SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Trump administration is pulling U.S. forces out of Syria, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insists the U.S. is not in retreat. He's meeting with Gulf allies this weekend to try to keep the region focused on fighting terrorism and countering Iran.
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MIKE POMPEO: We have a message to them, which is the - similar to the message that I delivered when I was stopped in Cairo in my remarks, which is the United States is, in fact, a force for good. We want to be their partners. We want to work alongside them to achieve ends that are in their country's best interest as well as the interest of the United States.
SIMON: The secretary of state was speaking to a group of reporters in Abu Dhabi. NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us from there. Michele, thanks for being with us.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sure thing, Scott.
SIMON: What more did the secretary of state have to say about this approach to the region?
KELEMEN: So he's argued that the previous administration misdiagnosed the problems in the Middle East. Their diagnosis was all honked up. Those were the words that he used today. He said that by focusing so much on the nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. allowed Iran to spread its influence. And that hurt America's traditional Arab allies in the region, like the Saudis or Emiratis here in Abu Dhabi. So he's here rebuilding ties with Gulf partners, visiting all of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. And he's - says he's planning a big meeting in Poland next month to focus on Iran and on Middle East stability.
SIMON: He's going to Saudi Arabia tomorrow, I gather. Will the secretary of state raise concerns about the death of Jamal Khashoggi?
KELEMEN: He'll raise them. I'm not sure how hard he'll press it. You know, it's the second time actually that he'll be there since Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. And while Pompeo calls it a heinous crime, he also talks about how vital it is to have this relationship with the Saudis.
SIMON: Does that case, though, complicate his mission - on the - calling it a heinous atrocity, on the one hand, even as he talks about the partnership?
KELEMEN: Yeah, I think it does. You know, I mean, the secretary in that speech that he was making in Cairo this week, he laid out a pretty black-and-white view of the Middle East as the U.S. is the force for good. And, you know, its partners want stability. But Iran is the main source of instability in the region. But when you have a partner like the Saudis that's involved in the killing of a journalist in a consulate, it's hard to look at them as a real source of stability. And plus, Scott, there's the war in Yemen. Pompeo blames Iranian-backed rebels for starting the conflict, but the Saudis, the Emiratis and others with America's help have waged a really disastrous war against Houthi rebels. Millions are on the brink of famine. So this is a complex region and a lot of complex issues for the secretary to discuss on his swing through all these Gulf countries.
SIMON: And of course, Michele, the trip comes during a partial U.S. government shutdown. Any impact that you see on this mission?
KELEMEN: Well, there are a lot of State Department employees staffing his trip who aren't getting their paychecks. Pompeo is also moving ahead with plans to bring all the ambassadors around the globe back to Washington next week for a planned meeting despite the shutdown. He says that morale is good. They understand that there are squabbles in Washington but that they understand their mission. I also asked him about his wife, who's on this trip. Staffers are staffing her visit without pay. But he said she is a force multiplier, that she's been touring diplomatic housing, medical facilities and seeing the living conditions of diplomats overseas and that, you know, she has that important role to play despite the shutdown.
SIMON: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen in Abu Dhabi traveling with Secretary of State Pompeo. Thanks so much for being with us.
KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.