US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a caustic critique of Middle East policies under former president Barack Obama casting blame on the previous American administration for the expansion of Iranian power in the region and rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In the address delivered at the American University in Cairo, Mr Pompeo said former US policy had been misguided and wishful, weakening America's role in the region. However, he went on, President Donald Trump had “reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we've learned from our mistakes.”
“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,” lamented Pompeo. "In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid about asserting ourselves when the times — and our partners — demanded it."
"President Trump has reversed our willful blindness to the danger of the [Iranian] regime and withdrew from the failed nuclear deal, with its false promises," Mr Pompeo said. "The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of its peoples if Iran's revolutionary regime persists on its current course."
Mike Pompeo in Egypt
"In Syria, the US will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot, and work through the UN-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people," he said.
Unlike Mr Obama’s June 2009 speech to a diverse audience of Cairo University students and faculty, Egyptian government officials and religious and civil society leaders – the Pompeo address was delivered to a hand-picked group of leaders close to the administration of President Abel Fatah El Sisi and influential alumni, including stalwarts of the business community.
With most still on their winter break, only a sprinkling of students attended the speech in the Moaz Al Alfi Hall, with a capacity of 250 people.
Still Mr Pompeo’s speech drew the attention of young educated Egyptians. Many of whom watched the televised address through the lens of a past generation, addressed first by Mr Obama in the lead-up to the Arab Spring.
"I think that the fundamental misunderstanding comes from Trump and not Obama," said Omar El Gammal a 24-year-old graduate politics graduate researcher at Cairo University. "America being the liberating force that comes to rescue us somehow reminds me of the colonial idea of the 'white man's burden'."
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“Pompeo seems to ignore that the US dismantlement of Iraqi state under George W Bush is the main reason behind the terrorism we are witnessing in the region,” Mr El Gammal said.
In his speech Mr Pompeo underscored United States’ commitment to the areas liberated from ISIS.
“We have provided nearly $2.5 billion in humanitarian assistance to Iraq since 2014, and our churches and non-profits do good work too,” Mr Pompeo said. “We and our allies generated nearly $30 billion in grants and financing support to aid Iraq’s reconstruction during the Kuwait Reconstruction Conference last year. “
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Yasser Ahmed, a 29-year-old graduate student in Social Work at AUC agreed with Mr Pompeo’s assertion that former president Obama had failed to see the danger posed by the region’s extremist aspirations.
“Obama did underestimate the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mr Ahmed said.
“Still it seems we are now forced into a box where the only choice is between Islamists or authoritarian military systems and that leaves young Arabs with so little hope,” he explained. “It’s frightening Pompeo that the only way for prosperity and more freedom in the Arab world is to have a regime change in Iran, it makes it seem like this region is facing yet another war.”
Mr Pompeo’s emphasis on Iran and the security issues facing Israel were discordant notes for the Egyptians watching the speech.
The secretary lauded UAE sports officials for allowing the Israeli national anthem to be played as the Israeli judo champion was crowned the winner of a tournament in Abu Dhabi. “These steps toward rapprochement are necessary for greater security in the face of shared threats,” said Mr Pompeo.
“I feel it would have been better to focus on the Egypt-USA relationship, because, simply, he is currently in Egypt,” mused Michael Mamdouh, a 21-year-old business major at Ain Shams University. “Actually, Egyptians don’t care much about Iran as we care about fighting terrorism here.”
“We are not exactly delighted to hear him supporting Israel and praising Trump’s decision to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Of course, he knows as diplomat that we do not support this action,” said Mr Mamdouh.
“Still I appreciated Mr Pompeo mentioning positive things about President Sisi and saying that our leader should be a role model for others in accepting and supporting religious pluralism,” explained Mr Mamdouh, a Coptic Christian.
Dina Osama, a 22-year-old Cairo University politics major noted that despite clear policy differences with president Obama, the current US administration is painting a vision of America as a positive force in a troubled region.
“Pompeo is trying also to steer Middle East countries into the American orbit by saying the United States is a force for good,” said Ms Osama. “With their historic commitments to humanitarian and security aid, and pledging to continue to help the Arab countries to fight terrorism.”
“Still I think Pompeo has forgotten that Egypt and other states in the region have moved from just relying on the United States to seeking other international partners such as Russia and China.”