While U.S. President Donald Trump insists that “America First” is the overriding principle that informs his foreign policy thinking, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s much-heralded speech given at the American University in Cairo on Jan. 10 reveals that perhaps “Israel First and Iran Never” may be the organizing principle of Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
Rhetoric vs. Action
Pompeo’s speech reiterated most of what is now well known about the Trump administration: Except for unmoderated opposition to Iran and unconditional support for Israel, the Trump administration has no firm interests or principles guiding its foreign policy in the Middle East. It is not interested in promoting stability, democracy, human rights, good governance or economic development in the region. If it was, it would have articulated plans, announced budgets and identified time-bound benchmarks to realize them.
If one were to discern an American grand strategy from Pompeo’s speech alone, then one could argue that the Trump administration seeks an Israel-friendly Middle East united in its opposition to Iran and political Islam. These limited goals would be the basis of U.S. engagement and presence in the Middle East. All normative and ethical goals that would come with “being a force for good,” such as the promotion of good governance and protection of human rights, would neither inform nor shape U.S. decisions and choice of partners.
But no speech can ever be judged in a vacuum. It has value only when it is followed by actions. The Trump administration’s policies have not been consistent with its rhetoric. Even as Pompeo was promising that the U.S. would not end its engagement in Syria until every Iranian boot was expelled and ISIS was completely dismantled and depleted, Americans had already started removing equipment from Syria.
What was most jarring from the Secretary of State was the observation that Washington’s goals in Syria will be accomplished through diplomacy. Nothing is more laughable, and he should know that better than most. One of the things that President Trump did was to eviscerate America’s diplomatic capabilities by significantly cutting the State Department’s budget and instituting a hiring freeze. Many staffers and ambassadors were pushed out and many chose to leave as Trump chose to deride diplomacy and multilateralism. U.S. withdrawals from U.N. agencies and international treaties and obligations further highlighted the disdain this president has for diplomacy. For most discerning listeners, Pompeo’s promise of diplomacy sounded both disingenuous and cynical.
Frankly, there was nothing in the speech that would make Arab policymakers excited. The brief reference to Trump’s commitment to peace in the Middle East was followed by a reminder of how he had already subverted it by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. There was no reference to any plan of action. Everyone in the region knows that not only did this administration break from the past by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, it had also cut all U.S. aid, direct and indirect, to Palestinians.
How can this administration bring peace after it had already rewarded Israel and severely punished and alienated the Palestinians? It was no more a peace broker; it had become a partisan advocate in the conflict. Secretary Pompeo did not feel the need to clarify anything on this front, so clearly it is not a priority. The only message that the region received was that from now on, the United States will go after Iran and expects everyone to follow suit.
The Real Audience for Pompeo
So what was the point of this feeble and feckless pantomime? I suspect this entire foreign policy charade was an act of domestic political campaigning designed to use foreign policy to consolidate the domestic base of the current president. As public opinion polls show that Trump is getting the lion’s share of the blame for the government shutdown at home, and as the Russia probe continues to accumulate ever more damaging evidence, this speech — like the president’s tweeting — is about holding on to the base at home and not America’s bases abroad.
The most revealing part of the speech was Pompeo’s discussion of his own religious beliefs. American leaders do not usually weaponize religion in such blatant fashion. He revealed that he is an Evangelical Christian who keeps an open Bible on his desk to remind him of God. Pompeo sounded like Iranian mullahs who keep a copy of the Holy Quran on their desks to remind them of God and their divine mission. Clearly, he was pandering to Evangelicals in America who are increasingly in need of assurance that supporting Donald Trump is still the right thing to do.
This was another opportunity wasted by the Trump administration to articulate a coherent vision of the Middle East and a strategy to achieve it. The midterm elections were a resounding defeat for the Trump administration. Its limited success in retaining control over the Senate was due to the peculiar nature of Senate elections (the Democrats had more seats to defend than Trump’s Republican Party). International observers are realizing that the administration’s policies are being repudiated at home.
The speech in Egypt was a great opportunity for Secretary Pompeo to convey to the world that Washington is not in chaos and has a coherent grand strategy guiding its foreign policy decisions. A few days after the dramatic resignation of Gen. James Mattis, the first defense secretary to resign over the president’s fundamental policy vision, there was a need to show that U.S. foreign policy is in mature hands. Unfortunately, the Trump administration was not equal to the task.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is a Professor in the Department of Political Science & International Relations at the University of Delaware and a Senior Fellow of the Center for Global Policy (CGP). His website is www.ijtihad.org and he tweets at @MuqtedarKhan. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.