Pompeo's Cairo Speech to Showcase Administration's Hollow, Transactional Middle East Policy 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly plans to deliver a speech in Cairo today to contrast with—and even rebut—President Obama’s 2009 address in the same city. That this administration feels the need, nearly a decade later, to take potshots at an effort to identify common ground between the Arab world and the West speaks not only to the Trump administration’s pettiness but also to its lack of a strategic vision for America’s role in the region and its abdication of America’s values. 

Pompeo almost certainly will adopt a drastically different tone than that put forward by President Obama, who spoke in Cairo of a vision of tolerance and pluralism. That’s because Pompeo has consistently embraced Islamophobia and its most prominent purveyors. As a congressional candidate, for example, Pompeo’s campaign referred to his opponent as “just another Turban topper.” As a Congressman, Pompeo stood on the House floor and proclaimed that American Muslim leaders were “potentially complicit” in the Boston Marathon bombings. As a guest on Frank Gaffney’s radio show, he alleged that radical Islamic networks had infiltrated “small towns all throughout America.” Pompeo even repeatedly spoke at the annual conference of “ACT For America,” known as the largest anti-Muslim group in the United States. At the same time, Pompeo will be speaking on behalf of an administration that has attempted to ban Muslims from the United States, installed Islamophobes in key policy positions, and has cooked the books on the terrorist threat we face from overseas. 

The ideas President Obama presented in his address presumably will also be absent from Pompeo’s remarks. For example, President Obama offered an impassioned defense of the universal right of freedom of expression, warning, “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” Pompeo, on the other hand, led the Trump administration’s efforts to sweep Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post contributor and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi under the rug, a symptom of this President’s ceding of America’s Middle East policy to Riyadh. Pompeo publicly ran to the defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, traveling to Riyadh for a grip-and-grin in the days following Khashoggi’s brutal murder. He also appears to have misled Senators in a closed-door briefing, claiming there was “no direct reporting” connecting the Crown Prince to Khashoggi’s death, despite widespread reports of the CIA’s assessment of his responsibility. 

President Obama’s Cairo speech presented America to the international Muslim community as an engaged partner, one that would hold them to the high standards to which we have sought to hold ourselves. Nearly 10 years later, we can only expect Pompeo to do the opposite. Together with the broader administration he represents, Pompeo sees Islam as an enemy, human rights as a side concern, and autocrats as worthy of embrace. His views don’t represent those of his fellow Americans, and he won’t be able to present what we must stand for on the world stage. 

Additional Context on President Obama’s “New Beginnings” Address 

President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, entitled “New Beginnings,” opened a new era of American public diplomacy. Then-Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough explained: "We were able to reach the target audience we had wanted to reach, namely young Muslims in communities throughout the world, to get them to take another look at the United States.”

  • State Department officers translated the speech into 14 languages, texted, blogged and chatted about the speech, and even hosted speech-watching gatherings and discussions at more than 100 embassies and consulates around the world. As Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale explained at the time, the administration put “a local face on the President’s promise of a New Beginning.”

The speech was more than a one-off, however. In its wake came a global engagement strategy for 21st century leadership, emphasizing that America had to communicate with the world’s citizens as well as its leaders.

  • Shortly after Cairo, the administration appointed the first-ever U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities in order to introduce a new paradigm for partnerships, one driven by grassroots listening and support. By 2013, the Special Representative had traveled to 80 countries “to speak with young Muslims in every corner of our planet.”

  • Secretary Clinton subsequently attended the Forum for the Future in 2009 and in 2011 to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to engagement with Muslim communities around the world supporting local organizations.

Other initiatives established in conjunction with Cairo included:

  • The creation of a Global Engagement Directorate, responsible for entrepreneurship, youth, and global civil society outreach policy for the National Security Council, including overseeing development, implementation, partnerships and evaluation of Presidential global leadership initiatives.

  • Civil Society 2.0: Launched in Morocco in November 2009, this State Department initiative empowered grassroots civil society organizations to use digital tools and technologies to increase the reach and impact of their work. Within two years, the initiative had reached over 250 organizations from over 35 countries on issues ranging from disaster response to open government.

  • Financial support--amounting to roughly $1 billion--for civil society, independent media, human rights, private sector development and other areas that contribute to promoting political participation, the rule of law, economic prosperity, education and ultimately effective governance in the region.

The Obama administration’s efforts to carry forward the Cairo agenda were fueled by robust programs across the U.S. government to support entrepreneurship, civil society, and good governance. 

  • To expand opportunities for local business leaders in Muslim-majority countries, the administration launched Entrepreneurship Summits, the Entrepreneurs for a New Beginning program, and the E-Mentor Corps. The State Department helped launch incubators and venture capital funds abroad, while USAID gave direct assistance to entrepreneurs in 15 partner countries, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation approved millions in financing for technology private equity funds in Muslim-majority countries. 

  • The United States also provided initial funding for the launch of the BMENA Regional Gender Institute to promote the participation of diverse groups in gender-related scholarship and boosted support for female entrepreneurs in Oman, Bahrain and Tunisia.

  • The State Department supported anti-corruption efforts in the West Bank, youth entrepreneurship in Morocco, journalism programs in Jordan and blogging workshops in Indonesia. 

  • Facilitating scientific exchange, the United States established the Science Envoy Program to engage prominent American scientists and their global counterparts in Asia and MENA, as well as the Science and Technology Education Exchanges to discuss best practices for teaching young students. NASA also established an Arab-Youth Exchange Program. 

Illustrative Contemporaneous Reaction to the “New Beginnings” Speech

World Leaders

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel: "[Obama’s] speech in a way opened doors toward the Arab world," [ECN] 

Director of the Holy See Press Office Federico Lombardi: “[...] there has been much talk about the danger of a clash of civilizations, in particular between the Muslim world and the Western world after Sept. 11. The Catholic Church has always been decisively against this reading of the international situation. [...] Now, the speech of President Obama in Cairo, intended to establish a new relationship between America and the Muslim world, goes in the right direction and introduces an element of hope onto the global horizon. The undoubted political weight of the United States has been clearly committed toward some objectives that are certainly crucial for peace in the world, the dedication to the solution of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the affirmation not only of the necessity of nuclear non-proliferation, but more radically, of the nuclear disarmament of all nations. And then the wider framework of religious freedom, of the dignity of women, of democracy and the development of peoples.” [ZENIT]

Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Aboul Gheit: “[It was] a wonderful speech.” [Al-Asharq Al-Awsat, Translated from Arabic]

EU Foreign Affairs Chief Javier Solana: “It was a remarkable speech, a speech which will certainly open a new page in relations with the Arab-Muslim world and, I hope, in the problems we have in numerous parts of the region.” [EU Statement Transcript] 

Former President of Israel Shimon Peres: “[It was] full of vision, a brave speech demanding a commitment to hard work on all sides involved in the promotion of the peace process in the Middle East." [Ynetnews]

Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak: "[...] direct, significant and brave appeal in which President Obama elucidated his vision and important universal principles, which he wishes to share with the Muslim world.” [Ynetnews]

Jordanian Minister of State for Communication and Media Nabil al-Sharif: “President Obama’s speech establishes a new phase in relations between the United States and the Arab and Islamic worlds [...]” [Agency France Press, Translated from Arabic]

Former Israeli Education Minister Yossi Sarid: “The Cairo speech will open the next volume of 'great speeches that have changed history'...it was the speech of our lives, the lives of all the damned in the area, damned to face disaster and death.” [IPS News]

Official Spokesman for the Government of Iraq Ali Aldabbagh: “The speech was historic and important and reflects a positive direction for the new administration [in Washington] and it is a new start. The use of Koranic sayings plays a big part in a positive change of picture.” [BBC]

Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa: “I feel that the speech was balanced and offered a new vision of rapprochement regarding relations with Islamic states.” [BBC]

Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon: “The Secretary-General is strongly encouraged by the speech delivered today in Cairo by President Barack Obama of the United States of America. He strongly welcomes its message of peace, understanding and reconciliation. The Secretary-General believes that President Obama’s speech is a crucial step in bridging divides and promoting intercultural understanding, which is a major objective of the United Nations.” [UN Statement] 

Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu: “I would like to express that the Muslim world has appreciated President Obama’s Cairo speech, and that historical speech has created great expectations in the Muslim world [...]” [U.S. Department of State]  

Vatican Daily Newspaper L'Osservatore Romano: “[Obama] went beyond political formulas, evoking concrete common interests in the name of a common humanity.” [Catholic Review]

Arab Journalists and Publications 

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Good News Group Emad el-Din Adib: "It was magical inside the great hall of Cairo University. President Obama's charisma is unquestionable, but it's the substance and depth of his speech that made the hall roar.” [CNN]

Egyptian Daily Newspaper Al-Ahram: “[...] the culmination of the statements [promising] change that began during [Obama's] election campaign, and gained momentum after his victory... [It can be said,] without exaggeration, that Obama's speech will enter the annals of history as one of the most important documents illustrating the desire of the West, headed by the U.S., to [adopt] a new stance towards Islam and the Muslims, after centuries of aggression and hostility." [Memri] 

Saudi Daily Newspaper Al-Madina: "President Obama's address to the Muslim world… is a reflection of a new U.S. trend toward the establishment of a new world order based on new foundations, relying on international law and seeking justice, peace, and wellbeing for all humanity… "This trend is an indication that the soul has returned to American values; it adds significantly to the achievements of [America's] founding fathers, who established these values and prepared the ground so those who came after could entrench and strengthen them. This is precisely what was [accomplished] by Woodrow Wilson… by Roosevelt… and after them, by Barack Hussein Obama, who has brought the U.S. back to its integrity." [Memri] 

Washington Bureau Chief Of Al-Arabiya TV Hisham Melhelm: "[The speech] was very well-crafted, eloquent. He did a good job infusing history, culture, politics and personal narrative. And I think he boldly discussed some thorny, tough, sensitive issues that sometimes Muslim leaders and Arab leaders don't like to hear and he asked them somewhat to engage in introspection. I think he was very honest with both Israelis and Arabs. He clearly defined America's objectives in the war against Al Qaeda and...he didn't talk about the war on terrorism in general. He was thoughtful when he talked about democracy and human rights and he did not use the Messianic, metaphysical, theological language that his predecessor George Bush used to use. There were no combustible phrases like “Islamo-Fascism.” [...] So, on the whole, he was excellent. And I think people needed to hear what the president articulated forcefully and eloquently." [CNN]

Experts and Civil Society 

Senior Fellow at Brookings' Saban Center Bruce Riedel: "One of the most important points Obama made in his speech today was to attack directly the narrative and ideology of al Qaeda. For too long the war of ideas was ceded to al Qaeda. By explaining his view of Islam, his vision of Arab-Israeli peace and other key issues the President took on al Qaeda's argument for terror. It is no accident Usama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri issued statements just before Obama spoke--they know the battle for the soul of Islam has now been joined and they are fighting back. The President is right to take on the enemies narrative as that is key to its defeat." [The Brookings Institution]

Columbia Journalism Professor Jelani Cobb: "This may well be the most important foreign policy speech of the post Cold War era...I believe we will be studying this speech for years if not decades to come." [Politico]

LSE Professor Fawaz Gerges: “What Obama sought to do was to re-frame and shift the debate away from conflict and war to cooperation and partnership. He reminded his audience that the relationship between Islam and the Christian West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, not just conflict and religious wars.” [The Al-Jazeera Center for Studies]

Fellow and Director of the Brookings Doha Center Hady Amr: "President Obama's speech in Cairo was a resounding victory for the power of America's character. President Obama evoked political truths, social truths and the word of God through Judaism, Christianity and Islam to speak in such a way that ordinary Arabs and Muslims welcomed the speech with open-hearts. What is even more surprising is that both Israeli advisors (albeit with Labor Party leanings) and Hamas leaders said the speech was a heartwarming and landmark speech with a senior Hamas official comparing Obama to American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. If there was ever a speech by an American president that could get ordinary Arabs and Muslims, together with their leaders, to look in the mirror and address their problems, this was it." [The Brookings Institution]

Islamic Scholars of the Al-Azhar Mosque: “[The speech] is evidence of the start of a new era of promising relations between America and the Arab and Islamic world. This is the path towards a real dialogue between civilizations [...]” [ECCSR, Translated from Arabic]

Israeli Policy Forum: "As did the audience at Cairo University, Israel Policy Forum strongly applauds President Obama's historic, bold and wide-ranging speech today calling for a 'new beginning between the United States and Muslim around the world...' [The] Israel Policy Forum is heartened that President Obama is beginning to engage in the kind of sustained, tough U.S. diplomacy that will be needed in order to overcome the challenges currently facing a two-state solution and peace and security in the Middle East." [Jewish Telegraphic Agency]

George Mason Professor Michael Fauntroy: "President Barack Obama's restrained part-olive branch, part-truth telling 55-minute speech at Cairo University was an outstanding first step in attempting to bridge the gulf that exists between the U.S. and Muslims around the world. While it will take years, if not decades, to create a more peaceful, loving, and just relationship, it is clear that President Obama understands that part of the world in a way that far exceeds those of past presidents. His willingness to speak uncomfortable truths to Muslims and Americans reveals a kind of engagement with the Muslim world that will likely benefit us all." [Politico]

Harvard Professor Joseph Nye: "This is a great investment in our soft power." [Politico]

Harvard Professor Stephen Walt: "Overall, his willingness to confront a set of complex and challenging issues head-on and to speak both plainly and eloquently was remarkable." [Politico]

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk: "The speech represented a dramatic and persuasive American manifesto for a new relationship with the Muslim World. President Obama stood his ground on American values and interests but presented them in a package that should be attractive to his Muslim audience...There are two competing narratives in the Muslim World: one from Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that preaches violence, defiance of the international community, and destruction of Israel as the way to achieve justice and dignity; the other that preaches tolerance, compromise and respect for human rights. That is the American way, and President Obama did much today to give it renewed credibility among Arabs and Muslims." [The Brookings Institution]

Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell: "I believe President Obama's Cairo speech offered a sweeping vision of America, of the world, and of the possibilities for equality." [Politico]

Policy Analyst for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee Yousef Munayyer: "The President's speech was not so much an address to the Muslim world as it was one about the Muslim world for a global audience- including Americans. In a message only he could deliver, to a world hungry for a new era of American leadership and cooperation, President Obama was able to navigate the minefield of Middle East politics by simply being candid..He gets strong marks for the speech and extra credit for the valiant effort pronouncing Arabic words." [Politico]

American Media and Commentators 

TIME Magazine’s Scott McLeod: "President Obama's speech in Cairo today is the most important address ever given by an American leader about the Middle East. … The clear message Obama delivered--in his words, body language and statement of policies-- was that America is determined to be part of the solution in the Middle East. He didn't arrive or depart as a prophet, but for an American president treading into territory inhospitable to U.S. policies, he won some new adherents." [TIME]

Republican Strategist Bradley Blakeman: "The President hit all the major points of the conflict between the Muslim world and the West. He set forth the areas of tensions, he stated America's beliefs and intentions, he held out hope for progress, and challenged the parties to leave the past behind and work toward attainable and sustainable goals of peaceful co-existence." [Politico]

Contributing Editor at The Atlantic Robert Kaplan: "One can take apart President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world delivered at Cairo University today, and subject its sentences to all manner of criticism and analysis, but its overall effect was magnificent. It employed the forward-looking optimism of the American Dream in the service of the hopes and frustrations of youth throughout the Islamic cultural continuum. It also restored the kind of public relations magic that America possessed overseas in the years immediately after World War II.” [The Atlantic]


Ned Price