PARIS – Exactly 100 days after the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave what was billed as a major speech Thursday on America’s Middle East policy that made no mention of the crime or its far-reaching consequences.
But it was worse than that. The Khashoggi murder exposed the increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. What Pompeo outlined in his Cairo speech is a posture essentially built on MBS promises that it’s now clear the Saudi ruler can’t deliver.
The guts of Pompeo’s speech was this: Iran is the enemy, and that’s the glue that binds together America’s friends (as long as they play ball with Israel and MBS). If there is anything wrong with the Middle East, it’s Barack Obama’s fault for being, in Pompeo’s telling, too weak, too friendly with the enemy – Iran again.
Pompeo, unlike his boss, knows how cynical this approach is and how unconvincing it will be in the region, which is probably why he barely mentioned Saudi Arabia at all. Instead, Pompeo ran down a long list of countries from Egypt (a Saudi client under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) to Bahrain (little more than a Saudi appendage) before finally, softly, mentioning that “Saudi Arabia, too, has worked with us to counter Iranian expansion and regional influence.”
Speaking from the same podium at American University in Cairo where Obama reached out to Muslims in the region and the world in 2009 after eight years of the ill-conceived, ill-executed “war on terror” and six years of carnage in Iraq, Pompeo blamed Obama for a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the Middle East that allowed the so-called Islamic State to emerge as a potent regional force and threat to Europe and the United States in 2014. And on that score Pompeo has a point. But once again, his delivery was telling:
“We grossly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Isl–…” Pompeo stumbled for a second at just the point when he might have used that favorite Trump phrase, “radical Islamic terrorism.” But he caught himself and went on with more measured words less offensive to Muslim allies, including the Saudis, whose regime is, well, radically Islamic: “… Islamism,” Pompeo continued. “Radical Islamism,” he said.
In the region, Islamism is understood to mean a brand of political Islam most often represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia’s other great enemy besides Iran. Egypt’s Sisi, with Saudi backing, overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013 and subsequently slaughtered hundreds of the organization’s members.
Jamal Khashoggi was publicly sympathetic to the Brotherhood’s peaceful political agenda, which may well be what cost him his life. Pompeo probably knows that, too.
At times, Pompeo strained so hard to justify the incautious words and capricious decisions of President Trump that the spectacle was pitiable.
“Our words mean something again, and they should,” said Pompeo, referring to the most mendacious president in American history.
For the rest, in a part of the world where people really do remember the past, Pompeo tried to reinvent the timelines of the last two decades.
Did the United States invade Iraq and then occupy it through eight years of often bloody counterinsurgency warfare? You wouldn’t know that listening to Pompeo. As with every other occupying powers in modern history (go back to Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” for more on this theme) Pompeo cast America’s role as a simple, indeed altruistic desire to do good.
“When America retreats, chaos follows,” Pompeo declared at one point, but later said, “When the mission is over, when the job is complete, America leaves.” Predictably, he twisted himself in knots explaining that it really didn’t make a difference that Trump was pulling thousands of American troops out of Syria. He did not mention the transparent betrayal of the Kurdish allies who have provided the vital ground forces that drove ISIS out of all but a tiny fraction of its former territory.
Pompeo said the fight will go on with allies shouldering more of the burden – meaning, we know from other speeches, the Saudis.
Good luck with that. MBS’ men are much better with bone saws behind closed doors than they are in open combat.