The White House announced yesterday that Robert Malley, whose last job in government was working on the Arab-Israeli peace process in the Clinton Administration, is joining President Obama’s National Security Council staff.
In a sign of Washington’s changing strategic priorities, Malley will be tasked not with helping Secretary of State John Kerry with his peace initiative, but rather with focusing on Persian Gulf affairs, managing the Saudi portfolio as well as the Iranian one. Obama is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia next month, where he will meet with a very angry King Abdullah, who believes the White House has crossed Saudi Arabia on virtually every major regional policy issue to have come up in the past five years—in Egypt, where Abdullah believes the Administration hasn’t been sufficiently supportive of the Saudis’ man, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; in Bahrain, where the White House has been too critical of the Saudi-aligned royal family’s repression of the country’s Shiite majority; and in Syria, where for nearly three years now Obama has refrained from direct involvement while Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, crushes the Sunni majority in an increasingly brutal civil war. That’s not even counting the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, on which, in the Saudi reading, Obama has failed to bring the revolutionary regime in Tehran to heel.
Of course, that isn’t how the White House sees it. Even though Saudi Arabia is a longtime U.S. ally, Obama isn’t going to carry Riyadh’s water, because he doesn’t want to get in the middle of a sectarian conflict. As he told David Remnick in a recent New Yorker profile, his goal is to create equilibrium “between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
Enter Malley. His critics have accused him of being an apologist for Arafat, thanks to his narrative of the Clinton administration’s failed peace process. In 2008, reports surfaced that, as program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, Malley met with members of Hamas, prompting him to cut ties with the Obama campaign, which he was at that point unofficially advising. But when I spoke to him for an April 2010 Tablet profile, Malley was unapologetic. “I work for a think tank,” he told me, “whose mandate is to come up with ideas about how to prevent or resolve deadly conflict.”
From that perspective, the objective of the United States as a regional mediator is to bring in all the stakeholders—because anyone who is excluded is definitionally in position to cause havoc. As Malley told me, “If you are going to have a historic agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis, it’s difficult to do so with a counterpart that can’t speak with one voice.” With the peace process, that meant bringing in Hamas alongside Fatah. What it means now is engaging Iran, not only on its nuclear program, but on a whole range of issues connected to the growing Sunni-Shiite conflict, which now reaches from the Iraqi desert to the shores of Lebanon.
In other words, the same approach Obama outlined to Remnick. To get to that geopolitical equilibrium where Sunnis and Shiites are not killing each other, you have to get the relevant “stakeholders” at the table—Iran as well as Saudi Arabia. In this emerging Obama Doctrine, handling the Persian Gulf file doesn’t mean holding King Abdullah’s hand and telling him that Washington is still his friend. It means seeing the region in terms of large forces, allies and adversaries, that need to be balanced against each other. It means dealing with unsavory actors in order to resolve conflict.
Since I wrote that 2010 profile, I’ve come to know Robert Malley and respect him tremendously. He’s one of the people with whom I most enjoy speaking about the Middle East—even though we often disagree. I wish him the best of luck in his new job and look forward to hearing him describe some day America’s Middle East policy in the age of Obama, its failures and, I hope, successes.
Related: The Honest Broker