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How About Some Candor in Middle East Policy?

Three things Mike Pompeo should say in Cairo this week, but probably won't

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Cairo seems to be the place where American administrations declare their intentions toward the Middle East. Just shy of a decade ago, President Barack Obama stood in the city, outlining a “new beginning.” In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had chosen a different university in the same city to present the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” for the region. With age, these high-profile speeches have shown, each in their own way, that words can carry far, but must be backed by actions to hold aloft the hopes they raise. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the Middle East this week, and will deliver his own speech in Cairo, offering a preview of coming attractions on Middle East policy as the Trump administration enters its third year in office. Amid chaos at home—a shutdown, a manufactured border “crisis,” the administration’s ever-progressing legal troubles—there’s an opportunity for America’s top diplomat to speak candidly, clearly, and realistically to the region and its leaders. 

Developing and implementing a durable, cohesive strategy is easier said than done in a volatile region where the worthiest goals in recent years have often been mugged by reality. Judging by the Trump administration’s first two years of Middle East policy and preliminary reports, we can expect a brittle mix of hawkish, confrontational rhetoric targeting Iran combined with unconditional support to flawed partners like Saudi Arabia.  Pompeo may also try to put the best face on erratic moves by President Donald Trump in Syria—and to offer the latest version of a shifting policy that nobody can credibly pin down. He may even offer hints about the mythic peace plan that Jared Kushner has been working on for two years. 

But at the end of the day, too often it has been pandering to regional leaders, rather than policy to shape their choices, that has guided the Trump administration’s behavior in the Middle East thus far. And if Pompeo wants to have a meaningful impact, whatever the strategy he is attempting to sell, there are three frank messages he should deliver instead to Middle East leaders in his Cairo speech.

First, it’s increasingly clear that America has begun to move on from its turn-of-the-century fixation. This year marks the 40th anniversary of seismic events including the Iranian revolution and historic peace between Israel and Egypt. Such events, followed by the 1991 Gulf War and 9/11 attacks, drew America more deeply into the Middle East with an ever-increasing military footprint. The strategic rationale and public appetite for deep U.S. engagement were strong. But this has frayed during the past decade and a half of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and lack of progress on regional efforts—from the Mideast peace to governance. Meanwhile, the United States has become consumed with its own animosities and political sectarianism. Fewer Americans see the value of staying engaged in the region. That’s a reality that will affect any administration’s Middle East policy, regardless of ideology.

Trump purports to be asking the very question on voters’ minds when it comes to Middle East involvement: “What’s in it for us?” But he’s proposing answers in the wrong places, trying to conjure a better value proposition by hyping semi-fictional arms deals, a dead-end pressure-for-its-own-sake Iran strategy, and a nonexistent Mideast peace plan. Even if he manages to claim significant tactical victories, none is likely to change the underlying equation that currently makes Middle East policy look like a losing game to many Americans: urgent problems at home, decades of disastrous and disappointing entanglements in the region, and a complicated set of realities about fossil fuels. 

In theory, that sense of detachment could offer space for Middle East policy to be guided by a greater degree of respect for human dignity—the second note Pompeo should strike this week. Part of the growing distaste in America for all things Middle East comes from recognizing the ugliness of the situation for many ordinary people in the region—the murders and starvation of children in Syria and Yemen, widespread torture, and the scenes from an Israeli occupation with no end in sight and almost zero pushback from this administration. The horrific details of how Saudi officials lured journalist Jamal Khashoggi into their diplomatic compound and murdered him has symbolized a wider problem. While there’s no instant U.S.-sourced cure for sectarian conflict, Israel-Palestine, and persistent human rights abuses, even a slightly more principled stance against human suffering constitutes low-hanging political fruit at this point: The last two years of increasing recklessness from Saudi Arabia and others suggests that the mere prospect that prior U.S. administrations might care has previously inspired a degree of restraint.

Pompeo and Trump have called out abuses inside Iran, for example, but shamefully pulled punches with our closest partners, particularly the Saudis. This blank check and the brutal impunity it has underwritten have become a political issue, alienating Washington and many Americans, as seen in the bipartisan support for legislation in Congress criticizing Saudi Arabia’s actions. This has already done long-term damage to the bipartisan foundations of decades-old partnerships. Watching Arab authoritarians reciprocate by flattering Trump may give Americans a newfound appreciation for how Arab societies have felt watching outsiders cultivate the ruling family and military with little regard for the rest. Post-Trump, this dynamic is likely to reinforce longer-term trends pushing America further out of the Middle East. 

The third point Pompeo would ideally include—related to the second—is that Iran and terrorism aren’t the region’s only long-term problems. While these issues top many bilateral agendas, nearly all of the countries of the region also continue to face crushing demographic, economic, and governance challenges. The problems pinpointed in successive United Nations Development Programme’s Arab Human Development Reports—poor governance, high unemployment, low quality education—have grown worse, and few countries have taken tangible steps to shore up the social contract. A focus on zero-sum regional competition—countering Iran and Islamists—at the expense of conflict resolution and hard choices at home, has only deepened the regional stability deficits that matter most—not to Americans, who right now are focused elsewhere, but to the region’s own people.

Rather than continuing to pander to flawed partners, making ambitious commitments Trump may well not keep, or setting unrealistic expectations about what the United States is willing to do, Pompeo has an opportunity this week to tell it like it is to the Middle East’s leaders and people. The ins and outs of this administration’s foreign policy will doubtless continue to be triangulated from impulsive tweets and bureaucratic walk-backs. But this is a moment to tell regional leaders what they need to hear—not what they want to hear.