In November 1973, at the end of the Yom Kippur War, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made his first visit to Cairo, to meet Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president. America was in the process of withdrawing from Vietnam and Richard Nixon was in the throes of the Watergate crisis that would soon drive him from office. The new secretary of state wanted to conceal the appearance of American weakness with effective Middle East diplomacy. To establish his credibility with Sadat and a broader Arab audience, Kissinger told him, “I will never promise you something I can’t deliver.”
Mike Pompeo would have done well to follow Kissinger’s example last week on his first visit to Cairo as secretary of state. Instead, in a speech to an Arab audience, he promised the world—and will surely deliver much less.
As in Kissinger’s era, the United States is drawing down troops—this time from the Middle East—and the president’s authority is shaky at home, where the threat of impeachment is again in the air. Like Kissinger, Pompeo aims to use his diplomacy to show that America can still be “a force for good” in the troubled region. But he also pledged that America would work “to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria.
Here’s the catch: Diplomacy requires leverage, which President Donald Trump squandered when he decided to pull the plug on America’s troop presence in Syria. America is now poorly positioned to shape that country’s post-civil-war political outcome, especially when it comes to Iran’s role there.
The day before Pompeo’s speech, Trump’s national-security adviser, John Bolton, tried to deny this reality by conditioning U.S. troop withdrawal on securing a commitment from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not to harm America’s Syrian Kurdish allies. Erdoğan responded by snubbing Bolton and denouncing him in the Turkish Parliament. If the United States can’t get Turkey, a NATO ally, to do its bidding in Syria, how is Pompeo going to expel all those Iranian boots? One can imagine Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei as he watched Pompeo’s speech, slapping his thigh and saying, “Yeah, you and whose army?”
This isn’t to say the United States is now totally powerless; Pompeo can effect change if he picks the right battles and personally devotes time, energy, and a touch of guile to the challenge.
Kissinger understood that America’s standing in the region, at least in that era of retrenchment, depended on convincing Israel to withdraw from the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula. It took Kissinger days of arduous, emotional negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to convince her that this would serve Israel’s interests—but in the end he did, laying the foundations for peace between Israel and Egypt.
Pompeo faces a similar test with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis’ U.S.-supported bombing campaign in Yemen has contributed to a humanitarian crisis that now threatens 14 million Yemenis. The war has been a windfall for Iran, which has used its Houthi proxies in Yemen to establish a foothold on Saudi Arabia’s southern border while benefiting from the tarnishing of Saudi and American reputations. Ending the war would reduce opportunities for Iranian meddling and demonstrate that America is indeed a force for good in the region.
Will Pompeo work MBS, as the crown prince is known, as Kissinger worked Meir? It seems highly unlikely. If Pompeo were Kissinger, he would have seized on MBS’s momentary defensiveness after the Jamal Khashoggi murder to persuade the prince to change course in Yemen. Instead, Pompeo glad-handed MBS in Riyadh, gave lip service to Yemen in his speech, and left the hard work there to Martin Griffiths, a United Nations envoy. Griffiths has at least been able to broker an agreement that will allow much needed humanitarian relief to flow through the Yemeni port of Hodeida. But that is a fragile achievement that can only be sustained if Pompeo can now work with MBS to end Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war.
One initiative Pompeo is taking in the Arab world is to promote the Middle East Strategic Alliance, dubbed the “Arab NATO,” to counter Iran in the Gulf. But he faces a critical stumbling block: Saudi Arabia and other would-be members have embargoed Qatar, which happens to host the largest American air base in the region.
All these countries remain dependent for their security on the United States. In such circumstances, Kissinger would have cajoled, threatened, and enticed them into ending such a self-defeating feud. That’s how he brought to a close the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Yet instead of using his leverage to insist the Gulf Arabs resolve the dispute, Pompeo subcontracted the issue to General Anthony Zinni, who quietly resigned in frustration on the same day as Pompeo’s speech.
What about the Arab-Israeli peace process, through which Kissinger promoted an era of American dominance in the Middle East? Every other secretary of state since Kissinger has taken up that endeavor. Not Pompeo. In his Cairo speech, he devoted one sentence to it. He has left that difficult challenge to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who has been tinkering with his peace plan for more than two years now with no expectation that he will launch it anytime soon.
Pompeo did find time to discuss Trump’s controversial decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, an unwelcome move in the Arab world because it ignored Palestinian aspirations there. Weirdly, Pompeo defended the decision as the fulfillment of a Trump campaign promise, as if keeping one’s word for domestic political reasons would make Trump’s word in the Middle East more reliable. Kissinger would have been more wily; he always explained to his Arab interlocutors that he was doing his best to resist or shape domestic political pressures.
Ten years ago, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Cairo promising his Arab audience a new partnership based on respect, tolerance, and Israeli-Palestinian peace. His failure to deliver alienated much of the Arab world. Pompeo used his Cairo speech to excoriate Obama, but unless he steps up his diplomatic game, he’s also likely to leave America’s friends in the region deeply disappointed.
Kissinger, on the other hand, gave no speeches in the Arab world. He preferred to let his diplomatic breakthroughs speak for themselves.