By Jared Malsin and Courtney McBride – Wall Street Journal –
Speaking in Cairo, secretary of state casts the Islamic Republic as the Trump administration’s top concern in the region while blasting Obama’s approach.
CAIRO—U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a speech here to rally the Arab world against Iran, casting the Islamic Republic as the Trump administration’s top concern in the region at a pivotal moment in U.S.-Mideast relations.
His address at the American University in Cairo on Thursday comes as he tries to reassure U.S. allies rattled by President Trump’s sudden decision in December to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
The planned departure was in keeping with Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to wind down American wars abroad, but the abrupt timing of the decision unsettled U.S.-aligned states grappling with war, political crises and extremist threats.
Mr. Pompeo offered a rebuttal of the notion that the planned withdrawal from Syria in particular suggested the U.S. was abandoning the region.
“Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over,” he said.
His remarks also reflected the Trump administration’s broader effort to cast Iran as an obstacle to peace and promote the U.S. as the preferred partner for progress and prosperity in the region.
“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 said.
In recent years, Iran has increased its involvement in regional conflicts, providing military support to the Assad regime in Syria and to Shiite-led militias allied with the Iraqi government combating Islamic State. Iran has also maintained alliances with the militant Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The speech included a direct assault on a similar address given by former President Obama in Cairo nearly 10 years ago, in which he called for an opening toward Muslims through transcending stereotypes and resolving conflicts in the wider Middle East.
Mr. Pompeo argued that Mr. Obama, to whom he didn’t refer by name, had misjudged the revolutions of the 2011 Arab Spring that toppled dictators across the region and set in motion a set of continuing conflicts. The lesson from the Obama era, Mr. Pompeo said, is that: “When America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.”
Unlike Mr. Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009, Mr. Pompeo didn’t include a broad call for democracy and civil rights, instead urging the Egyptian government to “promote a free and open exchange of ideas.”
The Trump administration has made human-rights concerns a lower priority than previous administrations, rights advocates and former U.S. officials say. Mr. Trump has expressed a personal affinity for authoritarian leaders around the world.
Mr. Pompeo’s argument that Mr. Obama misjudged the uprisings of the Arab Spring echoes the views of the conservative Gulf monarchies and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who came to power in a military coup and carried out a vast clampdown on political opponents.
“He did well by not getting into human rights because no one can take an American government seriously on that any more,” said Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian political analyst and the former publisher of the major newspaper Al Masry Al Youm.
The secretary’s speech suggested the U.S. views Mr. Sisi’s regime as a bulwark against chaos and extremism. “I thank President Sisi for his courage,” he said, referring to the Egyptian government’s efforts to crack down on Islamists.
The Trump administration hopes to mobilize Gulf Arab states and allied countries like Egypt and Jordan to confront Iran in an aggressive approach that has been a cornerstone of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, but Mr. Pompeo’s speech also drew criticism from former U.S. government officials for lambasting an American leader while overseas.
“The speech was a shameless attack before a foreign audience on an American president, revealing a woeful gap between Trump’s promises (expelling Iran from Syria and freeing Iraq of Iranian influence for example) and the means to achieve them,” Martin Indyk, a former special envoy on Middle East issues during the Obama administration, said in an email.
“In that sense, he repeated Obama’s mistake in his Cairo speech 10 years ago—making promises that cannot and will not be fulfilled,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo’s speech comes as the Trump administration’s ties with autocratic leaders are facing increasing scrutiny since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by government operatives from Saudi Arabia inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
The U.S. Senate voted unanimously in December to blame the murder on Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, endorsing the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies. Mr. Trump has refused to say the prince was behind the killing. The House also voted in January to slash U.S. aid to Egypt by some $300 million, citing human-rights concerns.
One major obstacle to Mr. Pompeo’s goal of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East is the feud that pits Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region against Qatar.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and closed air and sea routes to their neighbor, accusing it of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist organizations.
The Trump administration has sought to heal the breach. But the U.S. envoy who took on the mission, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, resigned this week, saying that while he had launched discussions on a potential Middle East strategic alliance, his efforts to resolve the Qatar dispute had reached a dead end.
A major problem, Gen. Zinni said, was that the Saudi-led group didn’t want the U.S. to play an important mediating role.
“We went round and round to no end,” Gen. Zinni said in an interview. “They did not want the U.S. involved because they did not want to make it look like we needed to come in to fix their problems. But they weren’t in their minds ready to go to the table unconditionally.”
The State Department sounded a more positive note on Tuesday. “Gen. Zinni’s mission was to help introduce the concept of the Middle East Strategic Alliance and start a conversation with leaders in the region,” said deputy spokesman Robert Palladino. “That is happening and well under way thanks to his efforts.”
Mr. Pompeo is set to visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and four other Gulf countries on the remaining leg of his tour, where he will he will face some of the most acute concerns about the U.S. military commitment to the region amid conflicting statements from Mr. Trump and his deputies in recent weeks.
The Gulf Arab states would rely on U.S. military protection in any confrontation with Iran, which some Gulf leaders view as an existential threat. More than 10,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Gulf nations.