Updated at 11:17 a.m. ET
“America is a force for good in the Middle East,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday in Cairo, in an expansive speech in which the top U.S. diplomat repudiated the Obama administration’s Middle East policies and accused it of making crucial errors that worsened a string of crises in the region.
“The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering,” Pompeo said.
The U.S. State Department had billed the speech at the American University in Cairo as the most complete remarks yet on U.S. priorities in the Mideast by Pompeo, who is on an eight-day tour of the region. But it was most notable for the determined attacks on the previous U.S. administration.
Nearly 10 years ago, then-President Barack Obama delivered a landmark address at Cairo University in which he said he had come to Egypt seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.”
Pompeo repudiated those words, saying, “Now comes the real ‘new beginning.’ ”
Standing on a dais with the U.S. and Egyptian flags behind him, he added:
“Remember, it was here, here in this city, that another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism doesn’t 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 ‘a new beginning.’ The results of these misjudgments have been dire.”
On June 4, 2009, Obama spoke about stopping the U.S. use of torture and closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison, about finding ways for America and the Muslim world to coexist, and about celebrating common principles “of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
In Pompeo’s view, Obama’s speech heralded an era of timidity, wishful thinking and “willful blindness.” And he blamed the previous administration’s policies for allowing violence and extremism to flourish.
“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,” Pompeo said.
He went on to list a sequence of crises in the Middle East — some of which have roots that predate the Obama administration — citing the explosive growth of ISIS, Syria’s killing of its own citizens, Iran’s moves to expand its influence, and Hezbollah’s stockpiling of rockets.
Pompeo also said the Obama administration had failed the region during the Arab Spring revolutions.
Referring to the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, Pompeo said, “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 moment.
“These fundamental misunderstandings, set forth in this city in 2009, adversely affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Egypt and all across the region.”
The State Department had said Pompeo’s speech would focus on “the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability, and security in the Middle East.”
In trying to make that case, the secretary said President Trump has been more forceful in dealing with Syrian President Bashar Assad, has taken a tougher stance against Iran’s regime and has “empowered our commanders in the field to strike ISIS quicker and harder than ever before.”
As for how the Trump administration’s policies are being perceived by Mideast leaders, NPR’s Jane Arraf reports from Baghdad, “This is a new era, and part of that new era is a belief that the United States is more than willing to look the other way [from] repression and human rights abuses in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, if there are security or economic benefits.”
While the Cairo speeches by Pompeo and Obama starkly differ, both men sought to dispel the image of the U.S. as an imperial power.
In 2009, Obama said: “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire.”
On Thursday, Pompeo said: “For those who fret about the use of American power, remember this: America has always been and always will be a liberating force, not an occupying power. We’ve never dreamed of domination in the Middle East. Can you say the same about Iran?”
The U.S. has never been “an empire-builder or an oppressor,” Pompeo said, noting at one point that “when the mission is over, when the job is complete, America leaves.”