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White House must prove its commitment to Arab allies

I hear cynics in Cairo and across the Arab world claiming that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Egypt speech was no more than a cheap attempt to please his boss by systematically attacking the central tenets of Barack Obama’s Middle East policies. Pompeo even delivered his speech from the same capital where Obama set out his own regional aspirations at the outset of his presidency. Advisers for both figures apparently believed that, by trashing previous US policies and telling the Arabs everything they wanted to hear, they could cheaply win over thousands of hearts and minds across the region.

Yet the Arabs are a more skeptical and discerning audience than Washington gives them credit for. Arabs are already scratching their heads at daily American policy cartwheels over its withdrawal from Syria. Are they leaving and, if so, when? It has reached the farcical extent where it doesn’t even matter, because Washington has lost so much credibility that the Kurds, Turks, Iranians and others are already making their own calculations as if US troops had already left. John Bolton was last week sent home in disgrace from Ankara after yet another policy reversal prior to his arrival. Yet, with Bolton asserting that US forces were staying to eradicate ISIS, it was then officially announced that the formal withdrawal was already under way.

This administration has mastered the art of the token gesture. Taking credit for comprehensive sanctions against Tehran, then walking away and forgetting all about the Iranian threat, with so many sanctions exceptions that oil prices have plunged amid Asian markets being awash with cheap Iranian oil. Likewise, with North Korea, Donald Trump gained kudos for his bellicose rhetoric, before announcing Kim Jong Un to be his best friend at a cursory meeting, then lurching on to other obsessions, leaving Pyongyang to enlarge its nuclear facilities unhindered.

Trump and his foreign policy team have had two years to delineate an effective Middle Eastern strategy. Yet it is impossible to identify coherence and consistency in this administration’s activities toward any part of the region. Insiders are privately predicting that Jared Kushner’s vaunted Israel-Palestine peace plan may never see the light of day. Although Pompeo unforgivably ignored the Palestine issue in his speech, he enjoyed the applause for promising to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. Fine words, but how will this be achieved by a US administration that found even the puny presence of 2,000 troops across the entirety of eastern Syria to be unsustainable? 

The US diplomatic corps, meanwhile, has been so thoroughly gutted that the White House often cannot find ambassadors for key posts. So let’s not kid ourselves that this administration possesses the capacity or willpower to implement a far-reaching strategy of containing Iran. Even if its commander-in-chief wasn’t inclined to wake in the morning and derail months of conscientious policy-making with a single tweet. Even if this wasn’t an administration that simply abandons its Arab, Kurdish and European allies on a whim.

While Pompeo was speaking, an Iran-made drone attacked a Yemeni military parade, causing multiple fatalities, in an attempt to derail peace efforts. Yemen is central to Iran’s expansionary strategy, yet Congress continually flip-flops over its stance toward this conflict. Iranian proxies are blocking efforts to form governments in Beirut and Baghdad. In Iraq, they are demanding the retention of control of the Interior Ministry, ensuring Iranian dominance over the internal security apparatus. The leading US official seeking to curtail Tehran’s interference in Iraq, Brett McGurk, resigned over Trump’s Syria withdrawal announcement. 

Pompeo should not mistake lukewarm responses from regional leadershipsas a wholehearted Arab buy-in to Trump’s agenda. I have seen senior Arab officials privately shifting from elation at the tough new approach toward Tehran to frustration at its inconsistent implementation and even fury at the complete disarray of America’s Syria and Iraq policies, which amount to an open invitation to the consolidation of Iranian regional occupation.

When Pompeo triumphantly declared that the administration has “rebuilt” America’s relationship with the Arab world, he omitted to mention that the only tangible outcomes have been the surrender of Jerusalem to Israel, the closure of Palestine’s diplomatic representation and the halting of funding. In a saner past era, such measures would have mobilized the entire Arab world against America.

“That this administration feels the need, nearly a decade later, to take potshots at an effort to identify common ground between the Arab world and the West speaks not only to the Trump administration’s pettiness but also to its lack of a strategic vision for America’s role in the region,” a group of former US officials declared in a statement. Yes, Obama’s regional policies were a disaster, with zero progress on Palestine and an emboldened Iran — yet there is nothing to indicate that the new order will be any more successful. 

Pompeo’s announcement of a Middle East conference majoring on Iran next month — in Poland of all places — seems like a lame attempt to convey a sense of momentum, but may simply serve to highlight the fundamental contradictions in views between Europeans and Americans concerning Iran. If Pompeo was serious about the promises in his speech, he would find a cohort of willing Arab partners, particularly with regard to curbing Iranian aggression. Yet regional leaders are baffled by the antics of an administration that knows and cares little about the facts on the ground. 

The Arab world wants to work with you, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump, but for such a genuine partnership to be feasible you will have to do better than rhetorical flourishes aimed at blackening the reputation of your predecessors. Above all, your administration must prove that it is committed to actively and consistently standing by its regional allies through good times and bad.