Pompeo takes on America's shambolic Middle East policy

January 11, 2019

Mike Pompeo is an evangelical Christian, reared on the idea of good fighting evil in an enduring titanic struggle until the Rapture, when Christ returns to Earth and saves Christians and the Jews - but only if they convert.

Without conversion they join the rest of unsaved humanity, who die and face an eternity in hell.

He mentions the Rapture often in public, though for obvious reasons left it out of the speech he just made in Cairo on the Middle East.

But he did harp on about good vs evil.

That binary vision dominated his world view and that of his boss, Donald Trump.

It has been a common failing of American foreign policy to simplify the world into black and white and not be overly bothered with the grey, and this presidency is no exception.

In the Trumpian view, evil in the Middle East is represented by Iran, responsible for all that is wrong with the region. Good is anyone joining the fight against it.

Events have superficially, at least, conspired to help that outlook.

There is a deepening divide in the region between Iran and Syria on the one side, and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Egypt and Israel on the other.

The latter group has conspired to deepen that chasm, horrified by the olive branch offered to Iran under the nuclear deal negotiated by Russia, Europe and America.

Led by Riyadh they have succeeded in enlisting Donald Trump as an enthusiastic sponsor in undermining the agreement and leading the charge against Tehran.

In truth, there is plenty that is evil about Egypt, whose leader Abdel Fattah el Sisi butchered his way to power on the back of a series of massacres on the streets of Cairo and where an estimated 60,000 people are lost in a gulag of military prisons.

Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy. Modest social reforms have been undermined by the detention and reported torture of those who campaigned for them.

And the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the orders, it is believed, of the country's controversial princeling ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has done huge damage to its international standing.

Mr Pompeo laid the blame for most of the region's problems on former US president Barack Obama.

Mr Obama's speech in the same city in 2009 led to a shameful American retreat and timidity, he said.

Mr Obama undoubtedly has his fair share of blame for the Syrian civil war but he faced an even more complicated region and to his credit he at least tried to grapple with the complexities of the Arab Spring.

His successor has arguably, simply chosen one side against the other.

Mr Trump's critics say that has emboldened Saudi Arabia in particular to act recklessly in Yemen and against Qatar and led directly to the disastrous Khashoggi affair.

In true Trumpian fashion, Mr Pompeo also claimed credit for all the progress in the Middle East on the behalf of his boss. In particular, a fledgling rapprochement under way between Israel and Arab nations.

The Israeli prime minister recently visited Oman and an Israeli minister and sports team went to the UAE last year, as he pointed out.

There is even talk of a meeting perhaps sometime this year between Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But this will only lead to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians if the Palestinians believe their interests are being taken seriously by Riyadh and Washington. At the moment they believe the polar opposite.

Mr Pompeo claimed progress and stability is returning to the region.

In reality the tightening grip of dictatorships and absolute rule has not laid to rest the forces that unleashed the Arab Spring.

The economic and demographic pressures that drove its uprisings have, if anything, got worse and they are likely to manifest themselves in unpredictable ways in months and years to come.

Mr Pompeo's biggest problem though is the shambolic lack of coherence in his administration's Middle East policy-making.

His president said this in December: "We have won against ISIS. We've beaten them and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land. And now it is time for our troops to come back home."

We now learn from Mr Pompeo and US national security adviser John Bolton that US forces are not leaving Syria and will remain there until Islamic State is defeated.

The distinction is abundantly clear even if Mr Pompeo claimed any talk of the administration contradicting itself is a 'fake media story'.

Turkey in particular is furious. Its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels misled by Mr Trump, who agreed on the withdrawal in a phone call between the two leaders.

It is not the last we will hear from Turkey on the matter.

And others leaders will be wondering who really is running US policy in the region.

They might like what they heard from Mr Pompeo in Cairo but will also ask if it means much if the administration can so quickly go back on its word.

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