Wednesday, February 26, 2014

America’s new envoy to the region must manage anxieties

The appointment of Robert Malley to the US National Security Council as senior director in charge of relations with the Gulf states and Iran has led to speculation over what this will mean for the Obama administration’s policy in this region. Mr Malley was director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the International Crisis Group, and he advised the Clinton administration on the Middle East peace process.

His extensive ties among Arabs and Israelis have suggested to some observers that the Obama administration will soon devote greater energy to a region from which it has substantially disengaged in recent years.

That doesn’t seem very probable. Mr Malley (with whom I’ve worked on ICG projects in the past) is a classic process man, someone able to manage an ongoing diplomatic relationship with intelligence and imagination, but who is unlikely to effect a major reversal in the White House’s refusal to be drawn firmly back into regional politics.

Mr Malley’s principal brief will be to manage the relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran. He replaces Puneet Talwar, who developed contacts with Iranian officials in the period leading up to the interim Geneva accord on Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr Malley, however, has been more involved in the affairs of the Levant and North Africa, and his background could hold both advantages and disadvantages for him.

Mr Malley is hardly conventional. He is the son of Simon Malley, a prominent journalist born in Cairo from a Syrian-Jewish background, known as a staunch supporter of Third World struggles. Mr Malley speaks impeccable French, and critics have focused on his father’s ideological leanings to condemn the son, accusing him, among other things, of supporting the Palestinian cause.

It was Mr Malley’s contacts with Hamas while at the ICG that derailed his chances of getting a position in Barack Obama’s first administration. According to individuals who spoke to Mr Malley recently, perhaps given the controversies of the past he was not persuaded that he would get the nod the second time.

Mr Malley angered supporters of Israel after he wrote an article in The New York Review of Books in 2001, with Hussein Agha, offering an alternative interpretation of the breakdown in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at the Camp David summit of July 2000.

Against a prevailing view that Yasser Arafat had rejected a favourable Israeli proposal, the authors wrote that this version failed “to capture why what so many viewed as a generous Israeli offer, the Palestinians viewed as neither generous, nor Israeli, nor, indeed, as an offer.” While this challenge to the mainstream narrative of the Camp David talks will do Mr Malley no harm with the Gulf states and Iran, one aspect of his ICG work could increase Saudi uneasiness. A recurrent objective of his was to try to establish common principles for reviving the Syrian-Israeli negotiating track, an effort that necessitated restoring the Assad regime’s credibility in Washington.

The ICG went so far as to open an office in Damascus in 2007, which required the approval of the Syrian regime. This came at a moment when the Syrians were actively engaged in destabilising Lebanon, were backing Hamas in its power struggle against the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and were funnelling jihadists into Iraq to carry out attacks against American forces and Shia targets.

Mr Malley’s efforts to portray Syria as a potentially reliable partner for peace, when it was inciting conflict throughout its neighbourhood, understandably angered many people. He would perhaps have replied that, as the ICG does conflict resolution, engaging Syria would have made it less prone to undermining other countries.

But given the hostility to Syria today in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia, a similar response would provoke derision. Mr Malley’s Arab interlocutors will want to make sure the Obama administration does not initiate a diplomatic process that effectively strengthens their foes in Damascus, and more particularly in Tehran.

To the Saudis, American engagement of Iran in recent months has posed an existential threat, exacerbated by the success of the Syrian regime in recapturing territory at home. Mr Malley will have to simultaneously reassure the Saudis and advance in negotiations with Iran, all at a time when the Syrian conflict is profoundly dividing the two countries, and as President Bashar Al Assad’s regime is failing to implement an agreement to destroy its chemical weapons.

Mr Malley’s reputation as a process man in an administration in which foreign policy is controlled tightly by the president and his political advisers should make us realistic about what he can achieve. He will have little clout to alter Mr Obama’s behaviour. This is doubly true on Syria, when no one has even been named to replace a retiring Ambassador Robert Ford to coordinate with the Syrian opposition.

In other words, the Obama administration’s Gulf Arab interlocutors are searching for greater coherence and commitment in American behaviour towards the region, but are seeing few real signs of this. It will be Mr Malley’s job to manage their anxieties, even as one of the main items on his agenda, and which will define his success, namely progress with Iran, can only worry the Gulf Arabs even more.

The Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy has been so shaky that the naming of a regional expert has overly raised expectations. As a process man, Mr Malley’s leverage will be lacking, even as he walks a tightrope between Iran and the Arabs. His may be a thankless task.

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