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Pompeo rebukes Obama and takes on Iran in Cairo speech

Posted January 10, 2019 11:38 a.m. EST

— Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a major speech outlining the Trump administration's Middle East policy on Thursday that took aim at two of the Trump administration's main foes: President Barack Obama and the Iranian regime.

In lengthy remarks Thursday at the American University in Cairo Thursday, the US' top diplomat invoked Obama's speech in the same city a decade ago to offer a point-counterpoint assessment of the two administration's policy moves. Pompeo accused the former President of laying out "fundamental misunderstandings" in his 2009 speech.

"He told you that radical Islamist terrorism doesn't stem from ideology. He told you 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East," Pompeo said. "He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed 'a new beginning.' And the results of these misjudgments have been dire."

Pompeo cataloged a series of alleged missteps by the Obama administration: underestimating "the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism," a failure to act against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad after his use of chemical weapons, silence "as the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in Tehran in the Green Revolution."

"What did we learn from all this?" Pompeo asks. "We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance."

Pompeo declared that "the age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real 'new beginning."

"In just 24 months, actually less than two years, 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," he claimed. "We have rediscovered our voice. We have rebuilt our relationships. We have rejected false overtures from enemies. And look at what we have accomplished together."

Those accomplishments included the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the re-imposition of sanctions, the move of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and the military strikes on the Assad regime -- an action that Pompeo warns the US is willing to repeat if necessary.

Pompeo stressed that the US would remain a partner in the fight against terrorism in the region, but noted that the US expects allies to "shoulder new responsibilities."

"Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over," said Pompeo, who reiterated the claim that the US withdrawal from Syria was not "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. For our part, our airstrikes in the region will continue as targets arise. We will keep working with our partners in the Coalition to Defeat ISIS," he said.

Silence on human rights

While the secretary of state touched upon the issue of religious freedom, a broader discussion of human rights was notably absent from his address -- he did not use the phrase "human rights" in his remarks.

"In Yemen, we will work for a lasting peace," Pompeo said, but did not mention the humanitarian crisis in that nation. 14 million are on the brink of starvation, aid groups estimate, and the US has been warned that its support for the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition could contribute to the famine.

Humanitarian aid was mentioned briefly in the context of Iraq and Yemen, but a long-term vision for that aid or the potential impact it could have on capacity building and the fight against extremism was not.

National Security Action, an organization helmed by former Obama administration officials, slammed Pompeo's speech in a release prior to its delivery.

"That this administration feels the need, nearly a decade later, to take potshots at an effort to identify common ground between the Arab world and the West speaks not only to the Trump administration's pettiness but also to its lack of a strategic vision for America's role in the region and its abdication of America's values," it said.