Over the past two decades, three high-ranking US officials have gone to Cairo to lay out their vision for the US foreign policy in the Middle East. Each time, they have criticised their predecessors and each time nothing good has come out of it.
In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a speech at the American University of Cairo two years after the US invasion of Iraq. The toppling of Saddam Hussein had left a crack in the edifice of Arab authoritarianism and then President George W Bush was claiming to be the torchbearer of freedom and democracy in the region. Hence, in her speech, Rice spoke at length about “freedom” and “democracy” in the Middle East and bashed six decades of US support for “stability at the expense of democracy”.
But by then, the Bush administration had already shipped back home hundreds of bodies of US soldiers killed in the ensuing security vacuum in Iraq; many more were to come. In the following years, it would become clear that the barrel of the gun could not deliver freedom and democracy to the region and that the Iranian regime had taken advantage of Iraq’s weakness to rise as a militant regional power.
Exactly four years later in June 2009, President Barack Obama made a very different speech at an event co-hosted by al-Azhar and Cairo Universities in what was then dubbed by his critics an “apology tour” for US misbehaviour under the Bush administration. He spoke of historical tension between the US and the Islamic world which he would seek to resolve through a “new beginning” in relations.
Obama had two goals in mind: to disengage from the Sunni-Shiite tensions by extending a hand to Tehran and to reach a peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis – two rather contradictory objectives. As Iranian power grew in the region after the Iraq invasion, Israel and Saudi Arabia had become increasingly focussed on deterring it; hence, neither was interested in reaching a deal with the Palestinians until the US prioritised pushing back Iranian influence.
Obama not only failed to achieve these two goals, but he also opted for overusing US drones to bomb targets across the Islamic world, killing hundreds of innocent civilians and doing away with his “new beginning” promises.
A decade later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also made his way to Cairo and delivered a key foreign policy speech. He declared that “the age of self-inflicted American shame is over”, criticising Obama’s legacy in the Middle East and laying out contradictory policies. In fact, a closer look at what he said reveals that several policies the Trump administration is pursuing are no different than those of the Obama doctrine.
For example, Pompeo chastised Obama for disengaging in Iraq, arguing that “when America retreats, chaos follows”. Yet this is exactly what is currently unfolding in Syria, following Trump’s hasty decision to pull out US troops from the country’s northeast region.
He also praised the Trump administration’s policies to draw down forces “when the job is complete”, pointing out that the US forces in Iraq have gone down from 166,000 to 5,000 and skipping the fact that the withdrawal was a decision taken by Obama.
Pompeo also laid out another extension of the Obama doctrine: confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) by using drones and local partners on the ground and empowering allies to protect their borders.
Ironically, the objective of defeating terrorism is likely to be hindered by two decisions taken by the Trump administration. One is the withdrawal from Syria which will leave the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) preoccupied with a potential Turkish incursion and distracted from their campaign against the ISIL. The other is the decision to confront Iran diplomatically, which has caused US forces to be on alert and switch focus away from combating the ISIL in Iraq.
Pompeo made sure to emphasise the Trump administration’s anti-Iran policies, saying, “The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of its people of Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course.” However, deterring Iran in the Trump era merely means imposing tough sanctions on the regime without much of the international community being on board. It also means that Washington and Tehran will continue sharing influence in both Iraq and Lebanon.
Trump’s secretary of state also talked about “strengthening long-term alliances and building new partnerships”. Yet many US allies in the region feel unsettled about the current administration’s commitment to regional alliances. Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria were left by the Trump administration to their own devices and are currently engaging Moscow and potentially Tehran as a result of US reluctance to follow up on commitments. Some Arab regimes are also on the fence about joining the anti-Iran axis with Israel and appearing to endorse the Trump administration’s gradual dissolution of the Palestinian cause.
While parts of Pompeo’s appear contradictory to outside observers, it is possible that his intended audience was his boss at the Oval Office. Unable to make his case in private, Pompeo probably wanted to send a public message to Trump that withdrawing from Syria is an Obama-like move, knowing that the president hates nothing more than being compared with his predecessor.
Whatever Pompeo’s true intentions, his speech reaffirmed a worrying reality: Never in recent history has the US foreign policy been so hijacked by domestic politics and internal tensions within the presidential administration. Now that James Mattis is no longer serving as Pentagon chief, Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton will be the ones competing for the attention of their boss and seeking to shape US foreign policy in the Middle East according to their convictions. We have reached a surreal moment in US politics in which Bolton, a champion of the Iraq war, is considered the only voice of reason left to salvage US policy in Syria.
Bolton and Pompeo’s job will be a hard one to do, as both have lost their credibility in the Middle East. Moving forward, no regional leader or policymaker will believe that they speak on Trump’s behalf. What they were preaching about Syria for most of 2018 was momentously discredited by the president’s recent remarks that the US has no business staying in Syria.
The fact is that Trump has never been more isolated at home and abroad and a damage control speech in Cairo by his secretary of state is not enough to save the US president from himself.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.