Trump’s secretary of state gave a speech in Cairo that obscured the U.S. role in the Middle East. America has not been a force for good.
“The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over.”
So said Mike Pompeo in Cairo on Thursday. Donald Trump’s hawkish secretary of state delivered a speech at the site of Barack Obama’s famous 2009 address to the Muslim world, but Pompeo denounced the former president for “wishful thinking,” partnering “with enemies,” and a reluctance “to wield our influence” in the region.
Pompeo claimed that the United States was “a force for good in the Middle East” and referred to “America’s innate goodness.” His 3,500-word address at the American University in Cairo contained only one passing reference to “democracy” and zero references to “equality” or “human rights.” There were more than 20 references, however, to “malevolent” and “oppressive” Iran.
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, described it “as one of the worst foreign policy speeches I’ve witnessed from a senior U.S. official,” calling it “cynical, petty, incoherent, small, and, well, silly.” Paul Danahar, former BBC Middle East bureau chief, referred to the speech as “simplistic,” noting that “its theme was the goodness of Israel and evil of Iran.”
The pompous Pompeo told his audience in Cairo that he was going to be “very blunt and direct” and that he wanted to speak about “a truth that isn’t often spoken in this part of the world.” He went on to offer a litany of lies, delusions, and exaggerations. Below, however, is the (fantasy) speech that I wish the secretary of state could have delivered on Thursday, if he truly wanted to be “blunt” and “honest” about U.S. involvement in the Middle East since 1945.
“It is a pleasure to be back here in Cairo. As America’s top diplomat, and as a former CIA director and four-term member of the United States Congress, not to mention a senior member of a U.S. administration whose president has admitted we have ‘a lot of killers’ and who has also condemned many of our previous interventions across the Middle East, I believe I am ideally suited to tell you all the unvarnished truth about the history and impact of U.S. involvement in this region.
It is an ugly truth that U.S. presidents have known for decades but have worked hard to conceal from the public — both in the United States and here in the Middle East. As long ago as 1958, a great Republican president, and an even greater U.S. general, Dwight Eisenhower, wondered why there was such a ‘campaign of hatred against us’ in this part of the world, ‘not by the governments but by the people.’ Yet the reasons for that ‘hatred’ had been laid out for him only a few months earlier by his own National Security Council: ‘In the eyes of the majority of Arabs the United States appears to be opposed to the realization of the goals of Arab nationalism. They believe that the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress.’ U.S. interests in the area, added the National Security Council, ‘have led not unnaturally to close U.S. relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries.’
It is difficult to disagree with the National Security Council’s assessment. Take the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In February 1945, in the dying days of the World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdulaziz, onboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The need for democracy in the Gulf wasn’t on Roosevelt’s mind. On behalf of the United States, he struck a Faustian bargain with one of the world’s most repressive countries: We would provide them with security; they would provide us with oil.
That bargain has held for more than seven decades, under both Democratic and Republican presidents. It held after 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers turned out to be Saudi nationals — but we invaded Baghdad in 2003, not Riyadh. It held after my predecessor Hillary Clinton admitted in a confidential memo that ‘donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.’ It held after a Saudi-led coalition launched a war in Yemen, with U.S. military and intelligence support, which has killed tens of thousands of people and has caused, in the words of the United Nations, the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis.’ It held even after U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul 100 days ago, on the orders — according to my former colleagues at the CIA — of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.
Then there is the state of Israel. From the very beginning, we have stood with the Israelis against the Arabs — and, in particular, against the occupied and dispossessed Palestinian people. President Harry Truman, declaring U.S. support for a new Jewish state, said he had ‘to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.’ Over the past 70 years, the United States has backed, armed, and funded Israeli governments, of both left and right, as they have bombed, conquered, occupied, colonized, and ethnically cleansed Arab lands.
We have never supported freedom or democracy for the Palestinians. Nor have we done so for the Iranians.
In 2014, the previous U.S. administration resupplied Israeli forces with ammunition amid their bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 500 Palestinian children in the space of seven weeks.
We have never supported freedom or democracy for the Palestinians. Nor have we done so for the Iranians. In 1953, the United States government authorized a CIA coup to overthrow the elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, because we believed he was too close to his country’s Communist Party. CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, arrived in Tehran to implement Operation Ajax, which involved fomenting riots against Mossadegh in order to put the tyrannical, but pro-American, shah of Iran back in full control of the country.
A year earlier, Kermit Roosevelt had been here in Egypt, masterminding another CIA intervention, Project FF, or ‘Fat Fucker,’ against King Farouk. The United States helped the Free Officers Movement overthrow the king and — perhaps with the exception of Gamal Abdel Nasser — has since thrown its full support behind military dictators in Cairo. Remember when the generals removed Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, from power in a coup in 2013? My predecessor John Kerry praised the Egyptian military for ‘restoring democracy.’
Then there is Iraq. Every president since George H.W. Bush has taken military action in Iraq; dropping bombs in Mesopotamia has become a rite of passage for the past five presidents of the United States. But our involvement in Iraq did not begin in 1990, when the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, infamously gave Saddam Hussein the green light to invade Kuwait; it began decades earlier.
In 1963, however, a U.S.-backed military coup by the Baath Party succeeded in overthrowing Qasim. ‘We came to power on a CIA train,’ Ali Saleh Sa’adi, a minister in the Baathist regime that replaced Qasim, later admitted.
In 1980, according to my predecessor Alexander Haig, the Carter administration gave a ‘green light’ to Saddam to attack Iran. Ronald Reagan then escalated our support for the Iraqis, against the Iranians, and sent Donald Rumsfeld to shake Saddam’s hand. We not only turned a ‘blind eye‘ to the use of Iraqi chemical weapons against both the Iranians and the Kurds; we helped them do it.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed as a result of the invasion. There is a direct line from our invasion to the creation of ISIS.
By 2003, it was the United States that was invading Iraq, in defiance of international law and on the basis of false claims about weapons of mass destruction. As Trump, the current U.S. president, has observed, George W. Bush ‘lied‘ about WMDs, and his decision to attack Iraq was ‘the worst single mistake ever made in the history of our country.’
But what about the Arab Spring? How did the United States respond? In Syria, the U.S. government repeatedly called on the brutal Bashar al-Assad to stand down, and the CIA spent hundreds of millions of dollars arming some of the most vicious groups in the region in a disastrous attempt to try and topple him. More than seven years on from the start of the Syrian civil war, and more than 400,000 dead Syrians later, this administration has now decided to accept Assad’s rule of that country, and we are withdrawing our troops on the ground.
In Libya, the United States backed a U.N.-sanctioned NATO operation to protect the people of Benghazi; the operation morphed into a non-U.N.-sanctioned plan for regime change in Tripoli. Col. Muammar Gaddafi was raped and killed in the Libyan desert by U.S.-backed rebels. My predecessor Clinton greeted the news with a laugh. ‘We came, we saw, he died,’ she declared. Today, Libya is a ‘Mad Max’ hell-scape, with open-air slave markets and multiple, warring ‘governments‘ and militias. It has also become a major transit point for tens of thousands of migrants heading for Europe.
In Bahrain, however, the United States backed the ruling royal family, not the revolution from below. This may or may not have been related to the fact that the U.S. 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain. Since 2011, thousands of Bahrainis have been beaten, tear-gassed, shot, detained, and tortured. In 2017, Trump told the Bahraini king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, that ‘there won’t be strain with this administration.’ His words have since emboldened Bahrain’s prison guards.
This is the blunt truth that previous U.S. administrations have refused to share with you until today: We have supported dictators and despots while singing the praises of democracy; we have bombed, invaded, and occupied while calling for stability and security; we have been complicit in torture, ethnic cleansing, mass starvation, and the use of chemical weapons while pretending to be champions of human rights.
The post-war history of our role in this region is clear, undeniable, and shameful. Those who claim that the United States is a ‘force for good in the Middle East‘ are dishonest — or deluded. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing could be a greater insult to the millions of people who might be alive today in the Middle East had it not been for the involvement of the United States.
I want to thank you all for being here, and I want to dedicate this speech, in the Egyptian capital, to the 40,000 political prisoners — including U.S. citizens! — that your president and our close ally, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has locked up and tortured since 2014. May God bless them all; may God bless you all.
I now plan to return to Washington, D.C., and I expect to shortly receive the news that I have been fired by our president over Twitter.”