Two Speeches, a Decade Apart: How Pompeo Departed From Obama

The speech on Thursday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the American University in Cairo, laying out the Trump administration’s Middle East objectives, was strikingly at odds with a famed speech made by President Barack Obama in the same city nearly a decade ago.

Mr. Pompeo blamed the prior White House administration for “fundamental misunderstandings” that “adversely affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Egypt and across the region.”

Mr. Obama’s own speech in 2009 reads a little like an inversion of the Trump administration’s view. Here are some points of comparison:

A ‘New Beginning’

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” Mr. Obama said, a theme that became the focus of much of his message to the Middle East. His policy aimed to “acknowledge the past” and work toward shared goals “based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

“Human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

Mr. Pompeo criticized the prior administration’s “reluctance to wield our influence” and asserted that under the Obama administration, the United States had been “falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East.”

“Now comes the real ‘new beginning.’ In just 24 months, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes.”

Israel and a Palestinian state

Mr. Obama adamantly supported a two-state solution, asserting America’s “unbreakable” bond with Israel while condemning Israeli policies that he said had undermined efforts to resolve one of the world’s most protracted conflicts.

“So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”

“Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.”

Mr. Pompeo said little about the peace process and made no mention of a two-state solution, stating that the “Trump administration will also continue to press for a real and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” Messages of support for Israel were woven prominently throughout the address.

“We have adhered to our word. President Trump campaigned on the promise to recognize the city of Jerusalem — the seat of Israel’s government — as the nation’s capital. In May, we moved the U.S. Embassy there. These decisions honor a bipartisan congressional resolution from more than two decades ago.”

Cooperation With Iran

Mr. Obama opened the door to talks with Iran in 2009, acknowledging “a tumultuous history” and arguing that cooperation with Tehran was in the region’s interests.

“Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.”

Mr. Pompeo focused much of his speech on denouncing Iran, and criticized Mr. Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iranian leaders.

“Our desire for peace at any cost led us to strike a deal with Iran, our common enemy.

“America’s economic sanctions against the regime are the strongest in history, and will keep getting tougher until Iran starts behaving like a normal country.”

Combating Terrorism

Mr. Obama did not use the words “terrorism” or “terrorist,” opting for “violent extremists” to describe radical militant groups who carry out attacks in the name of Islam.

“America is not — and will never be — at war with Islam.”

Mr. Pompeo called Mr. Obama’s portrayal of these groups “a dire misjudgment” that had helped spread Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. He said now, “America has confronted the ugly reality of radical Islamism.”

“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.”

Democracy and Human Rights

Mr. Obama tried to walk a line between promoting democracy and supporting authoritarian leaders. He stressed free speech, the rule of law, women’s rights and religious tolerance:

“No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other. That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people.

“Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.”

Mr. Pompeo made little mention of democracy and no mention of human rights. He conspicuously avoided criticism of America’s authoritarian allies, most notably Saudi Arabia.

Unflattering History

President Obama called Iraq “a war of choice,” acknowledged the American role “in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government” and asserted that colonialism and Cold War politics had denied Muslim-majority nations rights and opportunities.

Mr. Pompeo took the opposite approach:

“America is a force for good in the Middle East. Period.

“The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering.”

The Use of Religion

Mr. Obama quoted the Quran, the Bible and the Talmud, used Arabic phrases and generally wove religion throughout the speech to argue that Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, promotes tolerance and nonviolence:

“There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples — a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew.”

“It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.”

Mr. Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, began his address with a nod to his faith. He then criticized Mr. Obama for what he called “an eagerness to address only Muslims, not nations” that “ignored the rich diversity of the Middle East, and frayed old bonds.”

Military Withdrawal

One clear point of agreement between Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Obama: a plan to withdraw troops. In 2009, for Mr. Obama, that meant focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan and a transition to supporting local forces.

“America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future — and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq’s sovereignty is its own.”

“Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.”

Mr. Pompeo focused on President Trump’s announcement that American troops would withdraw from Syria, where they have been part of a coalition fighting the Islamic State. He said now was the time for other partners to step in.

“President Trump has made the decision to bring our troops home from Syria.

“But this isn’t a change of mission. We remain committed to the complete dismantling of the ISIS threat and the ongoing fight against radical Islamism in all its forms. But, as President Trump has said, we are looking to our partners to do more in this effort going forward.”

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