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Pompeo Delivers Speech In Cairo Describing His Vision Of America's World Role


In Egypt today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a stinging rebuke of the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East. And he says the Trump administration is doing things differently. For one, says Pompeo, gone are the attempts to negotiate with Iran while allowing it to expand its influence, and the U.S. is committed to defeating ISIS even as it pulls out U.S. forces from Syria. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been traveling with the secretary and has our report.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In 2009, President Obama gave a speech in Cairo calling for a new beginning with the Muslim world. Secretary Pompeo chose the same city to deliver his rebuke, though the secretary of state pointedly didn't mention Obama by name.


MIKE POMPEO: It was here, here in this city that another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology. He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East.

KELEMEN: When Obama spoke, it was in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib detention center. He also proposed an economic revival for the region. Pompeo didn't mention any of that but argued the U.S. became too timid. He told the audience at the American University in Cairo that the previous administration allowed ISIS to gain ground and Iran to expand its influence in the region.


POMPEO: We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with our enemies, they advance.

KELEMEN: While Pompeo didn't lay out many clear policy plans, he says the Trump administration is reasserting America as a force for good in the region.


POMPEO: The good news is this. The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real new beginning.

KELEMEN: Secretary Pompeo is on a weeklong swing through the Middle East to shore up old alliances with Arab partners and put more pressure on Iran. But the visit comes at a time when the U.S. is withdrawing forces from Syria. And Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister who was in the audience, took note of that.

NABIL FAHMY: So how exactly are you going to assist dealing with these major threats if you're not going to be there is a question.

KELEMEN: Fahmy, the dean of the School of Global Affairs at the American University in Cairo, says he would have liked to have heard less domestic American politics and more about the Trump administration's approach to Egypt. Another missing piece of the speech, he says, was any serious talk about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fahmy says Pompeo barely mentioned that.

FAHMY: The longest ongoing conflict in the region is the Palestinian-Israeli one. It took less than 30 seconds. Iran took much longer. OK, I understand the message, but give us some more meat on the other things.

KELEMEN: A former Obama administration official, Rob Malley, issued a statement describing the speech as a, quote, "self-congratulatory delusional depiction of the Trump administration's Middle East policy." He said it was like listening to someone from a parallel universe not mentioning Washington's complicity in the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen or the administration's indifference to human rights abuses by allies.

Pompeo says he did raise human rights in his talks here in Egypt, where activists say there are tens of thousands of political prisoners. But he also praised Egypt's hardline president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for supporting Christians. Here's Pompeo touring a massive cathedral in the Egyptian capital.


POMPEO: You can see religious liberty, religious freedom at work in this special country. President Sissi clearly made a point by putting this, this largest cathedral in the Middle East, here in this place.

KELEMEN: Pompeo, who started his speech by noting that he's an evangelical Christian and keeps a Bible open on his desk at the State Department, also visited a mosque nearby. He heads next to Arab Gulf countries where he's again likely to keep the focus on Iran. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.