In Cairo, Pompeo Rebuts Obama’s 2009 Speech: ‘The Age of Self-Inflicted American Shame is Over’

By Patrick Goodenough | January 11, 2019 | 1:14am EST
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the American University in Cairo on Thursday, January 10, 2019. (Screen capture: YouTube)

( – Almost a decade after President Obama delivered a widely-hailed address “to the Muslim world” in Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned to the Egyptian capital Thursday to give a speech that amounted to a rebuttal of Obama’s – and a repudiation of the previous administration’s policies across the region.

Obama’s views on “violent extremism,” his engagement with the fundamentalist regime in Tehran, and his decision not to carry through with threats to punish the Assad regime for using outlawed chemical weapons all featured in Pompeo’s speech.

“Remember,” Pompeo told an audience of students, government officials and diplomats at the American University in Cairo, “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,” Pompeo continued. “He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East. He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed, quote, ‘a new beginning,’ end of quote.”

“The results of these misjudgments have been dire.,” Pompeo charged. “In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid in asserting ourselves when the times – and our partners – demanded it.”

Among the Obama policies Pompeo then touched on were his evident “reluctance” to condemn the Iranian regime for a violent crackdown on street protests that broke out after the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

“America’s reluctance, our reluctance, to wield our influence kept us silent as the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in Tehran in the Green Revolution,” he said.

“The ayatollahs and their henchmen murdered, jailed, and intimidated freedom-loving Iranians, and they wrongly blamed America for this unrest when it was their own tyranny that had fueled it.”

“Emboldened, the regime spread its cancerous influence to Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria, and still further into Lebanon.”

Obama was criticized for what the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations described as an initially “muted response” to the 2009 crackdown. After initially responding cautiously, it was only ten days after the episode began that Obama condemned the violence explicitly for the first time.

In his speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 – just days before the election that triggered those protests – Obama had reached out to the Iranian regime, pointing to the “tumultuous history” between the two countries but offering to engage “without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.” It was an offer he was to repeat in a Persian new year message the following March – despite the violent clampdown and loss of life that had taken place in the intervening period.

Pompeo characterized Obama’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Tehran as driven by a “desire for peace at any cost” and accused his administration of a “willful blindness to the danger of the regime.”

Under Trump, on the other hand, the U.S. “withdrew from the failed nuclear deal, with its false promises,” he said, “re-imposed sanctions that should never have been lifted,” launched a new pressure campaign targeting revenues used to spread terror, and “joined the Iranian people in calling for freedom and accountability.”

President Obama delivers a speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, calling for ‘a new beginning’ between the United States and the Muslim world. (Photo by Getty Images)

Pompeo also contrasted Obama’s response to chemical weapons use by the Assad regime to President Trump’s.

“When Bashar Assad unleashed terror upon ordinary Syrians and barrel-bombed civilians with sarin gas [in 2013],” he said, the U.S. had “condemned his actions, but in our hesitation to wield power, we did nothing.”

By contrast, Pompeo said, when Assad did it again more recently, “President Trump unleashed the fury of the U.S. military not once, but twice, with allied support. And he’s willing to do it again, although we do hope that he does not have to.”

Pompeo said the lessons learned from the previous policies were “that when America retreats, chaos often follows; when we neglect our friends, resentment builds; and when we partner with enemies, they advance.”

“The good news is this,” he continued. “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.’”

Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo was officially titled “A new beginning,” and he told his audience he had come to “Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.”

The National Security Action group, comprising mostly former Obama administration officials, criticized Pompeo for taking aim at Obama’s 2009 address, which it described as “a vision of tolerance and pluralism.”

“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,” it said in a statement.

The National Security Action group is co-chaired by former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan, former top aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Advisory Council members include former ambassadors to the U.N. Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who also served as Obama’s national security advisor.

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