The New US Vision for the Middle East

Jan 11, 2019

It was with rapt interest that I watched live on television US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's speech at Cairo University on January 10, nearly ten years after President Obama had also given his views of the Middle East from the same city. I have carefully read the texts of both speeches side by side. In so doing, I tried to put aside the biases, both pro and con, that I may have towards the current and past US Administrations. Rather, I looked for those parts of the speeches that I found insightful. In so doing, however, I also found it impossible not to reflect upon those parts that I believe badly confuse and misinterpret the state of affairs in the Middle East.

I remembered watching the Obama speech a decade ago and recall that he spoke of hope and conveyed a sense of understanding at least part of the history of the Arab people. In that respect, it was an uplifting speech, full of aspiration and perhaps more uniquely American than universal; yet I am sure that President Obama saw his speech as one of universal hopes. On the down side, however, there was little discussion as to the root causes of many of the problems that plague the Middle East.

The Pompeo speech on Middle East policy was as much a critique of the Obama Administration's policy as it was a clear enunciation of US policy towards the Middle East under President Trump. I found the speech harsh, arguably unnecessarily so in its invective towards Obama. It also reminded me of the so-called Realpolitik of a Kissinger or a Metternich, but without the diplomatic touch that either often employed. To his credit, Secretary Pompeo admitted that he was not a diplomat but a retired military officer. Pompeo's remarks had little aspirational vision for the future, and seemed to focus more on how the current Administration really views the Middle East, and what its intentions are. In this, one can only find it refreshing in its candour.

Secretary Pompeo was right to say that the previous US Administration badly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism. It is a strain of what is otherwise a great faith that has no tolerance for independent thought and gives hope for a better life to very few. It is a cancer on the global body. The Islam I worship, as well as most of my fellow Muslims is one of tolerance and self-assuredness. It does not create fear in others, but builds new relationships and strengthens old ones. In this regard, President Obama was right in his understanding of the positive aspects of Islam.

Secretary Pompeo was also sanguine in his understanding of the complexity of the countries that make up the Middle East. They are not simply Muslim only. The nations of the Middle East, for the most part, are rich tapestries of diversity and until recently were of exceptional tolerance, despite popular Western views of various countries. Christians and Muslims of various sects lived side by side in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Turkey. One might argue that they were able to do so because of an exceptionally strong and at times repressive leadership. Perhaps Secretary Pompeo was right to strongly suggest that the policies of the Obama Administration were naïve in understanding the reality of societies and cultures in the Middle East. Few nations are of a single culture, but a mix of cultures and beliefs, and the history of those nations is often a product of the leadership that held together the adherence of those societies.

Yet Obama was also right to look at what each of the nations of the Middle East could be, just as he acknowledged that the United States itself was a continuing and struggling work in progress. His vision and ideals are to be praised as much as Secretary Pompeo's understanding of the present situation as he sees it.

However, what both fail to address, and indeed indirectly deny in their speeches, is the role that the US has played in letting loose the demons repressed in these societies. The Arab Spring, so strongly urged on by officials in the Obama Administration, let out a legitimate voice of discontent, but provided no guidance and no support, and little but chaos and despair resulted. The invasion of Iraq, based on erroneous information regarding the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction, opened the door for ISIS, with no plan in place to replace the old with the new. Surely, no one can argue that Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and even Turkey are better off today than they were twenty years ago?

What neither President Obama nor Secretary Pompeo acknowledged or even mentioned, is the role the US played unleashing the madness we see now around us. The USA brims with good intentions and has a particularly positive view of its role in the world. Much of that is deserved, but the USA must also accept some responsibility for what it finds itself fighting now on a daily basis.

A key step in taking responsibility is admitting one's mistakes and beginning a constructive dialogue, rather than blanket condemnations of those with whom it disagrees. Both President Obama and Secretary Pompeo spoke of the 'truth', but the problem is that we all think we speak our own truth. Truth is a far more complex creature and it can only be realized by not only fighting for one's views and culture, but by actually listening to others.