A Defense of Obama’s Middle East ‘Balancing Act’

From the Iraq drawdown to chemical weapons red lines to Russia’s war in Syria, a conversation with Robert Malley, the president’s top Middle East policy official.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, while Secretary of State John Kerry talks to Sheikh Tameem Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar during a working lunch at the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by )
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, while Secretary of State John Kerry talks to Sheikh Tameem Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar during a working lunch at the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by )

For those responsible for U.S. foreign policy, explaining and defending it is often one of the most challenging aspects of government. The ideal goal in selling the policy is always to be intellectually honest, respectful, and responsive while making sure not to wander away from approved talking points.

And that’s not always an easy balance to maintain. In 1989, while working at the State Department under Secretary James Baker, I gave a talk to a large and primarily Jewish audience in Detroit. I was doing my best to persuade a clearly skeptical — and sometimes hostile — crowd that in fact President George H.W. Bush and Secretary Baker had been enacting policies that were staunchly pro-Israel. The last question came from an elderly man sitting in the back row. First, he politely thanked me for my remarks and then, with perfect comedic timing, asked: “If things are so good, why do I feel so bad?”

For those responsible for U.S. foreign policy, explaining and defending it is often one of the most challenging aspects of government. The ideal goal in selling the policy is always to be intellectually honest, respectful, and responsive while making sure not to wander away from approved talking points.

And that’s not always an easy balance to maintain. In 1989, while working at the State Department under Secretary James Baker, I gave a talk to a large and primarily Jewish audience in Detroit. I was doing my best to persuade a clearly skeptical — and sometimes hostile — crowd that in fact President George H.W. Bush and Secretary Baker had been enacting policies that were staunchly pro-Israel. The last question came from an elderly man sitting in the back row. First, he politely thanked me for my remarks and then, with perfect comedic timing, asked: “If things are so good, why do I feel so bad?”

These days, defending U.S. Middle East policy is no easy matter. And there’s not all that much to feel good about. With less than six months left on his presidential clock, Barack Obama faces the almost certain prospect of leaving the Middle East dramatically worse than it was when he entered office. Still, an honest person would admit that regardless of the Obama administration’s transgressions, the Middle East isn’t primarily a mess of this president’s making. Rather, it is largely the result of a broken, angry, and dysfunctional region in turmoil marked by failed or failing states and leaders and institutions unable to provide the kind of reforms needed to right itself: good, inclusive governance; accountability; transparency; respect for human rights; and gender equality.

But in the eyes of the administration’s critics, that line of thinking hardly mitigates what they see as a lack of leadership, abdication of responsibility, and adversary-appeasing foreign policies. From the Iran deal to U.S. relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia to the challenge of the Islamic State (referred to by the administration as ISIL) to Obama’s risk-averse response to Syria, much about what the administration has done (or failed to do) has made a great many people both in the United States and in the region very unhappy.

Last month, I sat down with Robert Malley, who is a special assistant to the president on the National Security Council (NSC), a senior advisor to the president for the counter-ISIL campaign, and the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and Persian Gulf region. After working on the NSC under Bill Clinton’s administration — primarily on Arab-Israeli issues — in the late 1990s, Malley is back with a portfolio that covers the region as a whole, focusing especially on the Islamic State, Syria, and the Gulf.

And because of this government-Middle East connection, our paths have crossed many times over the past two decades. (Full disclosure: He is both a former colleague and a close friend.) During the late 1990s, we worked closely together in the waning years of the Clinton administration in a vain effort to promote negotiations and reach deals among Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians. Whatever our differences have been on Middle East policy — largely on Iran, where I worry more than he that Iran came out with a much better deal on the nuclear issue — these days, we both agree on two things: Back then, the Middle East was a good deal less complicated, and today the United States is stuck in a region it can neither fix nor leave.

Over the course of a series of exchanges that took place in person and on the phone, I asked Malley a number of questions about the administration’s Middle East policies. I pushed him to address the president’s critics on key issues such as Syria and the Islamic State and pressed him to explain what we rarely see: the thinking and analysis of how the Obama administration looks at its options and processes those that become actual policy. With less than six months before the next president takes office, Malley’s responses reflect a valuable window into the thinking of this one on a region that remains the biggest foreign-policy issue of his presidency. What follows is our conversation.

Editor’s note: The following dialogue is an edited compilation of several conversations and email exchanges that took place over a period of two weeks.

Aaron David Miller: Chances are the Middle East is going to look a lot worse when Barack Obama leaves office than when he arrived. How much of that is his fault?

Robert Malley: Observers like you and future historians will be better equipped to assess how the administration fared. I’m confident that there are things the administration could have done differently, or better, just as I’m confident that much of what we’ve done will be judged to have been both effective and prudent.

But I’d make a few points. First, the president’s priority — any president’s priority — must be to defend America’s security [and] the safety and well-being of our citizens. When it comes to the Middle East, that means in particular preventing the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction [WMD] by state or nonstate actors, countering terrorist groups that threaten the United States, and avoiding actions that inadvertently expose us to greater threats. The administration’s performance should be judged with those criteria in mind.

Nor should one forget that when Obama took office, the United States had roughly 150,000 troops in Iraq — an unsustainable allocation of human and material resources that was harming our global security posture. Iran also was steadily advancing its nuclear program, presenting the threat of a dangerous military confrontation. In these two important respects, the choices the president made have ensured that — from the perspective of U.S. interests — the region is more manageable than it was or could have been.

Second, and most importantly, though the United States clearly has a central role and responsibility in the region, we shouldn’t exaggerate the extent to which it can shape the region’s destiny. External powers have long sought to influence the Middle East, for better and (all too often) for worse. But, ultimately, local politics and regional dynamics have the final say.

So, yes, history teaches that when we set our minds to clear, concrete goals that serve our national interests and are sufficiently in tune with local realities — promoting peace between Israel and Egypt, ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, reaching a deal with Iran that will prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon — we can accomplish significant diplomatic and military achievements.

But it also teaches us important lessons about the limits of power, particularly when it comes to determining the trajectory or fate of Middle Eastern nations and societies. You’ve written about this in terms of small tribes frustrating great powers because they know the terrain better, because they are not a transient presence but an enduring one, and because they often care more and are prepared to sacrifice more.

Let’s not forget that one of the principal drivers of the Arab uprisings was the popular aspiration for self-governance, dignity, and authenticity. It’s hard to see how foreign intervention, however well-intentioned, could be a welcome response to that. Any military or diplomatic endeavor must be rooted in the realities on the ground, or at best it will be fleeting; at worse it will provoke a backlash. There is enough precedent of ill-fated Western interventions in the Middle East over the past hundred years to fill volumes.

ADM: So I guess that’s a pretty good transition to the next question. What can the United States do to effectively protect its interests?

RM: We need to begin with a broad picture of the region today.

For the past five years, the Middle East has been embroiled in manifold conflicts: a conflict that pits local populations — angered by rampant corruption and lack of representation, the unfair distribution of wealth and concentration of power in the hands of a few, a sense of robbed dignity — against their rulers; a conflict among various subnational groups, defined in ethnic, sectarian, geographic, or ideological terms; and a conflict mired in deep tension among regional powers, most prominently Saudi Arabia and Iran.

What has come with these conflicts is widespread chaos in several countries, the expansion of ungoverned territories, sectarian polarization, and regional proxy wars. These have fueled — and in turn have been fueled by — the rise of terrorist groups of which ISIL is the starkest example. And the regional qua sectarian qua ethnic conflicts lead many states to subordinate what ought to be a core priority — defeating terrorist groups — to the pursuit of other agendas.

That is the backdrop, the starting point. The corollary is that, amid such upheaval and uncertainty, the United States needs to be hardheaded and single-minded about identifying policy goals that serve our core interests without inadvertently drawing us into costly, open-ended conflicts that inevitably will have unforeseen consequences, distract us from our core objectives, and provoke a backlash among local actors making matters worse.

And so, as we [the United States] work to prevent WMD proliferation and use, counter terrorist groups that threaten us, and try to address conflicts, sectarian polarization, and poor governance in the region that, by destabilizing the region, heighten the threats to our security, we must constantly engage in a balancing act.

To prevent WMD proliferation and use, Obama focused on ensuring that Iran would not be in a position to develop a nuclear weapon and ridding Syria of its vast chemical weapons arsenal. Both of these things were achieved through tough multilateral diplomacy and with the realization that force might be necessary, yet neither involved the United States getting bogged down in military adventures that might have made matters worse.

ADM: Sure. But didn’t the Iran deal also strain relations with our traditional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as give rise to the view that Washington wasn’t challenging Tehran in the region out of concern of upsetting the Iranians on the nuclear issue?

RM: It’s a fair point — by challenging conventional wisdom on how to deal with Iran, we inevitably provoked anxiety and questions among some of our partners. And we should not trivialize Israeli or Saudi fears. But we also should take into account the alternative scenario: an Iran that could have been on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon. It’s difficult to see how Israel, the Gulf, or we would have been more secure under those circumstances.

Another challenge is finding a way to address the underlying sources that create the threats we face. This gets to the issue of tackling the environment in which terrorist organizations thrive: wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; ungoverned territories; militarization; sectarianism; the Saudi/Iranian proxy war; poor and unrepresentative governance; lack of accountability; and human rights violations. As I said earlier, there is only so much the United States can do in that respect. But it is why we’ve invested in peace processes in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; why we are trying to create the necessary conditions for a resumption of meaningful, credible Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; and why we are striving to de-escalate tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors.

ADM: All of that’s fine. But one of the main critiques against this administration is that it’s been too risk-averse, particularly with regard to military force. Some argue that the key to restoring America’s influence is a more willful application of force.

RM: Right. And it brings us back to your argument about small tribes thwarting great powers and my comment about the necessity of being modest about what we can and cannot do. The debate about the use of military force has been clouded by myth after myth, the first being that the Obama administration has been shy about resorting to it. This administration has not hesitated to take targeted strikes against terrorist groups, whenever and wherever the president believes that our core national security interests are at stake. But there’s a whole slew of other myths: that U.S. power is measured by the frequency and intensity of its military action; that military victory invariably translates into lasting political success; [and] that once we have intervened, we can freely decide when and how we withdraw. One need not go too far back in history — Iraq comes to mind — to see what was wrong or misguided about these assumptions.

More broadly, there’s this false belief among some that U.S. influence on local decision-making directly correlates with the scale of our military presence. It’s a belief that somehow survives decades of contrary experience in country after country. Sometimes, the correlation works precisely in the opposite direction: U.S. military investment distorts the relationship and makes the intervening party more dependent on the party it purportedly is helping. Indeed, political failings on the part of the latter prompt deeper military intervention on the part of the former in order to salvage the investment it already has made.

And that’s one reason why it was so important for the president to extricate the United States from its heavy combat presence in Iraq — a presence that was enormously costly in terms of human and material resources, that was not yielding the desired political results, that was inhibiting the pursuit of other regional and international priorities, and that was warping our relationships with Iraqi leaders in ways that hardly benefited vital U.S. interest.

By the way, if [it’s] not careful, that’s a lesson Russia might soon be learning in Syria.

ADM: Syria is precisely where the criticism has been most pointed, where detractors charge that the United States should have intervened militarily. What do you say to them? And what would you say to those who charge you are blindly trusting the Russians now?

RM: I’d posit from the outset, first, that nobody can be satisfied with the situation in Syria and, second, that nobody — and certainly not I — can say with any level of confidence what could or should have been done to prevent this tragedy.

The truth is we can’t be sure whether doing more militarily in Syria would have led to a better or worse outcome and whether it would have helped or obstructed the fight against terrorism. What I can do is lay out the administration’s thinking, what the goals are, and how we hope to achieve them.

Our primary objectives at this point are to bring down the levels of violence between the regime and the opposition and, in particular, against civilians; defeat ISIL and al-Nusra [al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria]; and advance a real political transition away from [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad. They are closely intertwined: As long as the regime/opposition violence persists, as long as the regime continues its indiscriminate strikes against civilians, it will be extremely difficult to mobilize the necessary local capability or focus on the fight against terrorists. Likewise, without a credible political process that moves toward a more inclusive, representative government, it will be extremely difficult to sustain any reduction in violence or weaken the appeal of jihadist groups. Our diplomatic efforts with Russia have been aimed at achieving these objectives.

ADM: So you’re banking on the Russians?

RM: No, not banking on them. Testing them and testing through tough, hard-nosed diplomacy whether we can advance toward a settlement of the conflict that meets some basic requirements: ending the violence against the Syrian people, achieving a transition that preserves state institutions and avoids chaos, [and] defeating terrorist groups.

As you know, [the administration] reached an understanding with Russia in February on a cessation of hostilities. And, for a while, that agreement substantially brought down levels of violence in many parts of the country and led to a significant increase in the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syrians in need. But it has since frayed to the point that, though parts of the country are far calmer than prior to the cessation, and there is greater humanitarian access than before, in many areas — Aleppo, Latakia, the Damascus countryside — the situation essentially has reverted to what it was. There are two main reasons for that: First, the regime continues its efforts to acquire more territory and shore up its position by violating the cessation — using its air force and dropping barrel bombs, often with Russian support. Second, al-Nusra also continues to undermine the cessation through its own actions, at times in conjunction with opposition groups.

And that’s the essence of the understanding we’ve been discussing with the Russians: re-establishing the cessation, but on a firmer and more credible basis, with clear restrictions on the use of air power; intensifying efforts against both ISIL and al-Nusra; and putting together a political process based on ideas that we anticipate hearing from the U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura.

The Russians have said they don’t oppose a political transition [in Syria] but want to avoid a situation in which state institutions collapse, the country breaks apart, or jihadists take over. They also assert they want the cessation to be respected but don’t want Nusra to take advantage of it. We agree on both points. So if they mean what they say, there is a chance that we might find a better way forward by simultaneously promoting all of our objectives. Put differently, what we are trying to achieve with Russia is straightforward and entirely in our interest: to put an end to Syrian airstrikes against civilians and the opposition, to intensify the fight against ISIL and al-Nusra, and to advance toward a managed political transition. If working with Russia can do that, why not?

Of course, there is more than ample reason to be skeptical. Russia was either unwilling or unable to get the regime to fully comply with the cessation, which is reason for skepticism number one. But let’s be clear: If Russia does not mean what [it says], or if [it] cannot get the regime to do what it must, we will not have sacrificed anything. Support for the opposition will go on, and the regime will not prevail. That is far from an ideal outcome for us or for the Syrian people, because the war will persist. But it is not an ideal outcome for Russia either, which could be sucked into an expanding war, with no shortage of weapons or support for the opposition, and virtually no prospect of it ending soon. The longer the war lasts, the more Russia will be invested and the harder it will be for it to get out. Again, that’s a lesson we ourselves learned the hard way.

We also should measure this option, imperfect as it is, against any of the available alternatives. And, in this respect, we should at least question the notion that we would better advance our core objectives or alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people through direct military intervention, thereby entering into an escalatory dynamic with a regime backed by Russia and Iran and getting more directly involved in a regional proxy war. As for the notion of providing the opposition with far greater quantitative and qualitative support, history also offers sobering warning. Of course, Syria and the world would be infinitely better off without Assad. But it does not follow that it would be infinitely better off with some of the more radical jihadist groups extending their reach and control. It takes only a cursory knowledge of the region’s history, of the ability of more extreme, violent groups — not necessarily more popular but more ruthless — to gain the upper hand the longer civil wars go on, to appreciate the risks that are involved.

ADM: The question of Syria also raises the question of the administration’s rhetoric. Is it fair to argue that the administration too often allowed its words (Assad must go, Syrian “red line,” comprehensive settlement freeze) to outstrip its capacity to achieve those goals?

RM: It is a fair question and far from me to claim that we have always achieved the correct balance between words and deeds. I am a firm believer in the virtues of silence, judiciously deployed. But is the suggestion seriously that if we harbor aspirations we cannot achieve in the foreseeable future, we should not voice them and that if we voice them, we should always act upon them? That because we can’t stop human rights abuses, we shouldn’t speak out against them? Because we are not willing to go to war to topple a dictator, we shouldn’t support popular calls for his ouster?

A word about the “red line.” Step aside for a moment from the political back and forth about whether or not it should have been drawn and focus on the outcome: The Syrian regime declared and removed its chemical weapons stock, making it less dangerous to its people, to the region, and to us. Just ask Israeli security officials how they feel about it; they’ll be the first to acknowledge that this achievement exceeded their most optimistic expectations. And just imagine what Syria would look like today if ISIL or al Qaeda in Syria could get a hold of the regime’s former vast chemical weapons stockpile. The truth is that no military strike could have produced the result the administration achieved. The bottom line is the United States fulfilled the stated purpose of the red line and did so without initiating military action with neither a clear endpoint nor clear international legal basis.

ADM: There’s another critique of the administration, which is that it has not been loyal enough to its traditional allies.

RM: It’s another critique that rests on dubious assumptions. The administration has provided strong — in some respects unprecedented — security assistance to partners and allies, making clear we would protect them against the threat of foreign attack. That’s true in the case of Israel and of the Gulf. But support doesn’t mean a blank check or blind acquiescence in actions we believe are contrary to our interests and could have negative consequences.

The support the administration has extended to our Gulf allies through the Camp David process is designed to both bolster their confidence and check Iran’s destabilizing activities; it is not intended to enable an open-ended conflict with Tehran, let alone have the United States dragged into a Sunni-Shia or Arab-Persian confrontation, whose only beneficiary would be radical, sectarian, violent groups. And the powerful support the administration has extended to Israel does not extend to policies that are making a two-state solution increasingly difficult to contemplate. When some bemoan a so-called lack of U.S. leadership in the Middle East, it seems, what they often are lamenting is that the United States is not automatically siding with every policy pursued by our partners. So we’ll defend Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries if and when their territorial integrity is under threat, and we’ll defend Israel. But that does not mean we should refrain from expressing our concerns about the war in Yemen and how it’s been waged; Bahraini actions against its Shia population; or Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that is incompatible with our interest in a two-state solution, as well as with basic Palestinian aspirations.

ADM: Governing is about choosing. With six months left in Obama’s term, how would you prioritize the administration’s Middle East goals?

RM: The first priority, as I mentioned, is to protect the United States and our citizens from terrorist attacks. Our second, related goal is to ensure that ISIL is on the path to lasting defeat — the word “lasting” being just as important as “defeat.” That entails maintaining momentum on the ground, working with the Iraqi government and with local forces, as the campaign moves to Mosul and, in Syria, toward ISIL’s stronghold in Raqqa and in other countries — most notably Libya — where ISIL has sought to extend its reach. But doing it smartly, with an eye to avoiding a situation in which ISIL or a successor simply will emerge from its ashes. Third, we need to protect the Iran deal, which means being absolutely vigilant in terms of Iran’s compliance with its commitments and absolutely fair in terms of our compliance with our own. Finally, we will pursue the efforts I described to advance political settlements, notably in Syria, but also in Yemen and Libya.

I didn’t mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the same breath, not because it is peripheral or because our efforts will cease. Rather, it is because — as Obama has made clear — we should not be peddling illusions about resolving the conflict within the next few months and we should not expend our energy trying to resume talks whose futility would only further erode the credibility of diplomacy, as well as our own. The parties have had enough of a process for the sake of a process. Our efforts need to be of a different but no less meaningful type. They are geared toward rethinking the means, the methodology we use to create the conditions under which the parties can engage in meaningful negotiations — negotiations in which both peoples truly believe — not the simulacrum of talks too often witnessed in the past.

ADM: So is that the legacy you want to leave for the next administration?

RM: Six months is a long time, and I don’t think we should be talking in terms of legacy, especially when there is still so much work to be done. But I think it is fair to say that at a minimum we want to establish a more solid foundation on which the next administration could build, if it so chose, in terms of keeping Americans safe, defeating terrorist groups, ensuring adherence to the nuclear deal with Iran (and, should Iran’s leaders opt for a different course, opening the door to a different bilateral relationship), and making progress toward the resolution of regional conflicts.

In a broader sense, I believe that the stage is being set for a more realistic, more honest, and ultimately healthier relationship with both our regional allies and our regional foes — withdrawing the bulk of our fighting force from Iraq; avoiding new, open-ended military entanglements; steering clear of the budding sectarian proxy war; defusing potentially catastrophic tensions over Iran’s nuclear program; leading multilateral diplomatic efforts; and, above all, remaining focused on promoting our core interests, loyal to our partners but also truthful to our values. That would not be such a bad place for us to end. And it wouldn’t be such a bad place for the next team to start.

Photo credit: KEVIN DIETSCH/Pool/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2