From the moment that President Donald Trump entered office two years ago, he has been stripping away his predecessor Barack Obama’s legacy in the Middle East, piece by piece.
It hasn’t been easy.
It took Trump a year to finally overcome the opposition of the professional bureaucracy at the State Department and the Defense Department, and overrule the opposition of his then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to recognize Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Trump had to overcome further opposition from his senior advisors and the consensus view of the foreign policy establishment to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
So too, to walk away from Obama’s signature foreign policy, his 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Trump had to overcome opposition from Mattis, the foreign policy establishment, the European Union, and the media.
Trump has faced attempts by Obama alumni and the media to undermine his strategy of undermining Iran through a mix of economic sanctions on Iran and strengthening U.S. allies and alliances in the Sunni Arab world. The media hysteria over the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, an al-Qaeda sympathizer who wrote columns for the Washington Post, was a transparent attempt to undermine Trump’s ability to work with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
In Syria, Mattis and other senior officials worked to preserve Obama’s policy of limiting U.S. operations and focus to fighting Islamic State forces while ignoring Iranian and Iranian proxy forces operating in Syria.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismantled the ideological foundation of Obama’s Middle East policy, at the very place where Obama first set it out.
Less than six months after Obama took office, he set out his perception of America’s rightful position in the world generally, and the Middle East, in particular at a speech at American University in Cairo. His speech, “A New Beginning,” was billed as a speech to the “Muslim World.”
Obama’s address was the most radical, most anti-American speech any U.S. president had ever delivered. In his speech at American University in Cairo, Pompeo rejected all aspects of Obama’s address — and in so doing, set out the intellectual foundations of Trump’s view of America’s position and role as superpower in the Middle East.
Obama opened his speech in Cairo by vilifying America and the West. He cast the blame for bad relations between the U.S. and the Islamic world on America and its Western allies.
In his words:
The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.
While Obama castigated the United States and the West collectively, he cast Islamic terrorism and other forms of Muslim aggression against the U.S. and the West as the misdeeds of mere “violent extremists,” who comprise but “a small but potent minority of Muslims.”
Far from rooted in their own ideological or religious beliefs, the crimes of this small minority of “violent extremists” were, in his telling, provoked by American and Western collective malevolence and ill-treatment.
In other words, America’s and the West’s chickens came home to roost.
After judging his own country as the primary driver of poor relations with the Muslim world, Obama then rejected America’s right to act independently in international affairs. The war in Afghanistan was legitimate, he argued, because it was initiated “with broad international support.”
The war in Iraq, on the other hand, “was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world.”
He promised to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq quickly, and then scolded his nation, “Events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.”
Perhaps most shockingly, Obama alleged that the U.S. had effectively lost its soul in its response to the September 11 attacks. In his words, “Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.”
Obama went on to castigate Israel at great length. He echoed the radical Islamic claim that Israel is a colonialist implant in the Muslim world, installed as a salve to the guilty consciences of Europeans in the wake of the Holocaust rather than the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.
He accused Israel of responsibility for the absence of peace, and drew a moral equivalence between Israel’s counter-terror operations and the physical presence of Jews and Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria to the Holocaust.
After demonizing America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Obama turned his attention to Iran. Far from committing himself to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Obama committed himself to appeasing Iran. He placed the blame for Iranian hostility towards the U.S. on the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup that brought about the overthrow of then-Iranian President Mohammad Mosaddegh.
Then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak boycotted Obama’s address and refused to follow protocol and greet Obama as he alighted Air Force One at the airport in Cairo. Mubarak turned a cold shoulder to Obama because Obama insisted on inviting Muslim Brotherhood members to his speech.
The outlawed jihadist group, which spawned Hamas, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad led by Ayman Zawahiri, and other major Islamic jihadist terror groups was – and remains still today – the greatest threat to the Egyptian state. During the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power following Mubarak’s ouster a year after Obama’s speech, it moved steadily to transform Egypt into an Islamic regime.
By delivering his speech in the Egyptian capital to “Muslims around the world,” rather than to the Egyptian people, Obama effectively rejected the distinct identity of the peoples of Arab states. By rejecting Arab nationalism, he subverted the legitimacy of the leaders of the separate and distinct Arab states and gave support to the Muslim Brotherhood’s perception of the Muslims of the world as one distinct nation or umma, which is supposed to be ruled by a global caliphate.
To sum up, Obama rejected America’s moral right to lead in world affairs. He undermined the morality of Israel’s very existence. He rejected the legitimacy of Arab governments and elevated the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate force in the Muslim world. And he ignored all of the pathologies of the Arab and Muslim world.
Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; his hostile treatment of Israel; his support for the overthrow of allied and non-threatening Arab governments in Egypt, in Tunisia, and in Libya; and his refusal to take decisive action against either ISIS or Iranian aggression in Syria all were rooted in the anti-American principles he set out in his Cairo speech.
On Tuesday, Pompeo disavowed and condemned Obama’s speech point by point. Pompeo rejected Obama’s denunciation of American power insisting, “America is a force for good in the Middle East.”
Of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, Pompeo said
These lands witnessed convulsions from Tunis to Tehran as old systems crumbled and new ones struggled to emerge. That’s happened here, too.
And at this critical moment, America, your long-time friend, was absent too much. Why? Because our leaders gravely misread our history, and your historical moent. These fundamental misunderstandings, set forth in this city in 2009, adversely affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Egypt and across the region.
Pompeo then spoke directly to Obama’s accusations against America.
Remember: It was here, here in this city, that another American stood before you.
He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology.
He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East.
He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed, quote, “a new beginning,” end of quote.
He continued, explaining the disastrous consequences of Obama’s ill-assessment of American morality.
In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid in asserting ourselves when the times – and our partners – demanded it.
We grossly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism, a debauched strain of the faith that seeks to upend every other form of worship or governance. ISIS drove to the outskirts of Baghdad as America hesitated. They raped and pillaged and murdered tens of thousands of innocents. They birthed a caliphate across Syria and Iraq and launched terror attacks that killed all across continents.
America’s reluctance, our reluctance, to wield our influence kept us silent as the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in Tehran in the Green Revolution. The ayatollahs and their henchmen murdered, jailed, and intimidated freedom-loving Iranians, and they wrongly blamed America for this unrest when it was their own tyranny that had fueled it. Emboldened, the regime spread its cancerous influence to Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria, and still further into Lebanon.
Our penchant, America’s penchant, for wishful thinking led us to look the other way as Hizballah, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime, accumulated a massive arsenal of approximately 130,000 rockets and missiles. They stored and positioned these weapons in Lebanese towns and villages in flagrant violation of international law. That arsenal is aimed squarely at our ally Israel.
When Bashar Assad unleashed terror upon ordinary Syrians and barrel-bombed civilians with sarin gas, a true echo of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurdish people, we condemned his actions. But in our hesitation to wield power, we did nothing.
Our eagerness to address only Muslims and not nations ignored the rich diversity of the Middle East and frayed old bonds. It undermined the concept of the nation-state, the building block of international stability. And our desire for peace at any cost led us to strike a deal with Iran, our common enemy.
So today, what did we learn from all of this? We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.
The good news. The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real new beginning.
Pompeo went on to describe the Trump administration’s actions to restore and strengthen America’s alliances with its Arab allies, its strategy for countering Iranian aggression, and cultivating good relations between the Arab states and Israel.
He underlined the America’s continued commitment to utterly destroying Islamic State forces in Syria, even after U.S. forces are withdrawn. And he spoke in great detail about U.S. actions to curtail Iranian power and influence throughout the region.
There is little doubt that the media, the foreign policy establishment, the European Union and the Democrats will continue to seek to undermine Trump’s policies in the Middle East with the intention of paving the way for a restoration of Obama’s policies – based on Obama’s Cairo speech from January 4, 2009.
But on Thursday, by condemning and disavowing that speech in detail, from the place where it was delivered, Pompeo drove a spear through the lie at its very heart – that America is anything other than a force of good in the Middle East.