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Can US live up to Pompeo’s promises?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech at the American University in Cairo last week was clearly meant as an antidote to Barack Obama’s regional policy, or lack thereof. Pompeo openly repudiated much of the previous administration’s initiatives, in particular those related to Iran.

In piercing jabs at the Obama administration that resonate very well in the region, Pompeo lamented that, at a critical moment in the history of the region, “America, your long-time friend, was absent too much.” He attributed that absence to the failure of US leaders, meaning the Obama administration, which “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.”

Pompeo made sure to reference his colorful background as an evangelical Christian, military man, member of Congress and CIA chief as key to his outlook for the region. He sounded messianic when he said that “America is a force for good in the Middle East.” 

He said that Obama was timid about wielding US influence in the region and that he “grossly underestimated” the dangers of “radical Islamism, a debauched strain of the faith that seeks to upend every other form of worship or governance.” 

He also criticized Obama for failing to support Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 and to stand up to Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and the Assad regime, saying that, when Bashar Assad “unleashed terror upon ordinary Syrians and barrel-bombed civilians with sarin gas, we did nothing.” 

He accused Obama of neglecting America’s friends and partnering with its enemies. All that has changed since Donald Trump became president, Pompeo asserted. However, the changes were not always clear in his exposition. While defending the US Jerusalem policy, he was vague about what Washington plans to do about peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It was also unclear what the administration is prepared to do to help Iraq “build a nation free of Iranian influence” or what it is going to contribute to Iraq’s stabilization to prevent a Daesh resurgence. He was also unclear about what the recent changes in Syria policy would mean in reality.

The clearest and perhaps most important part of the speech related to Iran, where he said that “we must confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them.” To that end, he spoke at length about economic sanctions — “the strongest in history” — promising that they will keep getting tougher until Iran starts behaving like a normal country. The 12 demands he outlined back in May 2018 remain in force, and the US “will not ease our campaign to stop Iran’s malevolent influence and actions against this region and the world,” because “the nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of their people if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course.” 

He cited US efforts to establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) to confront Iran, “the region’s most serious threat,” and bolster energy and economic cooperation. MESA, he said, was bringing together members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Egypt and Jordan. Pompeo asked each of those countries to take the next step to “help us solidify MESA.” 

MESA may be the most promising vehicle for translating the Trump administration’s ideas into action. MESA working groups and committees met throughout 2018 to discuss plans for security and political cooperation. The day before Pompeo gave his Cairo speech, the MESA working group on economy and energy had an encouraging meeting in Muscat and was able to come up with concrete proposals to help the countries of the region and the US come closer to achieving their shared goals. 

Despite those positive elements in Pompeo’s speech, it was severely criticized back in Washington and New York. Much of the criticism was probably partisan or motivated by unhappiness about Trump’s style or his domestic policies, not about Pompeo’s speech per se.

In the region, Pompeo’s speech was received more positively, although skepticism here also abounds about the constant wavering of US regional policies. His strong expressions of commitment to the region’s security, in particular, were well received, as well as his commitment that the US would honor its promises and not abandon its friends and allies. “Our words mean something again. If we commit American prestige to an action, our allies depend on us to follow through,” Pompeo promised.

Despite these reassurances, the main questions remain: Will US policy in the future be more predictable? Will it live up to the promises Pompeo made in Cairo? Stung by the vacillation of the previous administration, people here are waiting to see how the actions of the US under Trump unfold in reality.

US diplomats in the region will have to make great efforts over the next few weeks and months to maintain the momentum Pompeo’s speech created. In particular, breathing new life into traditional US partnerships with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and solidifying the work of the MESA working groups will be key, with the aim of holding a summit between MESA leaders during the first half of 2019.
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