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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.
Read: Mike Pompeo’s worldview? Do as Trump does
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.