SECRETARY OF STATE Mike Pompeo on Thursday delivered a speech in Cairo that was supposed to clarify the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. Instead, it was a study in its contradictions.
Mr. Pompeo began by crudely vilifying the record of the Obama administration, saying, “When America retreats, chaos often follows.” But he ended by confirming that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria, and articulated a follow-up strategy for that country virtually identical to that pursued, unsuccessfully, by President Barack Obama. Mr. Pompeo was seeking to persuade Arabs that “America is a force for good in the Middle East.” But his listeners had more reason to be confused than convinced.
It was telling that Mr. Pompeo defined President Trump’s foreign policy first as a contrast to that of Mr. Obama; doing the opposite of whatever Mr. Obama did, rather than forming rational judgments of the region’s complex problems, appears to be the administration’s guiding light. In rhetoric better suited to a partisan debate in Washington than an address in a foreign capital, Mr. Pompeo faulted the previous president for timidity in confronting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as well as “willful blindness” with respect to Iran.
Yet, after asserting, without justification, that “now is the time” to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, Mr. Pompeo insisted that the United States would nevertheless “expel every last Iranian boot” from the country. How? Through “diplomacy and work with our partners.” Further, the administration would achieve “stability” in Syria “through the U.N.-led [peace] process.” The rhetoric was virtually identical to that of then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry, whose tireless work over several years proved definitively that those goals are unreachable without the leverage of U.S. military power.
While echoing Mr. Obama’s envoy, Mr. Pompeo muddled the message of his own administration’s national security adviser, John Bolton. Mr. Bolton, rolling back statements by Mr. Trump, earlier this week spelled out “objectives” he said had to be met before U.S. troops left Syria, including the complete defeat of the Islamic State and guarantees from Turkey that it would not attack U.S.-allied Kurds. He also hinted that one U.S. base in southern Syria would remain to thwart the movement of Iranian forces.
Mr. Pompeo dismissed accounts of these contradictions as “made up by the media.” But not only reporters are confused. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who according to the new White House plan is supposed to fill the vacuum left by departing U.S. forces, was infuriated by Mr. Bolton’s comments and refused to meet with him. The pro-government Turkish press claimed Mr. Bolton had staged a “soft coup” against Mr. Trump.
We wouldn’t go that far, but something is badly amiss here. Mr. Trump’s priorities seem clear, if unfounded: to reverse any policy pursued by Mr. Obama and to withdraw all U.S. forces from the Middle East as quickly as possible. The president’s advisers have more hawkish intentions but lack either a coherent strategy or Mr. Trump’s full backing. None of them seem to understand that while denouncing Mr. Obama’s mistakes, they are, in Syria, about to repeat them.