DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We have been following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's tour of U.S. allies in the Middle East this week. He is telling these allies that President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria does not mean that the United States is giving up on this region. Yesterday in a speech in Cairo, Pompeo blamed many of the region's problems, in particular the rise of ISIS, on a lack of leadership from former President Barack Obama.
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MIKE POMPEO: What did we learn from all of this? We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with our enemies, they advance.
GREENE: OK. As we wrap up this week to talk about this, we have two journalists who have spent a long number of years following developments in this region, NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam, and NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you both for being here.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: Jackie, a pretty tough speech from Pompeo. I mean, it was cast as articulating, you know, the vision for the Trump administration, but a lot of it seemed to focus on the previous administration.
NORTHAM: It sure did. You know, he took - Pompeo took direct aim at President Obama and his policy on the Middle East. You know, Pompeo never actually mentions Obama by name, but there was no question about who he was talking about. He said it was an American who also gave a speech in Cairo. And, of course, Obama gave this landmark speech in 2009 which was viewed as an outreach to the Muslim world.
NORTHAM: David, Pompeo criticized Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. He accused Obama of blaming the U.S. for the problems of the Middle East, instead of when, Pompeo said, Obama should have been providing strong American leadership. Pompeo said - and I'm quoting here, David - "the U.S. is a force for good in the Middle East." But, you know, one of the main reasons for this trip was really to clear up confusion, you know, caused by conflicting statements from the Trump administration about the U.S. withdrawing troops from Syria.
GREENE: Yeah. And I definitely want to get into that confusion. But let me just ask you - the criticisms of Obama, how fair are they?
NORTHAM: Well, certainly, Obama, you know, had policy failures. And many people think the biggest was underestimating the ferocity, the strength of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and then having to send troops into both of those countries and that Obama did not respond after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used sarin gas on his own people. There's also criticism that Obama had a hands-off approach to, you know, foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Much of Obama's policy was a reaction to the Iraq War, which, you know, began under George W. Bush administration and which, by the way, Pompeo never mentioned in his speech.
GREENE: Well, Greg, let me turn to you. I mean, what about what Pompeo said about the vision for the Trump administration, and how are they dealing with what does sound like a contradiction - saying that if you retreat, there is chaos, but a lot of people see removing troops from Syria as retreating?
MYRE: Yeah. And more even, hearing this morning, David, that the U.S. is beginning the first initial stages of a withdrawal. We don't have a timeline, and this is a process that's supposed to take a while - you know, quite likely, weeks or even months. But we are getting these initial reports about that. And Pompeo seems clear about what, you know, the Trump administration wants, but not really on how to achieve it. Let's listen to a bit of his speech from yesterday.
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POMPEO: In Syria, the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot and work through the U.N.-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people.
MYRE: So that phrase, expel every last Iranian boot, a very ambitious idea. This Iranian-Syrian partnership goes back decades. So on the one hand, you have Pompeo announcing this ambitious goal, but at the same time, the U.S. is preparing to pull back. And it just seems a real contradiction there.
GREENE: One that the Trump administration's going to have to keep dealing with. I mean, even though we're talking about a small number of troops in Syria, to actually be removing all of them, as you say, that you're going to have an influence over the future of this country, I mean, that's going to cause a lot of questions to be asked.
MYRE: Absolutely. And, you know, what we're seeing here is sort of this, you know, recurring theme where - you know, of Trump's aides going to clean up confusion that he's made. We saw this when he questioned the relevance of NATO. Officials would rush to Europe and do that. In Korea and Japan, when he mused about the cost of troops there. And now we're seeing this in the Middle East. And what we - you know, this began back with Trump's tweet about a month ago, when he said the U.S. was going to leave Syria. And then there's been a scramble ever since. Not only among U.S. allies, but also rivals in the region. What does this mean? Turkey, Iran, Russia, Syria - everybody trying to figure out what it means. And so there is this great confusion about the Syria policy right now.
GREENE: Well, Jackie, as Pompeo takes on that confusion, where does he go from here?
NORTHAM: Well, he's actually arrived in the Gulf region today. One of his stops, David, this weekend, will be Saudi Arabia. And he's due to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while he's there. And, of course, the issue of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is definitely expected to come up. You know, U.S. officials briefed reporters before he left in saying that the Saudi government needs to have, quote, "credible narrative" over Khashoggi's killing. But the Trump administration has backed the crown prince. There's strong ties between the two countries, financial. And so there are doubts whether Pompeo will push the crown prince hard for answers about what happened to Khashoggi.
GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Jackie Northam along with NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you both for talking this morning. We appreciate it.
MYRE: Thanks, David.
NORTHAM: Thanks a lot, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.