The nonchalance of the Obama administration encouraged other bad actors to ignore American warnings.

Russia seized Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine.

North Korea accelerated nuclear and missile tests, to the point that Obama warned Trump that North Korea would be his biggest challenge.

China claimed a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean as domestic airspace and ramped up its hacking of American institutions. Obama’s solution was a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which the two shook hands and smiled—and nothing changed. Maybe that was Trump’s model for his summit with Kim Jong-un.

Pompeo should be commended for outlining a confident, beneficent American foreign policy. It’s just a shame his boss doesn’t believe in one.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.