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Pompeo and His Bible Define U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened a speech in Cairo on Thursday by referring to the Bible that he keeps in his small, wood-panelled office on the seventh floor of the State Department. “This trip is especially meaningful to me as an evangelical Christian,” he began, in a predominantly Muslim country that accounts for almost a quarter of the population in the Arab world. Only ten per cent of Egypt’s hundred million people are Christian. “I keep a Bible open on my desk to remind me of God and His Word, and The Truth.” (The State Department transcript provided this capitalization.)

The main message of Pompeo’s speech in Egypt—which was the major event of a nine-nation tour of the Middle East—was that the Obama Administration had made the devil’s choices in the world’s most volatile region. In 2009, President Barack Obama gave a speech in the same city, in which he spoke of a “new beginning” for U.S. policy. Without using Obama’s name, Pompeo charged that the former President was responsible for the region’s woes. “Our leaders gravely misread our history, and your historical moment,” in ways that “adversely affected” hundreds of millions of people in Egypt and across the region, he said. “In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid about asserting ourselves when the times—and our partners—demanded it.” Under the Trump Administration, Pompeo claimed, America has “rediscovered its voice” and will now be “a force for good” in the Middle East. “The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much unneeded suffering,” he said. “Now comes the real new beginning.”

Yet Pompeo’s speech coincides with chaos and contradictions in U.S. policy, reflected in the gyrating pronouncements that the Trump Administration has made about Syria in the past month and its split, last year, with its allies over the nuclear deal with Iran. In recent weeks, the Administration has also defied global fury to facilitate the rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. intelligence agencies and a unanimous Senate resolution hold accountable for the grisly murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, in October.

In one of his most curious contradictions, Pompeo pledged that the United States “will not retreat until the terror fight is over.” The Trump Administration has “learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds,” he said. It was a clear dig at the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, in 2011, which had in fact been set in motion by President George W. Bush’s agreement with Iraq in 2008. Last month, Trump, somewhat impulsively—after a conversation with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—ordered the withdrawal of two thousand U.S. troops from Syria. The move is widely viewed in the Middle East as a retreat that could neglect friends and trigger resentment. Pompeo claimed that the withdrawal did not signal a change in mission, although senior officials in both the Pentagon and the State Department believe otherwise.

Since 2015, U.S. Special Forces have been critical in providing strategic guidance, arms, and intelligence to the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS in Syria. The American presence has also created the space for the S.D.F. to establish areas that Syrian, Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah, and Turkish forces in Syria have not seriously contested for fear of stoking an open conflict with the United States. The S.D.F.—the single most important force in the offensive that reclaimed ninety-nine per cent of ISIS’s former caliphate in Syria—will be left vulnerable to any or all of the other forces once the U.S. pulls out.

One of of the major subjects of Pompeo’s speech, which took place at the American University in Cairo, was Iran. The Islamic Republic is set to mark the fortieth anniversary of its revolution next month, and Pompeo vowed that punitive actions against Tehran would become more severe “until Iran starts behaving like a normal country.” The members of the international community “increasingly understand that we must confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them,” he said, a reference to the nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers, which was reached in 2015. Trump withdrew the United States, last year, and re-imposed economic sanctions, even though all five other signatories—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—continue to honor the deal.

Pompeo went so far as to pledge that the United States would “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. But the withdrawal of American troops will cost Washington even the modicum of leverage it still has in countering either Iran or Russia, whose military forces, strategic guidance, and aid have helped President Bashar al-Assad reassert control over all the major cities in Syria. Iran will likely be able to insure, and even deepen, its leverage in Syria, many regional experts told me.

Missing from the speech was any reference to protecting human rights or democracy, initiating economic reforms to deal with chronic unemployment, or opening up society to address the hardships that triggered the Arab uprisings in 2011. Since the military coup, in 2013, which installed the current government, Egypt has arrested or charged at least sixty thousand people, forcibly disappeared hundreds for months at a time, handed down preliminary death sentences, and tried thousands of civilians in military courts, according to Human Rights Watch. Trump has only deepened ties with Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former field marshal who led the coup, who is now the country’s President.

Pompeo “simply doubled-down on blanket U.S. support for the authoritarian regimes that have driven decades of instability in the Middle East,” Brian Dooley, a senior adviser at Human Rights First, said in a statement. “He said nothing about how Sisi is about to change the constitution and to try and install himself as president for life. He said nothing about how the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has repeatedly violated international law and is driving the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.”

Pompeo’s speech had three dimensions: it was anti-Obama, anti-Iran, and pro so-called traditional allies, as Robert Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group and a senior National Security Council staffer in the Obama Administration, told me. “The first reflects a politicization of foreign policy for which it is hard to conjure up a precedent. The second an ideological obsession that does not comport with reality. And the third an implicit celebration of an autocratic status quo that masquerades as a tribute to stability. Pompeo’s self-proclaimed message was that America is a force for good. Whether that ever was the case, his speech was proof that, today at least, it plainly is not.”

Pompeo’s tour of the Middle East reflects the fragility of U.S. foreign policy under President Trump. Two years into taking office, the Administration still does not have ambassadors in six of the countries that Pompeo visited—Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. It also does not have ambassadors in three other nations in the region—Morocco, Libya, and Syria.

On top of the vacancies, about a quarter of State Department employees are now reportedly furloughed by the government shutdown. Some of those involved in Pompeo’s travels are reportedly not receiving paychecks even as they travel the globe for the President.

ViaNewYorker