Robert Malley on the ‘Lack of Change Propelling Change’ in the Middle East
The Middle East is “a place that is both remarkably impervious to change…and at the same time always sort of on the verge of an explosion, where you always think that something quite catastrophic could happen,” says Robert Malley, president and CEO of International Crisis Group and a former special adviser on the region to former President Barack Obama.
This volatility grows out of the tension between popular demands for greater responsiveness and accountability from governments, especially since the 2011 uprisings, and the “sclerotic nature…of the Middle East system,” Malley explains. “On the one hand, it’s the stagnation that leads to desire for change. But the stagnation is because there have been inbuilt mechanisms to keep the status quo alive, and to keep it sustainable and to react whenever there is a challenge to it.”
Malley served in the Obama administration as both senior adviser for the campaign to defeat the Islamic State and as the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region. He was also a special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs and director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
Despite its political stagnation, the Middle East has undergone dramatic changes on a geopolitical level, in part driven by Iran’s expanding influence since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But these shifts are also due to the fact that, in addition to being “exceptionally polarized” by numerous strategic rivalries, the Middle East, according to Malley, is “one of the most politically homogenous regions in the world, in which what happens in one place has an immediate impact on everywhere else, because these lines of divide crisscross through the region as a whole.”
That makes it “hard to resolve any single conflict in the Middle East, because all of the conflicts get intertwined with it,” he says, and “what happens in other countries has a direct bearing on their own security.
The resulting rush for strategic advantage has led to the emergence of new and newly dynamic actors, from both within and outside the region, even as successive U.S. presidential administrations have sought to downsize America’s commitment of time and resources to the Middle East, without success.
Malley calls the U.S. track record of regime change in the Middle East “a litany of failed enterprises” and called for “self-reflection…about those consecutive failures.”
Each of the past four U.S. presidential administrations “has failed in its own way, but the common thread is that U.S. attempts from afar to reshape or remold a region that has its own dynamics, its own innate characteristics that are not going to be simply molded by a foreign entity—I think that’s a lesson, not that the U.S. should wash its hands of the region, but that it’s going to need to handle it very differently.”
The following is the full transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
World Politics Review: Rob, thanks so much for joining us on Trend Lines.
Robert Malley: Thanks for having me.
WPR: One of the things that strikes me most about the Middle East, when you look back at the past 20 years, is this tension between change and stasis. You have a region that’s undergone dramatic change in that time. In some ways, it’s hardly recognizable on a geopolitical level. And at the same time, whether in 2011 or more recently last year before the coronavirus pandemic seemed to shut things down a bit, you’ve had these popular movements for change that don’t seem to be able to get governments to reform or provide better governance or liberalization. So, what would you identify as the forces and factors that are driving change, both internal and external, in the region? And what are some of the forces and factors that are opposing that change?
Malley: I’d say it’s the lack of change that is propelling change. That’s a little bit of an oversimplification. But to a large extent, what has propelled the changes that we’ve seen or that have been attempted over the last decade—really since 2011, in particular, with the uprisings—has been frustration with the lack of change, with the status quo, with the sclerotic nature of not just the internal Arab system, the Middle East system, but with the structure of the Middle East as a whole. And that’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s the stagnation that leads to desire for change. But the stagnation is because there have been inbuilt mechanisms to keep the status quo alive, and to keep it sustainable and to react whenever there is a challenge to it.
We saw a major challenge to it in 2011. As you say, at the end of the day, with a few exceptions, it’s back to a large extent to where it was, and to some degree with more repression and more attempts to suppress those who are fighting for change. So, I think there has been a desire and aspiration for change. There are also structures in place that are resisting it.
To a large extent, what has propelled the changes that we’ve seen or that have been attempted over the last decade has been frustration with the lack of change.
And beyond that, if you compare the Middle East to most other regions of the world, why the Middle East stands out as this example of a place that is both remarkably impervious to change—compared to the democratic waves that have hit Europe, that have hit Latin America, that have hit Africa—and at the same time is always sort of on the verge of an explosion—where you always think that something quite catastrophic could happen—is because the Middle East is this combination of being extraordinarily, exceptionally polarized. You have these lines of division, which I’m sure we’re going to get into, between Israel and its antagonists; between Saudi Arabia, its allies on the one hand, Iran and its allies on the other; between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the anti-Islamist forces, and Turkey, Qatar and the pro-Islamist forces. You have these divides that make this region extremely polarized. But it’s also one of the most politically homogenous regions in the world, in which what happens in one place has an immediate impact on everywhere else, because these lines of divide crisscross through the region as a whole.
Just to give one example, if you look at what’s happening in Syria, it not only involves the fight between Israel and Iran, it not only involves the fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it also involves the fight between Turkey and its competitors. So, if you try to change what’s happening in Syria, you immediately bring into the equation all these other interests, all these other states that are going to fight to protect the status quo or to change it, which ends up being a recipe for keeping things as they are, but always with the risk that they’re going to change in a very violent way.
WPR: And how do you see the balance of power between that pent-up demand and desire for change, and all of these factors that you just mentioned that are leaning so forcefully against it, trying keep that cork in the bottle. How do you see the balance of power between them moving forward? Right before the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, whether it was Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, even Iraq, there seemed to be another wave of protest movements. Do you see it being again another cycle of “always almost,” but never actually accomplishing change?
Malley: Well, I should have started by saying, myself and so many of my colleagues first have to start with a pretty heavy dose of humility. I’m not sure how many had seen the uprisings of 2011 coming. I think many people had given into the notion that this was a region that was simply never going to change because it had become so ossified, and because the structures of power had developed mechanisms of defense against those who would contest it. And so, to say now that we know what the balance is, and when the next explosion will come, and whether it will be successful... Again, we just have to be quite modest.
It has been striking how, so quickly after that wave of 2011, which ended in bloodshed—with the exception of Tunisia, every other case ended up either in violence or in civil war or in doubled-down repression, whether we’re talking about Egypt or Yemen or Libya or Syria. So, to think that so soon thereafter you’d have another wave, despite the warning signs of how the first one ended, I think that tells you something about how frustrated people are with governments that they view as either corrupt or alien, unrepresentative, dysfunctional and unable to take care of their basic needs.
The Middle East stands out as this example of a place that is both remarkably impervious to change and at the same time is always sort of on the verge of an explosion.
But again, I will hesitate to make a prediction about where the balance of power will go. As you say, you look at Algeria, you look at Iraq, you look at Lebanon, Sudan—which is one case that is a little bit outside of what people traditionally consider the Middle East, but where the popular uprising did lead to the toppling of the long-ruling autocrat. But for the most part, I think we need to be careful about making predictions, because we so often are wrong.
But what is clear is that there is a divide, and a growing one, between elites that despite their divisions will hang together when they feel like the alternative is to lose power, and growing segments of the population that feel unrepresented by those that are self-dealing and doing their best to keep the benefits of power to themselves. And that’s an imbalance, that’s a factor of instability that is going to be there until it breaks. And again, I just would hesitate to make any prediction as to when that might happen.
WPR: Now, on a geopolitical level, and you referred to this in your answer to the first question, it does seem like the region has changed dramatically, obviously starting with the American invasion of Iraq, which unlocked an obstacle to the spread of Iran’s influence in the region. And a lot of the shifts that we’ve seen since then—or at least, the shift with regard to Israel and the Gulf Arab states, for instance, aligning and converging more and more—have to do with this fear of Iran’s growing influence in the region.
One of the things that always strikes me, however, about some of the more hawkish takes on Iran is that it always seems to be, on the one hand, on the verge of dominating the region. And then on the other, it’s very easily deterred by relatively low-cost measures by the U.S., and the regime is on the verge of collapse if we only raise the pressure on Iran just a little bit more. So where do you put the needle in terms of the actual threat or challenge that Iran poses, as well as the regime stability of the Islamic Republic?
Malley: I think you’re right to point to these internally inconsistent, contradictory but very self-serving narratives—that on the one hand Iran dominates the region, that it’s on the verge of taking over capital after capital, but on the other hand that it is capable of being toppled, overthrown with a little more pressure, a little more political determination. And both those things are hard to be true at the same time. But they are both serving the same narrative, which is, “Here’s a huge threat, but it’s one that we could easily take care of if we simply were to pressure it more.”
Obviously, the reality is not consistent with either of those views. I think if you take a look back at where Iran has been most influential, it’s rarely been as a result of its great strategic wisdom or its great strength. If you look at the defense budgets of Iran compared to the defense budgets of the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, it’s about 10-to-1 in favor of Saudi Arabia and its allies. If you look at the financial weight of Iran compared to that of its rivals, there’s no comparison. I think where Iran has done well is in exploiting the mistakes and the dysfunctionalities of others. And we could go through it almost case by case.
You mentioned Iraq. Iran would not have the influence it has in Iraq today had it not been for the ill-conceived, tragic decision by the Bush administration to invade and occupy Iraq. Iran would not have the influence it has in Lebanon today had it not been for Israel’s invasion back in the 1980s of Lebanon, which led to resentment toward Israel and the birth of Hezbollah, which has been the most successful Iranian investment since the revolution. Iran would not have the influence in Yemen that it has today had it not been for the war between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. And even in the case of Syria—and there, of course, responsibility is widely shared, and most of it must be put on the shoulders of the Bashar al-Assad regime—but if it hadn’t been for the fact that this regime has been embattled and that you’ve had an intervention by other countries to support the opposition, which led Assad to have to turn evermore desperately to Iran, Iran would not be as entrenched in Syria as it is today.
So, in case after case, you have to recognize that failed attempts to do things in the region have fallen in Iran’s lap. And Iran has the power of working in extra-institutional ways, in working with nonstate actors and arming them, and making sure that they have a preponderant role in whatever polities they happen to be. Whether it’s Hezbollah in Lebanon, or whether it’s some of the Shiite militias in Iraq. Again, in case after case, they manage to turn what would look like a weaker party into a party that becomes indispensable to any political solution and has outsized military power.
There is a divide between elites that despite their divisions will hang together when they feel like the alternative is to lose power, and growing segments of the population that feel unrepresented.
But it really is the case, as I said, of the mistakes of others that are exploited very cunningly, very adeptly by Iran. So it’s neither as if Iran on its own is capable of overturning the whole region and bringing it under its sway. It simply doesn’t have that capacity in any way, in either financial or military terms, nor in terms of the sectarian and ethnic divide of the region. But nor is it the case—and that comes to your other question—that all it will take is a little more pressure and Iran will either surrender or become the victim of another regime change. There’s no evidence of that. Iran has been under great pressure in the past, and there’s no evidence that the regime is about to collapse.
Again, I’m not foolhardy enough to make a prediction that it won’t at some point. Regimes like the Iranian regime have a lifespan. They don’t go on forever. But if and when it falls, in my view, it won’t be because the U.S. has turned the screws more on its economy. It will be because of the internal contradictions of a regime that is not viewed as representative and not viewed as able to respond to the needs of its people. But it’s not going to be because of some external intervention. And that’s another big theme that we should be discussing, which is the terrible track record of the U.S. and others in trying to engineer regime changes from abroad in the region.
WPR: That’s coming up [Laughter]. One of the things I wanted to get to before, though, is one of the major realignments that grows out of the standoff with Iran, which is the convergence of the strategic threat calculus and interests of the Gulf states and Israel. And we’ve seen that culminate most recently in the normalization deals that Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. For now, it seems like those deals are limited to a very thin layer at the top of the political and economic hierarchy in those countries. Do you see them evolving or developing into deeper connections that could integrate the region on a societal level? And what would it take for that to happen?
Malley: It’s true that the deal between the UAE and Israel, in particular, is different from the one that Egypt or Jordan had [with Israel] in that it opens the door to more of these societal, economic and technological exchanges between these nations. I don’t know how much I want to oversell it. These are not particularly populous countries. If you look at the UAE or Bahrain, it’s not as if they are countries that have massive populations that could weigh in one way or the other. Because I would suspect that in many Arab countries this is not a particularly popular move that the UAE and Bahrain have taken. But to take a step back, this has been long in coming. People have known for some time that there were under-the-table dealings between Gulf Arab countries and Israel because they had a similar threat perception, and in some ways a threat perception that was converging between them more than converging with the U.S.
Someone sitting in Abu Dhabi looking at the U.S. might say, “Well, under President George W. Bush, we were more or less aligned. They were hostile to Iran, but they also were saying things about the Muslim Brotherhood we were not particularly comfortable with. Then comes President Barack Obama, who makes a deal with Iran, which we’re not happy with, and also is open to conversation—and even more—with Islamists around the region. Then we have President Donald Trump who takes us in a different direction.” A country that has been much more consistent in terms of its opposition to the two foes that the UAE, in particular, has identified as the main ones—Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood—there, Israel has been very consistent and more aligned with the UAE and the Saudi view, at least of late, than the U.S. has been. So, I think that’s what is behind this. This is not a popular, societal aspiration for normalization with Israel. That’s not what this is about. It’s about a strategic calculus.
We have to recognize that those who believed that normalization would only happen after a deal between Israelis and Palestinians that was satisfactory to the Palestinians—that’s proven to be wrong. And ultimately, the strategic calculus of the UAE, Bahrain—maybe tomorrow Saudi Arabia, maybe others—has taken over and taken precedence over the Palestinian question, which today is so far down their list of priorities that they’re prepared to overlook it for the sake of those stronger strategic goals. That’s what this is about. It’s not about a popular sense of “Let’s normalize relations with Israel.” Now, it may have, over time, that effect—that once it becomes acceptable for Arabs to deal with Israel in this way, to reach economic deals, to have technological exchange, that may spill over. But I think there’s a ceiling to that, I suspect, because there is still deep-seated hostility toward Israel in many Arab societies.
In case after case, you have to recognize that failed attempts to do things in the region have fallen in Iran’s lap.
Again, I wouldn’t portray the UAE as representative of where the Arab world is as a whole. But there’s a lot of self-reflection that I think the Palestinians, in particular, need to engage in and others need to engage in, given what’s happened, which goes against what they had expected and what they had thought would be acceptable.
And just a last note on this. In some ways, this punctures two myths. One myth I just said, which is the myth that you would only have normalization once you had peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And that turned out to be wrong. But the other myth was that you could use this card of normalization in order to press Israel to make concessions toward the Palestinians. That has not really happened either. And I think Israel has shown that it will pay a price to normalize with Arab states, but not at the expense of what it believes to be its rightful position vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
So, yes, Israel said they wouldn’t annex West Bank territory, if that was the price to be paid for normalization with the UAE. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to stop their settlement enterprise or the occupation of Palestinian land. So, in some ways, it should be viewed as liberating—this big question of when Gulf Arab countries, in particular, would normalize with Israel and what difference it would make. Some have done it. It doesn’t make a big difference one way or the other. I think the question of Israel-Palestine remains as unaddressed as it was before. And the challenge now for Palestinians, and for Israelis who want a peace deal, is to come to terms with that conflict, and not hope or dread that Arabs are going to come to the rescue for some, or that the card of normalization is going to help push Israel into an area that it’s not prepared to go to otherwise.
WPR: Now, you’ve already alluded to America’s role in the Middle East. For me, looking back at the past three presidential administrations—and you worked in the Obama administration—there’s been a stark contrast in terms of the means they used and the objectives that they were pursuing. But taking a step back, none of the three administrations were really able to achieve their stated long-term objectives. For me, that would be democratization and remaking the region for the Bush administration. My reading of the Obama administration, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that it was trying to put into place the conditions that might allow for a diplomatic accommodation or a concert of powers, especially with regard to Iran. And now you have the Trump administration, which has really doubled down on confrontation, with an unstated, but pretty clear goal of regime change in Iran. To what extent can the U.S. still shape developments in the Middle East, given that track record?
Malley: So, I’d add to that track record: I worked in the Clinton administration, where the goal, particularly toward its end, was Arab-Israeli peace between Israelis and Syrians, and Israelis and Palestinians. And that too failed. [Laughter] So you could add that to your list of consecutive, successive failures of U.S. endeavors in the Middle East. I think it’s an object lesson in the limits of U.S. power. And that has happened time and time again. Trying to reshape the region from the U.S. has ended up crashing on Middle Eastern land. And I think that’s a key lesson. As I was saying earlier, if you look at the track record of regime change or attempted regime change going back to the era of when the U.S. tried to intervene in Iran, and in Afghanistan if you want to extend it to that, it is a litany of failed enterprises.
What does that mean in terms of residual U.S. influence? Sure, the U.S. has influence. It has military influence. It’s supporting some regimes. It’s trying to undo others. It has financial weight. So, clearly, the U.S. has a role to play. I think it needs to take a deep breath and reflect on the failure of the role that it has tried to play up until now—its inability to apprehend, understand and shape dynamics in the region in a way that it would want. And there’s so many ideas that the U.S. has about the region that it projects to the region, and that sometimes get projected back because it tends to talk to those with whom it agrees most. And then it gets the image that it wants to see reflected back, not taking into account the very strong, powerful constituencies in the Middle East that don’t in any way adhere to the vision that the U.S. is trying to project.
I think there’s a lot of self-reflection—and having participated in two of those administrations, a lot of self-reflection on my part as well—about those consecutive failures. The peace efforts by the Clinton administration, which also at the time, as you’ll recall, had this dual containment strategy toward Iraq and Iran, which also wasn’t particularly successful. And then as you say, President Bush’s enterprise to—democratize may be the wrong word, but to remake the region. And then Obama and then Trump. And each one has failed in its own way, but the common thread is that U.S. attempts from afar to reshape or remold a region that has its own dynamics, its own innate characteristics that are not going to be simply molded from a foreign entity—I think that’s a lesson, not that the U.S. should wash its hands of the region, but that it’s going to need to handle it very differently.
WPR: You mentioned that your role at Crisis Group has pulled you into a more global outlook and a global vision, given Crisis Group’s much broader mandate and ambit. In light of that, and in light of this past track record, is the U.S. investing too much time and resources in the Middle East, especially given the challenges, but also the opportunities elsewhere in the world?
Malley: I think that’s become very widely accepted in the U.S. And you mentioned President Obama. Part of his goal, which didn’t succeed, was to see whether he could address what he saw as the two bleeding sores in the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran. Because both of those formed part of the reason why the U.S. continually got dragged back into a region that it felt deep down didn’t have the importance that it once did, and was too much of a resource- and a time-suck for successive U.S. administrations. And so, I think part of his thinking was, if we could cauterize the Iranian nuclear crisis, make sure that we have at least parked the nuclear issue so that, yeah, the other issues are going to remain—Iran is still going to be a country with which we have very deep differences—but at least we won’t be continually on the verge of perhaps intervening militarily to stop a growing, burgeoning nuclear program. If we could do that, and if we could at least try to address Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that, again, wouldn’t be the trigger for successive wars, then the U.S. could do what was called the pivot to Asia.
Ultimately, the strategic calculus of the UAE and Bahrain has taken precedence over the Palestinian question.
Now, the assumption behind this—which I think, again, is widely accepted—is that the U.S. has spent far too much treasure and too many lives. Our own, but also even more those of the region. At the end of the day, the balance sheet is, as you described it, not particularly attractive or appealing.
And when so many other challenges are rising—whether it’s the challenge in China or the challenge of climate change, to mention only two—the more the U.S. gets sucked into the conflicts of a region over which it has far less purchase than it thinks it does, the more it won’t be able to attend to these other questions. And so, I think that’s accepted by both parties, at least by President Trump and now by Vice President Biden, both of whom say we’re going to have to spend less time on the Middle East. The challenge, though, is being able to do it without being called back in because of a terrorist attack, or because of a war, or because of an ally that feels that it’s endangered. And that’s been why, again, three presidents in a row who have said—President Bush when he started also said he didn’t want to spend as much time dealing with the Middle East, and he ended up invading Iraq and being very deeply intertwined and dragged into the dynamics of the region. And the same with his two successors. But there is, I think, a conviction and awareness that that has to change.
I think if Vice President Biden is elected, you will see another effort to try to end these forever wars, which for the most part take place, not exclusively, but for the most part in the Middle East. To try to extricate ourselves from those wars, even from this counterterrorism industry that has gone far beyond the defense of immediate U.S. national security, and has morphed into something far greater than that throughout the Middle East and Africa now. And to try to right-size America’s foreign policy so that it focuses on areas that are of greater import, but also over which it could have more influence.
That’s a challenge. I’m not going to predict, again, that President Trump in a second term or Vice President Biden in a first would be able to really achieve that goal. But it certainly is something that I think runs through both. There are so many differences in how they would deal with the region. But one common thread is: We need to find a way to spend less time, resources and attention on a region that is both less important and has proved to be more impervious to U.S. influence than others.
WPR: Now, looking at the region in terms of some of the actors besides the U.S., in the past five or six years, especially, we’ve seen a range of either new actors or newly dynamic actors. You mentioned pretty much all of them when you were talking about the dividing lines in the region. But just to enumerate them, you have Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have taken on a much more active and some would say reckless role. And then also you have Turkey, which has been expanding its influence and its aspirations in aligning with Qatar in the Gulf, but also in Syria and in Libya. Do you see these developments, in terms of this increased activism in a region where for years the American foreign policy establishment was sort of wishing that the Saudis, for instance, would become more active and would actually do a little more for themselves. And now all of a sudden, it’s a question of, “Careful what you wish for.” But do you see those developments as a direct response to the uncertainty about America’s future role in the region, or are these things that you think would have bubbled up and happened organically, regardless?
Malley: I’m not sure the answer is going to be as simple as I’d like it to be. First and foremost, I think it is a reflection of the point I was making earlier, which is, again, if you compare it to any other region of the world that I’m familiar with, I can’t think of one where you have these divisions that are coursing through the entire region, and where you have these dividing lines that are at play in almost every conflict. I mean, if you’re living in Mexico, you may not care as much in terms of what might happen in other parts of the region affecting your national security. Whereas, again, just to put the emphasis on this point, anything that happens in Yemen has a direct bearing on the divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and to some extent even the conflict with Israel, since Israel suspected that Iran would try to use the Houthis as another ally in their fight against Israel.
It’s an object lesson in the limits of U.S. power that has happened time and time again: Trying to reshape the region from the U.S. has ended up crashing on Middle Eastern land.
Sometimes these are perceptions that are disproportionate to reality. But it is so hard to resolve any single conflict in the Middle East, because all of the conflicts get intertwined with it. And that’s why, the point you were making about why so many countries intervene, is because what happens in other countries has a direct bearing on their own security, their own future in a way that, again, I don’t think you would find as broadly in other parts of the world. So, that’s the first reason why, when you have a case like Libya, Turkey sees an opportunity, the UAE sees an opportunity or a threat. Whether it’s Turkey, whether it’s the UAE, whether it’s Egypt, whether it’s Qatar—they all see that there’s something at stake, and if they “lose Libya" they are losing a piece of their national security.
That’s the first reason why you’re seeing so much meddling from outside actors. And it’s not particularly new, by the way. If you look at the history of Lebanon, for example, it has been a case of foreign meddling, of regional meddling and extra-regional meddling, for as long as one can recall. This is not a new phenomenon, again, for the reasons that I was giving. What has exacerbated it is the uncertainty, the fact that so many of these countries, these regimes, these governments have been up for grabs because of what happened in 2011: the uprisings. More than America’s absence, the uprisings have led people to say, “Well, where is Syria going to fall on this spectrum of more pro-Iran or more pro-Saudi, or more hostile to Israel or less hostile to Israel, or more Islamist or less Islamist.” Likewise with Egypt, likewise with Libya, likewise with Yemen.
The fact that so much became up for grabs, that in this sclerotic region there was this possibility of change—and of change of orientation, of regimes that were so critical to the security of others or to the strength and power of others—that there, again, intervention is the natural response. So, it’s the interconnectedness, it’s this open door to potential change. And you’re right, the fact that the U.S. has been viewed as less reliable, less invested, less involved, although even that we have to be careful about overstating, that has led other countries—Russia has seen an opportunity to step in. So, all three together have made this cauldron even more open to outside meddling.
But just a word about the U.S. I think we could overstate the degree to which the U.S. has “withdrawn” from the region—tens of thousands of troops, almost daily or regular drone strikes against terrorist targets across the region, strong alliances, military bases across the region, an alliance with Israel that remains as strong as it’s been. I think this notion of the U.S. being absent could be overstated. It is true that the U.S. is perceived as having one foot in, but also having half a foot out and trying to leave, and also being less consistent.
And this, I’ve heard in meetings with Gulf leaders, in particular. They say, “One year we’re being told by the Bush administration, ‘Hang tough against Iran. We need to press them as hard as we can.’ Then we’re told by Obama, ‘Can you try to coexist with Iran, because we think that’s better for the region. Certainly, it’s better for us because we don’t want to be sucked into your conflicts, but we think it’s also going to be better for your security.’ Then we have Trump who doubles down on pressure. We don’t know where the next president is going to be, so we have to take matters more into our hands.” As you said, they’ve often done it in ways that we would consider reckless and endangering the security and stability of the region. But if you add up all those three factors, you get to that explanation about why, again, far more than any other region of the world, every conflict of one becomes a conflict that involves everyone.
WPR: In the context of that sort of unpredictability of the succeeding American administrations for the leadership in the region, that makes Russia under Vladimir Putin, I imagine, a more attractive partner in some ways. In the States, I think the frustration with the limitations to America’s ability to achieve its outcomes in the Middle East has led to this inflated view of Russia and Putin as being this decisive actor in the region. Do you agree with that, or do you think that Russia actually can and will play a key role in the Middle East? Can Putin deliver? And if so, what can he deliver, in terms of all of the various tensions, conflicts, divides and hostilities in the region?
Malley: There’s no doubt that Russia has a stronger foothold in the region now than it did a few years ago, and that it’s trying to recover some of the influence that it lost at the end of the Cold War. The best example is Syria, where with its military intervention it managed to save the regime and now is playing a key role in whatever dispensation will come. I think it’s also easy to overstate Russia’s role. We’ve seen Russia bump into Turkey in northwest Syria. It has not been able to help the [Assad] regime retake the entire territory. We’ve seen in Libya, it hasn’t been able to help the forces that it was allied with, the forces of Gen. Haftar, against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. And in the rest of the region, it’s not as if it has resolved conflicts or tipped the balance in one way or the other.
So, yes, much more assertive, and a country that leaders of the regions may find more affinity with. Russia is not going to care about how they rule domestically. Russia is going to be very transactional in the way it deals with them. And that’s sometimes a very convenient way, an easier way to interact.
If you look at the track record of regime change or attempted regime change going back to the era of when the U.S. tried to intervene in Iran, it is a litany of failed enterprises.
But I also think that Russia is benefiting from the U.S. role in the following sense. And this was really striking to me when I was in the Obama administration. If the U.S. started talking to Iran, as it did, it immediately drew cries of treason and of anger from Israel and from Saudi Arabia, in particular. Why is that? It’s because the U.S. was viewed as the guarantor of their security. And because it was the guarantor of their security, they took such umbrage, such offense, and were so threatened by any attempt by the U.S. to talk to the other side.
Russia, on the other hand, talks to everyone. It talks to Hezbollah. It talks to Iran. It talks to Israel. It talks to Turkey. It talks to Saudi Arabia. It has good relations, or at least passable relations, with all of them. And nobody criticizes the Russians for doing it precisely because nobody relies on Russia the same way they rely on the U.S., so they can forgive Russia for trespasses that they can’t forgive the U.S. for. So there is still, I think, a vision of the U.S. as an actor on whom some countries will rely almost existentially for their security. And because they have that umbrella, they can also deal with Russia, and not take offense or not feel threatened if Russia also deals with an enemy. In some ways, Russia then becomes useful because it can pass messages to parties with whom they don’t have direct contact.
Israel, for example, may not talk directly to Iran, or to the Syrian regime, or to Hezbollah, but through Russia can pass messages. But it’s because Russia doesn’t have that weight that the U.S. does, that it can get away with things that the U.S. can’t. But I think both those things can be true: a power that is on the ascent in the region, that is investing more—militarily, in particular, in Libya, Syria, most notably; but also a power that can afford to do as much as it does because it is not viewed as being as important to the security of key countries in the region as the U.S. is.
WPR: Before we move on to talk about your work with Crisis Group, China also has been expanding slowly but steadily its ties and its influence in the region, while at the same time trying to avoid all of these entanglements in the various conflicts and confrontations that we’ve been discussing. Do you ever foresee China becoming a more strategic actor in the Middle East? Or do you think its involvement, by choice or circumstance, will remain limited to the economics of energy purchases and investments and things like that?
Malley: I think it’s going to be a function of its role on the global scene. In other words, for now, it is playing a long game, a smart game, not getting involved in some of these battles—and probably the U.S. has realized, after maybe having been invested far too much, that China didn’t need to and still is benefiting from economic exchanges and oil imports from the Middle East. But the greater its power relative to the U.S., the less the U.S. is going to play a role for better or for worse in terms of stabilizing the region. And again, for better or for worse, the more it may fall on China, if it wants to maintain the kind of economic ties and the kind of access to oil and gas it’s getting from the Middle East, the more it may have to step up.
I don’t think that is going to be China’s preference. I think China prefers to leave that to others and doesn’t want to get involved in the conflicts of the region. It doesn’t see that serving it in any way. But it may need to over time, if its economic interests are such that it needs stability, and there’s no other party that’s prepared to ensure it. So I think it won’t be a choice China makes, but it may be a responsibility that befalls it over time. I’m not talking about this as being over the horizon.
WPR: Any final thoughts before we move on to Crisis Group?
Malley: Well, just maybe a personal thought on the Middle East. My father was Egyptian, and I grew up for more than a dozen years in Paris in an environment of Arab nationalism, and an Arab world that was struggling to have its own voice, and not be as dominated by European or American influence. And I think it is startling to look from a distance, and now having been in two U.S. administrations, to see how that appetite for greater autonomous decision-making, and for governments that they feel are less alien, that are more indigenous, that are more authentic—I think that’s the key word, governments that they feel are authentic—that continues after all this time. The Arab world has gone through so much in terms of its own period of nationalism and Islamism and now popular uprisings in the name of finding some greater popular expression. But that battle continues.
We need to find a way to spend less time, resources and attention on a region that is both less important and has proved to be more impervious to U.S. influence than others.
I don’t think 20, 30 years ago, I would have expected that it would have unfolded the way it did. But it is an unfinished business that the Arab world is finding itself in. And unfortunately, the outside world, for the most part, has played a damaging and deleterious role. And to come back to your first question, that fight between stability or immobility and change, that battle continues. The Arab people, the Arab world cannot—I think it must conclude that not only can it not count on the outside world to help it in that endeavor, but it’s often going to have to lead that fight against the interference of, and meddling by outside powers.
WPR: Now, turning to the International Crisis Group, you’ve had a long involvement with Crisis Group, both before and after you worked in the Obama administration. For people who aren’t familiar with what it does, what role do you play in terms of public awareness and governmental responses to conflicts and crises going on around the world?
Malley: You’re right, I spent 12 years heading the Middle East program and now heading the organization as a whole. What attracted me to the organization, and it goes a little bit back to the conversation we had, is two things. First, we’re present on the ground. In other words, we don’t write about Libya, or Syria, or Yemen, or Afghanistan, or Nigeria, or Colombia from afar. We have analysts who either live in or travel frequently to the countries that they cover. So, that’s No. 1. And as I said, if there’s been so much misunderstanding about how to deal with the Middle East, and so many miscalculations that have left the situation worse than prior to the intervention by outsiders, it is because of that lack of understanding of the dynamics on the ground.
And the second, which is a corollary, is that there’s no bar to who we talk to. Okay, granted, I don’t think we have spoken to ISIS, for example. But other than that, and maybe a few other exceptions, our mantra, our motto is, we talk to everyone. If you’re going to resolve conflict—and the mandate of the Crisis Group is to resolve and prevent deadly conflict—if you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to talk to everyone. Whether they are on the U.S. or Europe’s or the U.N.’s terrorist lists or not. Whether they are viewed as enemies, or whether they are engaged in often barbaric and awful behavior or not. Because they’re the ones with whom, if you’re going to end the conflict, you’re going to have to talk.
So, it’s that combination of being on the ground, talking to everyone, and then trying to absorb that perspective and come up with ideas that we then share with local, regional and international actors about what’s the best way to prevent or to resolve a deadly conflict. And it’s that combination of being on the ground, talking to everyone, and then having access to policymakers—and it’s up to them to listen to us or not—that makes this organization the one that I have identified with and I have found attractive, appealing and having an impact. Not always, clearly, but there are some cases where because we’ve gained that respect—and by we, I mean my colleagues who work on the ground in the field—because they’ve gained that respect, because people know that they are there, not with an ideological agenda, but because their conviction is that they want to save lives, that they talk to everyone so they have that perspective that is informed by the realities on the ground, that they can then share their perspective and their ideas. And we share them with policymakers across the world and in the regions where the fighting is taking place.
That’s what we try to do, and there’s some cases where it’s worked very well, other cases where it has not. But it has driven me to keep coming back—even after I left for three years to go to the Obama administration—because it’s an organization whose values I believe in, but also one that tries to do more than comment, and talk to the people who are going to make the decisions and understand the limitations that they operate under. And try to, within those limitations, come up with principled, but pragmatic ideas about how to save lives that otherwise could be lost.
WPR: Now, you alluded to it, but I guess one of the limitations of this kind of big picture, bird’s-eye discussion is that it’s not really possible to discuss all of the very granular and local drivers and causes of conflict in various places around the world. And obviously, there’s a huge range and spectrum of the kinds of conflicts and crises that are taking place, and that Crisis Group tries to address. But to the extent that it’s possible to identify factors and trends on a global or a regional level that affect your ability to effectively address the conflicts and crises in the countries where you work, what would those be?
Malley: Well, it’s a great question. Obviously, the biggest change—and it’s one that we’ve seen coming for a while and that’s been accelerated, I would say, both by the misbegotten war in Iraq and then by the Trump presidency—has been the relative decline of the U.S., which was at its apex at the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But then, as I said, because of overreach and because of the natural decline of great powers—it’s in their DNA that they will rise and then at some point they will overreach, they will exhaust themselves, and other powers will try to challenge them.
But that’s been a major shift. And with it, the collapse of what I would consider to be the misnamed international liberal order. It wasn’t particularly international, in that it left many behind. It wasn’t particularly liberal, in that it propped up and sustained many illiberal governments. And it wasn’t that orderly if you lived in those parts of the world that were subject to continued conflict. But nonetheless, it structured international relations in a certain way. Now, that is coming, has come, or is still coming to an end. And what we see today is a more fragmented world, more polarized in the sense—not more polarized than during the Cold War, but certainly more polarized than during that brief interlude between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the second Iraq War in 2003, that interlude of American hyperpower, as former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine had dubbed it.
It is so hard to resolve any single conflict in the Middle East because all of the conflicts get intertwined with it.
So, we’re in an era that’s more fragmented, more polarized, in which you have more powers that are challenging the U.S. and challenging the Western order—again, for better or for worse, and I think we have to be careful about being too nostalgic about an order that came at a huge cost for many in the developing world. And if you were living in Vietnam, or if you were living in Angola, if you were living in Afghanistan, if you were living in Iraq or in Central America, there was a dark side to that order. But it is coming to an end, and we’re in that phase in between an order that is expiring and one that hasn’t yet emerged, which is always one that is more chaotic, that is more uncertain. Where countries and states and nonstate actors both are trying to take advantage of the vacuum or the uncertainty, but also fear it and so try to hedge against it. And that creates everything that we’ve talked about in the Middle East, but also in the rest of the world. And the fight is going to be to define what that new order will be.
So, in terms of Crisis Group, what it means is less certainty, more fragmentation in terms of who we need to talk to in order to make sure that the ideas get to the right people in the right place. It’s not good enough anymore to talk to Washington and Brussels and London; you’ve got to talk to countries across the globe. And if you add to that, amid this uncertainty, this backlash against the international liberal order, which is really a backlash against globalization, and the rise of certain forms of populism in response, that also means that countries become more inward-looking. That they have less time and desire to focus on external affairs.
Sometimes that’s for the better. But it also means that you’re going to have less ability to try to shake people up in saying, “There’s a conflict that is brewing in Nagorno-Karabakh,” or “There’s a conflict that’s brewing in another part of the world. And we need you to do something to pay attention to it.” Because governments care more about their reelection or about staying in power. And right now, that means tending to the economic crisis at home. It means responding to growing waves of intolerance toward outsiders, migrants or foreigners. It means focusing on the fight against terrorism, which has been blown out of proportion. And it means looking at the outside world more as a threat than as countries with which we need to deal in order that their stability enhances our own.
So, it is a more complicated conflict landscape, there’s no doubt about it. It’s more challenging, again, because there’s more parties we need to talk to, because it’s harder to get people’s attention. And because with uncertainty comes, as I was saying earlier, greater desire by some to intervene in the conflicts of others, to take advantage of the situation, or to protect against it.
WPR: On the Crisis Group website, on the Who We Are page, it states, “War is not inevitable, it is a manmade disaster.” So, to try and wrap up on a positive note [Laughter], what are the effective tools that remain at our and your disposal, that we can use to prevent that manmade disaster from occurring?
Malley: Well, I mean, the first tool, which assumes that people want to end war or to prevent it, is raising the alarm, sounding the alarm bell. Some of these conflicts occur because of miscalculation, because of misperception. Some of them occur because of real power grabs and desires by some to go to war. But in other cases—and they are more common than one might suspect—it is lack of communication, it is warped perception of the interest and the ambitions of others, it is missteps. And to the extent that one can sound the alarm and make sure that everyone has the same information at the same time—that’s 101, that’s the basics.
Nobody criticizes the Russians for [talking to everyone] because nobody relies on Russia the same way they rely on the U.S., so they can forgive Russia for trespasses that they can’t forgive the U.S. for.
There are other tools. There are tools of intervention—and by intervention I don’t mean military intervention—of diplomatic intervention, of economic intervention, of trying to change the interest calculations of different actors so that they see what the cost would be of going in a certain direction as opposed to the benefits of steering clear of war. And popular opinion, pressure from public opinion, whether they are in the conflict areas themselves or outside in countries that could play a role. So, I would love to end on an optimistic note, and I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now if I didn’t think that you can change decision-making, you can avoid avoidable wars, you can try to communicate, which is what we try to do.
We talk to governments all the time that don’t have the same kind of access to their foes as we do. I don’t want to sound naïve, in that all wars are not caused by misunderstanding or misperception. But as I said, there are quite a few of them where when you take a look back, that March of Folly could have been avoided if people had a better understanding of how their actions would be perceived by others, and how others’ actions should be interpreted by them. And if we at Crisis Group can play that role of interpreter, translator, bridge, that’s really a huge contribution.
Again, I think we do it day in, day out, because we talk to everyone, because we are in that position of better understanding the motivations of some actors than others can and trying to do our best to articulate what they’re thinking. The biggest compliment that I think we can be paid at Crisis Group, which we are paid every now and then, is when an actor in a conflict or in a potential conflict situation tells us, “I don’t agree with what you wrote. I don’t agree with your recommendation. But you reflected our views and our interests better than we could have done. And that in and of itself is a contribution, because the other side, who are going to read this and can listen to you, will understand where we’re coming from. And maybe from that we’ll be able to get to a situation, not of brotherly love, but of conflict avoidance, where our struggle will be waged not on the battlefield, but in some other way.”
Whenever I hear that I say, “That’s what our role is.” It’s to be the translators and the interpreters of different actors’ views. Actors that some people don’t even listen to, that you want to just dismiss as terrorists or as criminal gangs. But you need to take them seriously, because if you don’t take them seriously, you’ll pay a serious price.
WPR: Rob, thank you so much for being so generous with your time and insights.
Malley: I’ve enjoyed it. Thanks for the conversation.