Malley and Harding on "Obamanichaeism"

It's not all black or white, you know

I will probably continue to be a terrible correspondent for another week, when I will be done traveling. In the meantime do take a look at Rob Malley and Peter Harling's piece in Foreign Affairs (subscription-only I'm afraid): Beyond Moderates and Militants: How to chart a new course in the Middle East. Much of it is, as the title suggests, a critique of a holdover of binary ideas about Middle East politics derived from the Cold War as well as Bush-like manicheaism. But they also make a good point about timing:

The Obama administration has shown some signs of adjustment. Conscious of the United States' declining credibility in the Middle East and of its inability to resolve crises independently of one another, Obama has sought to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reach out to Iran and Syria, and forsake the simplistic "war on terror" mentality inherited from the Bush administration. It has redefined U.S. national security doctrine to make room for a more multipolar world.
Indeed, Obama is pursuing policies that, had Bush implemented them during his administration, may well have worked. But the region has not stood still, and at the current pace of change, the United States risks making vital policy adjustments only after it is too late.
The Obama administration will push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement but will likely recognize the importance of intra-Palestinian unity for that goal only after spending several more years playing Fatah against Hamas and only after differences between the two movements have hardened beyond repair. Washington is engaging with Damascus, but by postponing a serious, high-level strategic dialogue about Syria's future regional role in a post-peace-deal environment, it risks making it immeasurably more costly for Damascus to relax its ties with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Similarly, Washington might formally accept Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes only after Tehran has reached the point of no return in its nuclear weapons program.

The Obama administration has shown some signs of adjustment. Conscious of the United States' declining credibility in the Middle East and of its inability to resolve crises independently of one another, Obama has sought to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reach out to Iran and Syria, and forsake the simplistic "war on terror" mentality inherited from the Bush administration. It has redefined U.S. national security doctrine to make room for a more multipolar world.Indeed, Obama is pursuing policies that, had Bush implemented them during his administration, may well have worked. But the region has not stood still, and at the current pace of change, the United States risks making vital policy adjustments only after it is too late.The Obama administration will push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement but will likely recognize the importance of intra-Palestinian unity for that goal only after spending several more years playing Fatah against Hamas and only after differences between the two movements have hardened beyond repair. Washington is engaging with Damascus, but by postponing a serious, high-level strategic dialogue about Syria's future regional role in a post-peace-deal environment, it risks making it immeasurably more costly for Damascus to relax its ties with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Similarly, Washington might formally accept Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes only after Tehran has reached the point of no return in its nuclear weapons program.

At bottom, Washington still sees the Middle East as divided between moderates and militants--an understanding that blinds it to much of what currently fuels the region's dynamics. After all, on issues deemed central to U.S. interests, Washington's nominal allies in the region often pursue objectives that are not aligned with the United States', and its foes sometimes promote goals compatible with Washington's. For example, even though Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter enemies, both tend to view Iraq through a similar confessional prism (albeit taking different sides in the sectarian competition), while Washington's vision of Iraq as a nonsectarian state is closer to Syria's and Turkey's. Even so, when it comes to Iraq, the U.S. government's inclination is to condemn Iran and Syria while praising Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Israel's undeclared nuclear program, foot-dragging approach to peace, and often single-minded reliance on military means to resolve conflicts are hard to reconcile with Obama's intention to restore the United States' standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And as Bush quickly discovered and as his successor knows, the United States' democracy and human rights agenda finds few takers among friendly regimes while resonating with the Islamist parties Washington is loath to empower.

Regional actors simply do not fit into a recognizable moderate-versus-militant template. Syria, one of the Arab world's most secular countries, is also the one most closely aligned with militant Islamist movements. Hezbollah, a symbol of Shiite militancy, has adapted to Lebanon's political system, which, with its pluralistic confessional makeup, liberal economic leanings, and endemic corruption, defies the movement's self-proclaimed principles. One can be a secular, liberal Arab democrat and still be profoundly hostile to Washington and the West, just as one can be an ally of the West and find common cause with certain jihadist groups.

Do read the piece if you get the chance.