Obama Speech Adviser Compares 2009 Speech In Cairo With Pompeo's Address

Jan 11, 2019
Originally published on January 11, 2019 7:29 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Let's turn now to two very different visions for the U.S. role in the Middle East, both laid out in speeches in Cairo, Egypt, almost a decade apart - one in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama.

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BARACK OBAMA: America is not and never will be at war with Islam.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And a second, yesterday, by the current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

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MIKE POMPEO: We grossly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism, a debauched strain of the faith that seeks to upend every other form of worship or governance.

SHAPIRO: The two visions couldn't be more different, and the second, a repudiation of the first.

CORNISH: Dan Shapiro was President Obama's ambassador to Israel. He also consulted on Obama's speech. He joins us now from Tel Aviv. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

DAN SHAPIRO: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CORNISH: Now, we'll get to some of the specific points of contention in a minute, but let's remind people some context for President Barack Obama's speech because the Middle East looks very different in 2009. Can you talk about what was going on at the time? You were helping to craft the vision of what the president was trying to accomplish with that speech.

SHAPIRO: President Obama took office with still very heavy echoes of events of the previous decade - of course, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And then the deterioration that happened in Iraq after the war, with the occupation, the Abu Ghraib prison torture photographs and other torture scandals. And what it led to was kind of a serious deterioration of the U.S. reputation in the region.

So what he was trying to do was describe a basis for a new set of relationships against the extremists of the region, of course, while empowering people in the region and showing mutual respect to their traditions. That's what he sought as the basis for the speech he delivered.

CORNISH: What did you hear in this speech from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that struck you?

SHAPIRO: Well, it was a strange speech. First of all, he seemed far more interested in criticizing President Obama before a foreign audience than laying out a coherent vision of a U.S. strategy in the Middle East. But the speech had bigger problems. One was a mismatch between goals and means. Secretary Pompeo included some expressions of strength. He included a pledge for the United States to finish off ISIS and to expel Iranian troops from Syria. But that pledge came at the exact same moment that the United States is withdrawing its troops from Syria. And in that regard, I think countries hear that inconsistency and it affects whether or not they take seriously the ideas that are being presented.

CORNISH: But to jump in here, when it comes to Syria, that is one of the more probably legitimate critiques of the Obama administration, right? People do not look back on the policy approach favorably. They often point to, for instance, President Obama's red line moment on the issue of Syria using chemical weapons.

SHAPIRO: There's probably more in common between the Obama administration than the Trump administration wants to acknowledge, and that's a desire ultimately to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the region, to encourage other nations to carry more responsibility. Just as President Obama decided to limit U.S. involvement in Syria, President Trump has made clear that he wants to declare the end to the war against ISIS and leave, despite the fact that various partners in the region - such as Israel, such as the Kurds - are feeling somewhat abandoned by that decision.

CORNISH: Had the Obama administration been more successful in places like Syria or, for instance, with the Middle East peace process, would it be more difficult now for the Trump administration to come in and impose a drastically different vision?

SHAPIRO: Every administration wants to distinguish itself from the administration before it, but he's describing a policy that he contrasts to a vision of President Obama 10 years ago. A lot has changed in the region. And it should require a very careful and a very thoughtful policy process to decide exactly what is the right approach for this moment.

There was nothing in the speech that sounded like it was the product of a serious policy development problem. There were no new initiatives. There were no new programs, no follow-up, nothing that suggests President Trump is really committed to any strategy in the region beyond the desire to limit U.S. involvement. And I doubt very seriously whether President Trump, who's tied up right now in a fight over the government shutdown and the wall, has even read the speech or that anybody in the region will take seriously that this represents a strategy and a vision that he is going to carry forward.

CORNISH: One final thought. Mike Pompeo said in his speech that the age of self-inflicted shame is over in terms of talking about U.S. policy. Can you respond to that? Because some people have for a long time talked about the Obama administration as being kind of apologetic on behalf of the U.S. and that that stance was damaging.

SHAPIRO: There was nothing apologetic about President Obama's approach. In fact, I think it was quite the opposite. I think that's a bit of a canard that Secretary Pompeo used, and it may satisfy a certain constituency that he's speaking to in the United States. But I don't think it particularly resonates. Overall, Secretary Pompeo's speech was not a memorable speech. My guess is that most Middle Easterners are going to nod politely, but that the speech will be forgotten within a matter of days.

CORNISH: Dan Shapiro was President Obama's ambassador to Israel. He spoke to us from Tel Aviv. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SHAPIRO: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.