Middle East Burden Sharing

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

The central takeaway from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Cairo speech is that the United States needs to rely more on allies to stabilize the Middle East.

January 11, 2019

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reasserted U.S. priorities in the Middle East in his speech this week at the American University in Cairo, an address that marked both a departure and continuation of U.S. policies. Pompeo identified the United States’ enemies as radical Islam and Iran and its chief allies as Israel and the Sunni Arab states. In a knock on President Barack Obama’s policies toward the region, Pompeo said the United States has come to the Middle East to choose sides and not reconcile age-old adversaries. His comments were also seen as a gesture of reassurance for allies worried about the U.S. troop drawdown underway in Syria. However, aside from familiar administration lines, the speech should be looked at as a signal of serious U.S. intent to share the responsibility of stabilizing the Middle East with its allies.

A Lighter U.S. Footprint

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The speech was a call for burden sharing. Pompeo praised the United States lessening its footprint in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia since the height of the Iraq war. “We have approximately 5,000 troops where there were once 160,000. We once had tens of thousands of U.S. military stationed—personnel in Saudi Arabia. Now, that number is a tiny fraction.” Today’s Middle East may be cluttered with civil wars and failed states, but for the foreseeable future, he said, the United States has to do more with less. The Iraq war syndrome still hangs uneasily over Washington, as neither political party is inclined to commit vast sums of blood and treasure to steady the region. This means that allies such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel will have to do much of the heavy lifting in the Middle East, such as countering the self-proclaimed Islamic State and funding reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Yemen.

Why It Matters

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Although Pompeo’s speech is drawing contrasts and comparisons with that of President Obama in Egypt in 2009, he was really channeling President Richard Nixon’s Guam address of July 1969, later to become known as the Nixon Doctrine. After his election in 1968, Nixon was determined to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam, as well as persuade U.S. allies to do more in all regions of the world. Nixon told reporters in Guam that “the United States is going to encourage and has the right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves.” Although Nixon was speaking about threats from East Asia and the war in Vietnam, he would apply the same policy to other regions, including the Middle East.

The United States today, as during the late Vietnam War era, is tired of long-lasting wars. Pompeo seemed to signal that the importance of allies is as great today as it was then. The United States will furnish arms, intelligence, and Special Forces to address threats in the region, but it will rely on the man power of local actors.

What to Watch

Pompeo announced an international conference next month that “includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.” The administration is likely to maintain a relentless focus on Iran, including further economic sanctions. It could also offer more aid and military packages for the Arab allies and attempt to reconcile Israel and the Sunni world to create a formidable barrier to Iranian influence.

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Pompeo’s speech has already garnered its share of criticism. Some U.S. allies are problematic actors, particularly Saudi Arabia because of its senseless war in Yemen and persistent concerns about the Saudi leadership’s role in the killing late last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But critics of Pompeo should appreciate the context of his speech: a disorderly Middle East and an American public unwilling to bear its burdens. Given the circumstances, the United States has to rely on allies who share its chief goal of containing Iran and hope that it can still steer them in the right direction.

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