In a recent essay for the magazine Foreign Affairs, Robert Malley, who served as one of Barack Obama’s senior Middle East advisers, outlines the dangers he perceives in the Trump administration’s current policies toward the region. The thrust of his argument is that only by lifting sanctions on Iran, punishing Israel, and abandoning Sunni Arab allies can Washington reduce the dangers of a major war. To make his case, he systematically tries to downplay the undeniable dangers posed by the Islamic Republic, and shift the blame for regional disorders onto those countries, like Israel, that have tried to contain it. Tony Badran dissects Malley’s claims:
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?” [Malley asks].
According to Malley, “local struggles” might attract Iranian support. [Conflating cause and effect], he’s obscuring the plain fact that Iran has deliberately 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, “Hizballah may be focused on power and politics.” Malley’s phrase rules out nothing, and is therefore entirely meaningless—but it presumably sounds better than “Hizballah 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 Badran’s].”
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.