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Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Reacts To Trump Administration's Policy Approach


Earlier on his trip, Mike Pompeo was in Cairo, where he said in a speech that the U.S. is committed to defeating ISIS. The very next day, the Pentagon announced it was beginning a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, troops that had been fighting ISIS. This is just the latest in a string of mixed messages coming from this administration on foreign policy, from Syria to North Korea to Afghanistan to Iran.

We wanted to get a diplomat's perspective on how to handle inconsistencies from a superpower. And so we've turned to Nabil Fahmy. He is a former Egyptian foreign minister and was ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008. Ambassador Fahmy joins us now from Cairo. Welcome to the program.

NABIL FAHMY: Thank you very much. I'm always happy to be on the show.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ambassador, let me ask you first - you were in the audience for Secretary Pompeo's speech - your reaction.

FAHMY: Well, we were all there keenly interested to understand what would happen next. I think Secretary Pompeo was clear in the U.S. strong position on dealing with violent extremism. He was clear rhetorically, although it wasn't actually clear how much support would actually provided literally because in the same speech he also said, we're going to withdraw from Syria, and we wanted more countries in the region to carry a larger part of responsibility. So a little bit more detail would have been useful. I was also, frankly - and I'm going to be very honest with you - as much as I found his talk about extremism strong, I found his almost lack of any reference to the Arab-Israeli peace process quite disappointing, frankly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the criticisms has been that no one seems to know who actually speaks for the president and that there are these competing foreign policy priorities. What have you been hearing in the region about how they are tackling that? Because on the one hand, policy seems to be enacted by the president through a tweet. And on the other hand, his emissaries seem to be giving a different kind of message.

FAHMY: There's always competition between the heavyweights in any administration on policy issues. What's different now is it's not whether it's the NSC or the State Department or the Defense Department or the Congress. It's actually - you're not actually sure what to do because you're watching each one of these units occasionally trying to pull back the president from positions he has announced. It's beyond competition, and it goes all the way up to the top. To be fair to President Trump, he was elected as a nontraditional president, and he seems to insist on acting that way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sure. But when we're dealing with sensitive issues in the Middle East - as you know, it's a region with a lot of difficulties, a lot of conflicts - do you think it's helpful? I mean, some people have described his foreign policy in the Middle East at the moment as extremely chaotic.

FAHMY: Well, I was about to add that while he's a nontraditional president, when you're dealing with the responsibilities of president, there are complicated, sensitive issues and implications to anything you say or anything you do. And it is very important for foreign parties to be able to assess what your position will be before you speak and after you speak. So the lack of a clear direction is a bit difficult to handle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You obviously have discussions with people around the region who engage with the United States and the American administration. What would you say the general sense is at this moment if you had to characterize it in a few words?

FAHMY: Well, depending on the issue. On the issue of extremism, people feel, OK, there's a stronger voice. On the issue of will that voice translate into actual concrete measures? - the turnover in Washington, the different voices in Washington raise questions about the sensibility and the credibility of those statements. Some people are alarmed but not worried because they think it's talk rather than content. And others are happy to hear the talk but are not yet sure that the talk will be translated into concrete action.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nabil Fahmy is the dean of the School of Global Affairs at The American University in Cairo. And he is a former ambassador of Egypt to the United States. Thank you so much.

FAHMY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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