Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik
Mike Pompeo has taken a tough line against China. Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik

This month, academics at the American University in Cairo declared no confidence in the institution’s president after his decision to grant US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo an uncontested platform for a partisan foreign-policy speech in January. Pompeo used the occasion to decry former US president Barack Obama’s own pronouncements from the same stage a decade earlier, and to issue an implicit endorsement of the Middle East’s reigning autocrats.

Pompeo’s primary line of attack against Obama’s famous Cairo speech, “A New Beginning,” was that it included a public admission of the United States’ past missteps in the region. Unlike the current Trump administration, Obama and his advisers believed that there is much to be gained by acknowledging difficult political truths, even when doing so points to a radical change in course.

Accordingly, when Obama delivered his June 2009 speech, he took the bold step of admitting mutual misunderstandings between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds. He acknowledged that Western colonialism “had denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims,” and that “modernity and globalization” had “led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.”

Touching on America’s response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, Obama conceded that “fear and anger … in some cases … led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.” But most important, he argued that “we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.” Only then could mutual trust, peace, democracy and equality be achieved.

Pompeo’s vulgar re-enactment of Obama’s appearance in Cairo reflected the foundational importance of the 2009 address. As it happens, Obama’s address was followed 18 months later by the Arab Spring, which, despite its overarching failure, put more countries in the region – particularly Tunisia – on varying paths to democracy. Obama also issued an overture to Iran, setting the stage for unprecedented negotiations and an eventual agreement that would forestall a regional nuclear-arms race.

Implicit in Pompeo’s repudiation of Obama is the idea that American strength depends on never admitting any wrongdoing. Like many of the Trump administration’s policy choices, Pompeo’s act of political theater seemed to have been geared toward reversing or erasing Obama’s legacy. Whereas Obama opened his speech in Cairo with the Arabic greeting “Assalaamu alaykam,” Pompeo began his with references to the Bible and to his own commitment to evangelical Christianity.

From its opening days, the Trump administration has expressed contempt for the idea that public confessions of American missteps can do anything but weaken the US

Categorically rejecting Obama’s call for a “new beginning,” Pompeo touted America as “a force for good” in the region. “The age of self-inflicted American shame is over,” he announced, “and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real new beginning.

From its opening days, the Trump administration has expressed contempt for the idea that public confessions of American missteps can do anything but weaken the US. Hence, in his May 2018 commencement address at the US Naval Academy, President Donald Trump announced, “We are not going to apologize for America. We are going to stand up for America.… Because we know that a nation must have pride in its history to have confidence in its future.”

In fact, Trump’s rejection of historical introspection and atonement is at odds with a long-standing American tradition of deriving strength from conciliatory leadership on the world stage. Since America’s founding, its best foreign-policy moments have come when its leaders act pragmatically, demonstrating a capacity for self-reflection.

For example, after the Revolutionary War, America’s first president, George Washington, pushed for reconciliation and a favorable peace settlement (a “new beginning”) with Great Britain. Rather than dwell on colonial grievances and past British transgressions, his primary concern was to ensure political stability and sound economic relations for both countries well into the future.

Similarly, as the American Civil War was nearing its end, president Abraham Lincoln focused not on punishing the Confederacy, but on formulating an inclusive policy to reunite the country in a “new birth of freedom.” More recently, president George H W Bush apologized and issued reparations, on behalf of the country, to Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II on the basis of their ethnicity. And that gesture was eventually followed by Obama’s much-heralded speech in Hiroshima, where he reflected on America’s use of atomic bombs against Japanese civilians (though he did not issue a formal apology).

Finally, since the 1990s, the US has been reckoning with the legacy of the Cold War. While president Bill Clinton apologized for the United States’ “dirty war” policies in Central America during the second half of the 20th century, Obama acknowledged similar US actions in Cuba, Peru and Argentina. These statements had uncertain political payoffs, but they demonstrated real political leadership, and presented the US as an honest broker, despite its many imperfections.

As the recent faculty revolt at the American University in Cairo showed, the Trump administration risks finding itself on the wrong side of history. By repudiating past acts of American atonement, Pompeo was no doubt hoping to signal a break from Obama-era US foreign policy. But he was also abandoning a tradition of American global leadership that has long served as a source of national strength.

As is typical with the Trump administration, its partisan chest-thumping backfired. Though Pompeo stood unchallenged in Cairo, the position he represents has become an increasingly lonely one on the world stage.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

Ruti Teitel is the Ernst C Stiefel Professor of Comparative Law at New York Law School, a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Globalizing Transitional Justice. Her forthcoming book from Oxford University Press is Righting Our Global Wrongs: The President and Justice for American Empire.

Join the Conversation


  1. The heart of your writing whilst sounding agreeable initially, did not sit perfectly with me personally after some time. Someplace throughout the paragraphs you actually were able to make me a believer unfortunately just for a short while. I nevertheless have a problem with your leaps in logic and one might do nicely to help fill in those gaps. In the event that you actually can accomplish that, I would undoubtedly end up being fascinated.

  2. In the grand design of things you actually secure an A just for effort. Where exactly you actually misplaced everybody ended up being in all the facts. As they say, the devil is in the details… And it could not be more true in this article. Having said that, let me say to you just what exactly did deliver the results. Your article (parts of it) is definitely rather persuasive and that is most likely the reason why I am making the effort to comment. I do not really make it a regular habit of doing that. Secondly, despite the fact that I can easily see the leaps in reason you make, I am not convinced of just how you appear to connect the ideas that make the actual final result. For now I shall subscribe to your issue however hope in the near future you actually link the dots better.

  3. I needed to thank you for this fantastic read!! I certainly loved every bit of it.
    I have got you book marked to check out new stuff you post…

  4. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and
    now each time a comment is added I get several e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?

  5. After I originally left a comment I appear to have
    clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are
    added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I get four
    emails with the same comment. There has to be a way you can remove me from
    that service? Thank you!

  6. Thanks for another informative website. Where else may I
    get that type of information written in such a perfect manner?
    I have a challenge that I’m just now running on, and I have
    been on the glance out for such information.

  7. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt donate to this superb blog!
    I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and
    adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward
    to brand new updates and will share this website with my Facebook group.
    Chat soon!

  8. Just want to say your article is as astounding.
    The clarity for your submit is just excellent and i
    could assume you are a professional in this subject.
    Fine together with your permission let me to clutch your RSS feed to keep updated with coming near
    near post. Thank you one million and please continue
    the gratifying work.

  9. Hello, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam comments? If so how do you reduce it, any plugin or anything you can recommend? I get so much lately it’s driving me insane so any help is very much appreciated.

  10. With havin so much content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright
    violation? My website has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either created
    myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it
    up all over the internet without my agreement.
    Do you know any solutions to help prevent content from being stolen? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

  11. You’re so interesting! I do not suppose I’ve read through anything like that before.

    So great to find someone with unique thoughts on this topic.
    Really.. thank you for starting this up. This site is something that is needed on the web, someone with some originality!

  12. Thanks on your marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you
    could be a great author. I will make certain to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back later on. I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great work, have a nice

  13. Hello there, just was alert to your weblog via Google, and found that it is really informative. I am going to watch out for brussels. I will appreciate for those who proceed this in future. Lots of folks shall be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

  14. I’m really impressed together with your writing skills and also
    with the layout for your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself?
    Either way stay up the nice quality writing, it is uncommon to look
    a nice weblog like this one today..

  15. Along with almost everything that seems to be developing inside this specific subject matter, your perspectives are actually fairly exciting. Even so, I am sorry, because I do not give credence to your whole theory, all be it exhilarating none the less. It seems to us that your opinions are actually not entirely validated and in actuality you are your self not even thoroughly confident of your assertion. In any case I did enjoy reading through it.

  16. I loved as much as you will receive carried out right here. The sketch is attractive, your authored material stylish. nonetheless, you command get got an edginess over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come further formerly again as exactly the same nearly a lot often inside case you shield this increase.

  17. That is very interesting, You are a very professional blogger.
    I have joined your rss feed and look ahead to in quest of more of your excellent post.
    Additionally, I’ve shared your site in my social networks plenty of fish natalielise

  18. I will right away clutch your rss feed as
    I can’t find your email subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service.
    Do you have any? Kindly let me recognize so that I may
    just subscribe. Thanks.

  19. Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of this site.
    It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s tough to get that
    “perfect balance” between usability and visual appeal.
    I must say you have done a awesome job with this. In addition, the blog loads extremely quick for me on Firefox.
    Exceptional Blog!

  20. Hello! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this site?
    I’m getting fed up of Wordpress because I’ve had problems
    with hackers and I’m looking at options for another platform.
    I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  21. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you
    knew of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically
    tweet my newest twitter updates. I’ve been looking for a plug-in like
    this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have
    some experience with something like this.
    Please let me know if you run into anything. I
    truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

  22. I like what you guys are usually up too.

    This type of clever work and coverage! Keep up the fantastic works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my own blogroll.

  23. I beloved as much as you will receive carried out proper here. The cartoon is attractive, your authored material stylish. nevertheless, you command get bought an impatience over that you wish be delivering the following. ill indisputably come more earlier once more since precisely the same nearly very steadily inside of case you shield this increase.

  24. First off I want to say great blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you do not
    mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your head before writing.
    I’ve had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my ideas
    out there. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are
    usually lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints?

  25. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your site. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a designer to create your theme? Fantastic work!

  26. Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular article!
    It’s the little changes that will make the greatest changes.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!

  27. Hello there, I discovered your site by way of Google even as searching for a comparable topic, your website got here up, it seems to be good. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

Leave a comment