What is so remarkable about the Pompeo speech—even though secretaries of state often get carried away with the power of their own words—were the ambitious goals Pompeo has set in an administration led by a president whose instincts and actions appear to be taking the U.S. to the exits. Listening to Pompeo, one might be forgiven for thinking that America’s influence was rising, not declining, in the region, that the U.S. was poised for engagement, and that Iran, Turkey and Russia weren’t playing enhanced roles with newfound leverage. “When America retreats, chaos follows,” Pompeo exclaimed. “Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.”
Pompeo went on to say that in Syria, the U.S. will “work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot;” that though Iran may think it owns Lebanon, “Iran is wrong;” and in Iraq, “the United States will help our partners build a nation free of Iranian influence.”
All of these notions would represent fantasy objectives even for the most skilled and committed administration led by a risk-ready president. But America doesn’t have one of those. Pompeo’s words not only fly in the face of cruel regional realities that are likely to make a mockery of his aspirations, they hang over the head of a president who has neither the patience, interest nor the commitment to actually achieve any of them. As with our Syria policy now through two administrations, we have allowed our rhetoric to exceed our capacity to act, and what falls in the gap between the two is American credibility.