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

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.

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