Cairo seems to be the place where American administrations declare their intentions toward the Middle East. Just shy of a decade ago, President Barack Obama stood in the city, outlining a “new beginning.” In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had chosen a different university in the same city to present the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” for the region. With age, these high-profile speeches have shown, each in their own way, that words can carry far, but must be backed by actions to hold aloft the hopes they raise.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the Middle East this week, and will deliver his own speech in Cairo, offering a preview of coming attractions on Middle East policy as the Trump administration enters its third year in office. Amid chaos at home—a shutdown, a manufactured border “crisis,” the administration’s ever-progressing legal troubles—there’s an opportunity for America’s top diplomat to speak candidly, clearly, and realistically to the region and its leaders.
Developing and implementing a durable, cohesive strategy is easier said than done in a volatile region where the worthiest goals in recent years have often been mugged by reality. Judging by the Trump administration’s first two years of Middle East policy and preliminary reports, we can expect a brittle mix of hawkish, confrontational rhetoric targeting Iran combined with unconditional support to flawed partners like Saudi Arabia. Pompeo may also try to put the best face on erratic moves by President Donald Trump in Syria—and to offer the latest version of a shifting policy that nobody can credibly pin down. He may even offer hints about the mythic peace plan that Jared Kushner has been working on for two years.
But at the end of the day,