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Malley in Wonderland

How Obama’s ‘progressive’ foreign policy vision—to backpedal away from the Middle East, fast, while kicking our former allies in the region to the curb—became consensus in D.C.

Tony Badran
November 18, 2019
POOL/Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
From left, U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States Robert Malley, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman attend the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on June 30, 2015POOL/Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
POOL/Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
From left, U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States Robert Malley, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman attend the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on June 30, 2015POOL/Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on November 18, 2019. 
This article is part of The Iran Deal.
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Last month, Robert Malley, the former senior White House official who served as point man for President Barack Obama’s realignment strategy, published an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “The Unwanted Wars: Why the Middle East Is More Combustible Than Ever,” in which he laid out what he sees as the future of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. The piece came out in the aftermath of Iran’s attack on Saudi oil facilities, and not long after the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone—two highly aggressive events that went without any visible military response from the Trump administration. Yet the main conceit of Malley’s essay is a warning against “war with Iran.” The only alternative to “war with Iran” is presented as diplomatic engagement, the apex of which is Obama’s Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). By unwinding the deal that Obama struck with the Iranian mullahs, the piece contends, the Trump administration’s regional posture sets the U.S. on an inexorable course toward war—whether the U.S. itself takes any kind of military action or not.

“As long as its regional posture remains as it is,” Malley wrote, “the United States will be just one poorly-timed or dangerously-aimed Houthi drone strike, or one particularly effective Israeli operation against a Shiite militia, away from its next costly regional entanglement.”

What America should, and must, do when confronted with such a tinderbox is obvious: backpedal away, fast, while kicking our former allies in the region to the curb, hard. The sentence warning of the dangers of Houthi drone strikes and effective Israeli operations encapsulates an attitude perhaps best captured in former Vice President Joseph Biden’s famous line: “Our biggest problem was our allies.”

America’s allies are a problem, Malley, Biden, and other Obama administration policy kingpins–starting with Obama himself—have publicly stated, because of their capacity to involve the U.S. in a costly regional entanglement with Iran. In other words, America’s allies are actually our enemies. In particular, Saudi Arabia, with its reckless war in Yemen, and Israel, with its aggression against Iranian assets in Syria, Iraq, and throughout the region, represent the “war” side of the equation—while Iran, the enemy of our allies, represents “peace.” The U.S. has a set of choices for how to engage the region: “diplomatically or militarily, by exacerbating divides or mitigating them, and by aligning itself fully with one side or seeking to achieve a sort of balance.”

In other words, if our allies are strong, then America should seek to weaken them until “balance” is achieved, which will help bring about more “peace.” If Iran were stronger, and Israel and Saudi Arabia were weaker, then peace would therefore be more likely. American policy, in the present moment at least, should therefore be to strengthen Iran at the expense of Israel and the Saudis.

Indeed, this odd syllogism, which anchors the essay, is hardly Malley’s own; it simply reiterates Obama’s core vision for the region. The goal of achieving “balance” in America’s posture in the Middle East is how Obama presented his strategy of realigning American interests with Iran. For Obama, it was not in America’s interest to lead a regional alliance system which stands in opposition to Iran, and which therefore threatens to move the U.S. closer to war. Rebalancing away from traditional allies means moving closer to Iran, and away from the security architecture in which America had formerly been invested.

To say no better road map than Malley’s article exists for where America has been in the Middle East over the past decade and where we are going is not to endorse either the author’s highly politicized version of recent history or his policy preferences—which have so far proven disastrous. Rather, it is to acknowledge the degree to which Barack Obama successfully shaped a new American foreign policy consensus after both parties rejected principal elements of George W. Bush’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the senior on-the-ground implementer of Obama’s Mideast policy toward Iran, Syria, Yemen, and other places, Malley’s influence goes far beyond the International Crisis Group, the NGO which he leads. His colleagues and disciples from Obama’s national security team are now sprinkled throughout the roster of Democratic candidates from Buttigieg to Warren, making Malley a likely national security adviser or at least a deputy secretary of state in any future Democratic administration (Malley is said to “offer foreign policy advice” to Bernie Sanders, a role that may be more a matter of buffing up progressive bona fides than a sign of which candidate he personally favors). As an architect of the Obama administration’s highly deliberate and disciplined Middle East policy, and as a representative of the new Democratic Party foreign policy elite, Malley’s thoughts are worth studying carefully.

And not only that: What is perhaps more surprising, and more significant, about Malley’s essay is the extent to which it serves as a blueprint for understanding the larger foreign policy consensus in Washington—one that is embraced by both Democrats and Republicans, whether wittingly or not.

Speaking of a foreign policy “consensus” in Washington may sound strange these days, given that the partisan divide in Washington has reached a level where people rightly ask whether an American consensus has become a thing of the past, whether on foreign policy or anything else. Yet a quick look at the foreign policy headlines from Washington shows a strong level of agreement among elites of both parties despite the high-decibel talk show noise.

A headline from The Hill, a center-right outlet, offers a snapshot of American foreign policy in 2019 that is at least somewhat revealing of the underlying agreement: “House approves Turkey sanctions in rare bipartisan rebuke of Trump.” While the headline proclaims this consensus to be “rare,” it is not—and nor is it held together simply by inter- and intraparty opposition to President Trump. Specifically, it is centered in the realignment, or “rebalancing,” that President Obama sought to achieve through the JCPOA.

Now consider these similar headlines from June: “In rare rebuke to Trump, Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales,” and “Trump faces bipartisan pushback over arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE.” A few months before that, we also learned how, “In a rare moment of bipartisanship, both the House and Senate passed a resolution (SR7) that called on the Trump administration to end all hostilities in Yemen.” In October, there was another rare “bipartisan rebuke” of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Obviously, these occasions of interparty agreement are not so “rare.” When it comes to the Middle East, consensus is closer to the rule than the exception—even if both parties see an advantage to masking their agreement, in part by framing it as a mutual disagreement with Trump, rather than an agreement with each other.

While it is no surprise that Malley’s foreign policy proscriptions are in line with the D.C. consensus that he helped to forge, it also bears repeating that the author of that consensus was not Malley, of course, but Barack Obama. In his Foreign Affairs piece, Malley simply restates in systematic fashion the principles that Obama repeatedly expressed during his presidency. “I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran,” Obama said in 2014, referring to Gulf Arab states. “What I’ve been saying to our partners in the region is, ‘We’ve got to respond and adapt to change.’”

In Obama’s view, the obsession with countering Iran rests on a faulty assessment of U.S. interests and priorities. In fact, it is our traditional allies who themselves are the reason for the continued U.S. military posture in the region. They “exploit American ‘muscle’ for their own narrow and sectarian ends,” Obama maintained. More importantly, according to Malley, the anti-Iran posture and the ensuing regional alignments it boxes us into are causing us to misread the actual strategic fault lines and drivers in the region.

In addition to the Iran-Israel and Iran-Saudi Arabia rifts, the “more momentous” of these regional drivers, Malley claims, is the divide “between competing Sunni blocs.” It is this competition between our Sunni allies, and not Iran, which “will largely define the region’s future.”

The implication is clear: Inter-Sunni rivalries are a—if not the—principal destabilizing factor in the region that makes aligning with the Sunni states in an anti-Iran front a fool’s errand. When there are so many regional rifts and rivalries, how can the U.S. organize the region with the U.S. camp on one side and Iran on the other?

Because the Iranian role throughout the region is so obvious and bloody, Malley can’t deny it directly. Instead, he uses the passive voice, open-ended questions, and lawyerly weasel words to open up as much space as possible in the reader’s mind for deniability and doubt, while refusing to answer the questions he raises—because the answers that would best suit his larger argument are simply false. “Iran almost certainly helps the Houthis and Iraqi Shiite militias, but does it control them? The People’s Protection Units, a movement of Kurdish fighters in Syria, are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, but do they follow its command?”

According to Malley, “local struggles” might attract Iranian support. He’s obscuring the fact that Iran has dedicated forces and resources to its regionwide expansionist program dating back to the first days of the Islamic Revolution. As such, Malley sagely opines, in Lebanon, “Hezbollah may be focused on power and politics.” Malley’s phrase rules out nothing, and is therefore entirely meaningless—but it presumably sounds better than “Hezbollah runs a sectarian army deployed in multiple theaters under Tehran’s command, with an arsenal of over 150,000 missiles pointed at Israel.”

Malley’s tactic of muddying the waters also extends to Iran itself. “Even in seemingly well-structured states, the locus of decision-making has become opaque. In Iran, the government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military force created in parallel to the regular military that answers directly to the country’s supreme leader, at times seem to go their separate ways. Whether this reflects a conscious division of labor or an actual tug of war is a matter of debate, as is the question of who exactly pulls the strings [emphasis mine].”

In reality, of course, the “questions” that Malley raises have answers that are, analytically, quite clear. The point is to obfuscate. And the objective of that is to muddle the concept of allies and adversaries, which in turn is necessary in order to proclaim that enemies are the new allies, and allies are the new enemies.

Malley’s treatment of Saudi Arabia in the essay is both revealing of the author’s rhetorical flimflam and of the degree to which his topsy-turvy logic is intended to justify what is in fact a bipartisan consensus. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has become an erratic risk taker, according to Malley. The list of the examples supposedly proving Saudi Arabia’s volatile nature is by now familiar: the war in Yemen, the dispute with Qatar, the killing of the Washington Post columnist (and longtime Saudi operative) Jamal Khashoggi, and the supposed “kidnapping” of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri.

Malley played a direct role in fashioning the D.C. consensus. As Tablet explained at the time, Malley had been “arguing for months that the United States should cut support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.” Other Obama alumni would follow Malley’s lead, and the result was the “rare” bipartisan push in Congress to defund any U.S. support for the Saudi war effort.

So why, in Malley’s view, are traditional allies like the Saudis and the Israelis behaving more aggressively now? It can’t be because President Obama tilted against them, in order to “rebalance” America’s position in the region, or because Iran became stronger, as a result of America’s actions. Rather, it is because President Trump has tilted back in their direction. “The president made it a priority to repair relations” with these allies, Malley explains, “which had frayed under his predecessor.”

According to Malley, the former president’s “ultimate goal was to help the region find a more stable balance of power.” To achieve that, “much to the Saudis’ consternation,” Malley continues, Obama “spoke of Tehran and Riyadh needing to find a way to ‘share’ the region.” But since America’s old-new allies are concerned Trump might be a one-term president, Malley suggests, they are trying to grab what they can—therefore driving an already-combustible region to the edge of a regionwide war that will suck in the U.S. His message to these allies is clear: A future Democratic administration will snap back to Obama’s posture—realignment with Iran. So stop grabbing.

Presumably, Malley believes that threats of retribution from a future Democratic administration will, in the minds of America’s traditional allies, outweigh his open admission—or is it boasting?—that their fears are real.

The Obama Realignment Doctrine (ORD) was premised on recognizing what the former president described as Iran’s “equities” in the region, everywhere from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. It is this principle which animated Malley’s and Team Obama’s push on Yemen, which Republicans helped turn into another point of bipartisan consensus. It is no coincidence that the two cases Malley spends time on in his essay are Syria and Yemen. He reviews with almost palpable resentment how Obama had to offer some measure of grudging support to the Saudis in Yemen, since he was in the middle of talks with Iran, even when such support meant the U.S. “would be against Iran.” Recognizing this, Malley clarifies, “as in Syria, the Obama administration looked to limit U.S. aims.” The reference to Syria is self-explanatory. Everything Obama did—and didn’t do—in Syria, was to avoid being “against Iran.”

The problem, according to Malley, is that Obama wasn’t revolutionary enough in upending America’s alliances. Malley relays how Obama told some of his White House aides that “conducting U.S. policy was akin to steering a large vessel: A course correction of a few degrees might not seem like much in the moment, but over time, the destination would differ drastically.” Malley finds this supposed moderation regrettable. Obama was, as Malley describes him, “a gradualist.”

Obama didn’t put a hard enough squeeze on Riyadh, and by implication other allies, to “open channels with Tehran.” As a result, Obama’s policy was “an experiment that got suspended halfway through.” His legacy “was premised on his being succeeded by someone like him, maybe a Hillary Clinton, but certainly not a Donald Trump.” And this is a principal function of Malley’s essay: to serve as the systematization of the Obama creed for the next crop of Democratic policymakers, and give them a nice, big historically worthy target to aim at, which also happens to be the opposite of whatever Trump is doing.

Instead of striving for some kind of balance, Trump has tilted entirely to one side: doubling down on support for Israel; wholly aligning himself with MBS, Sisi, and other leaders who felt spurned by Obama; withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and zealously joining up with the region’s anti-Iranian axis. Indeed, seeking to weaken Iran, Washington has chosen to confront it on all fronts across much of the region: in the nuclear and economic realms; in Syria, where U.S. officials have explicitly tied the continued U.S. presence to countering Iran; in Iraq, where the United States wants a fragile government that is now dependent on close ties to Tehran to cut those ties; in Yemen, where the administration, flouting Congress’ will, has increased support for the Saudi-led coalition; and in Lebanon, where it has added to sanctions on Hezbollah.

The Obama creed is therefore the opposite of everything Trump: not aligning with Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states. Not doubling down on supporting Israel. Not looking to weaken Iran regionally. Not confronting it in the nuclear and economic realms. Not leaving—but rather, rejoining—the JCPOA. Not repositioning in Syria. Not pressuring the Iraqis, meaning the current, widely hated, Iranian-supported order in Iraq—and, by implication, not giving Israel a green light to target Iranian assets in Syria and Iraq. Not escalating sanctions on Hezbollah in Lebanon. And so on.

In other words, not “tilting entirely to one side” is a euphemism for downgrading and constraining allies in order to boost Iran, so that it can “balance” its side of the Middle East seesaw. In defense of Iranian interests, it is impossible for America to be too careful. “Even finely tuned action can have unintentional, outsize repercussions given the regional dynamics,” Malley explains. For instance, a “Houthi missile that kills too many Saudis or an American, and a reply that, this time, aims at the assumed Iranian source.” Or an “Israeli strike in Iraq or Syria that crosses an unclear Iranian redline.” In all such cases, allies must be made to stand down, because the U.S. distancing itself from them is a prerequisite for stability. Instead, the U.S. should usher the traditional allies, kicking and screaming, to the table with Iran in a new regional security framework, in which America leans in to the Iranian side of the table.

In presenting this fantasy, which evidently can be achieved only with unceasing American attention and support for Iran and its interests, Malley deliberately uses language aimed also at a Republican audience that is tired of seemingly unending military engagements in the Middle East. Malley’s problem here is Trump’s rhetoric, which is often portrayed as “isolationist,” and which clearly set the president apart from the Bush administration neocons he has publicly deplored.

The argument Malley must make to preserve the Obama Realignment Doctrine is therefore not quite so simple as “Trump is bad.” Rather, it is something like “while stepping away from America’s former allies is good, stepping away from Iran is bad.” Trump’s policies, Malley therefore writes, have “a contradiction at the heart” of them: “they make likelier the very military confrontation he is determined to avoid.” With this language, Malley is slipping realignment in as a rider, by mirroring Republican frustration or weariness with U.S. Middle East policy within the framework of the ORD.

Yet as recent bipartisan congressional legislation targeting Saudi Arabia and Turkey demonstrate, Malley’s consensus argument to Republican elites is not as difficult as one might imagine. You don’t need everyone to adhere to every article of the ORD, so long as they are operating, consciously or not, within its framework. It is a coherent structure, with beams and pillars locked in an angle, supporting the edifice. Reinforcing two or three of those pillars buttresses the overall structure all the same.

Yes, case by case, there are those on the right who obdurately resist distancing from Israel, say—or refuse to be reassured about ongoing Iranian nuclear “research” inside the Fordow bunker. But there are enough shared elements of consensus, from the counterterrorism campaigns to anger at Turkey and distrust of Saudi Arabia to create a bipartisan consensus for the larger regional architecture envisioned and half-implemented by Obama and Malley, which encompasses each of these seemingly separate campaigns. To say that one is “for” downgrading relations with and support for Saudi Arabia and other traditional U.S. allies, while being “against” Iran, however sincerely one might hold both those positions, is therefore to strengthen the Alice in Wonderland logic that the Obama framework is engineered to promote.

Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.