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[Bobby Ghosh] Pompeo gives Arabs a dose of Trump cynicism

It was mendacious, petty, deeply cynical and full of contradictions -- and just possibly the most honest expression of a US administration’s policy in the Middle East by a top American official.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech in Cairo will win no hearts and change no minds among his imagined audience, the Arab world. Most Arabs will have paid it no heed at all, since Pompeo is widely regarded as having no “wasta” (connection or influence) on the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. (Had this speech come from the man who does, Jared Kushner, it might have received much more attention.) But those who did listen would have concluded that it more accurately reflects the administration’s view of their region than anything they’ve heard before.

There was, to be sure, the occasional bromide about the US being a “force for good” in the region, but Pompeo spared his audience the invocations of American values that most Arabs have come to regard as insincere sanctimony -- the more so since President Barack Obama’s quick retreat from the pieties that freighted his 2009 Cairo address.

Pompeo’s speech was also refreshingly uncontaminated by faux sympathy for -- much less support of -- the aspirations of ordinary Arabs. The secretary of state professed no interest in his audience’s greatest concerns: the scarcity of economic opportunity, good governance and social justice, or the abundance of corruption and repression. There was only a desultory appeal to Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, to “unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people, unfetter the economy, and promote a free and open exchange of ideas.”

Remarkably, the word “democracy” only once escaped Pompeo’s lips, and then only tangentially, in a reference to Iraq. The only other Arab democracy, Tunisia, didn’t come up at all. (Obama, by contrast, devoted an entire section of his speech to the promotion of democracy.) The region’s despots, on the other hand, received fulsome praise -- none more than El-Sisi, whom he hailed as a steadfast partner in the fight against terrorism, as well as a champion of religious freedom.

Pompeo saved his broadsides for the regime in Tehran and its “deadly ambitions,” and declared that the US would “use diplomacy and work with our partner to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. And he promised that the Trump administration would keep up the fight against the Islamic State group, suggesting this could be done mostly from the air.

This may have mystified his audience: Unlike their leaders, most Arabs regard Iran as a very distant threat. And, having seen a Saudi-led coalition fail to defeat Yemen’s Houthi rebels with a campaign heavily reliant on airpower, they will rightly question the US ability to eliminate IS in that fashion.

Still, there is virtue in knowing the Trump administration’s worldview, and Pompeo certainly provided that. Any Arab listeners who listened through to the end will reasonably have concluded that the speech was less about what the administration stands for, and more about what it is against: Iran, Obama’s policies and terrorism ... more or less in that order.

They’d be right.

Bobby Ghosh
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.