Ten years ago, President Barack Obama traveled to Cairo to open a new dialogue with the world’s Muslims. On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Cairo to offer a rebuttal.
Some of his points are correct. It’s true that Obama in his first term was too sanguine about political Islam. In 2009 — two years before the revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — Obama invited members of the Muslim Brotherhood to attend his speech. Obama wrongly assessed the prospects for greater cooperation with Iran during his presidency, and was too hasty to withdraw forces from Iraq in 2011.
The secretary’s analysis, however, is incomplete. Obama eventually realized, after the Islamic State rampaged through Iraq and Syria, that the U.S. was needed in the Middle East.
So he sent troops back to Iraq and Syria in 2014 to do the job that Iraq’s army could not. And while Obama cut Mubarak loose in 2011 as tens of thousands of Egyptians flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, he did not do so until Egypt’s strong man threatened to slaughter those civilians (an order his military ultimately declined). When Egypt’s current strong man, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, took power in a coup in 2013, Obama declined to cut off military aid. After the Iran deal, Obama sold Iran’s regional adversaries advanced weapons and provided mid-air refueling and targeting assistance to the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
If this approach sounds familiar, it should. It’s basically what President Donald Trump has been doing in the Middle East since taking office. With the exception of the Iran nuclear deal — admittedly a big exception — Trump’s approach of working with allies against common enemies while reducing America’s military footprint is a continuation, not a repudiation, of Obama’s second-term foreign policy.
This means that America will have to rely more on its allies. As Pompeo put it: “We ask every peace-loving nation of the Middle East to shoulder new responsibilities for defeating Islamist extremism wherever we find it.”
There is a downside to this approach: The autocrats in the Middle East also know how much the U.S. needs them. It makes it much harder for the U.S. to help these countries make the transition to democracy.
Instead of addressing this problem, Pompeo spoke around it. “As we seek an even stronger partnership with Egypt, we encourage President Sisi to unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people, unfetter the economy, and promote a free and open exchange of ideas,” he said. “The progress made to date can continue.”
It’s ludicrous to say that el-Sisi has made any progress in “unfettering” his country’s economy or promoting “a free and open exchange of ideas.” Quite the opposite. “El-Sisi has built a military dictatorship in which civilian institutions have been subordinated to the military and intelligence agencies in which freedom of speech and expression has been completely stifled,” Amy Hawthorne, the deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told me.
El-Sisi has jailed thousands of activists, journalists and political rivals. No one is safe. A year ago, a former chief of staff of the Egyptian military, Sami Anan, was arrested after his party nominated him to run against el-Sisi in last year’s alleged election.
And this relates back to the theme of Pompeo’s speech, what he called a “truth that isn’t often spoken” in the Middle East: “America is a force for good.” One reason this is true is that, in its best moments, America uses its leverage to move its allies closer to its democratic ideals. Think of Ronald Reagan’s decision to push Filipino strong man Ferdinand Marcos aside after he tried to fix an election, or George W. Bush’s pressure on Mubarak to allow competitive parliamentary elections.
Yes, Obama too often failed to honor this tradition in American foreign policy. But Trump shows no appreciation for it whatsoever. He cozies up to authoritarians.
The president’s defenders might argue that, with Iran on the march, democratic ideals are a luxury U.S. statecraft cannot afford in the Middle East. But dictatorships are never as stable as they appear from the outside. El-Sisi will not be in power forever. The day he falls, Egyptians will recall whether America encouraged their leader to reform, or looked the other way.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.