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Former presidential advisors discuss Middle East policy

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Security, energy and the focus of American interests in the Middle East were the subjects of a moderated discussion between former presidential advisors to George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“America and the Middle East: Where to From Here?” was the title of a discussion hosted at Amherst College on Thursday night by Steven Simon, a visiting professor of history with experience in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Panelists Robert Malley, former Middle East Advisor to Obama, and Michael Singh, former senior director for the Middle East and Northern Africa on the National Security Council for Bush, found some common ground despite the party difference on their political resumes.

“We often think of foreign policy issues—especially in this region…in terms of ‘okay, how do we solve it?’” said Singh. “Oftentimes, there isn’t an American solution to a foreign problem.”

Malley, whose experience in the Obama administration saw agreements such as the hotly-contested “Iran Nuclear Deal,” agreed with Singh’s theory, though he attached a caveat, highlighting the fact that turmoil in the Middle East would continue regardless of American involvement at this point.

“I’m not saying that we should [be involved in the Middle East],” Malley said. “But I’m saying that we also have to be careful about empowering parties and entities who are power hungry—whose policies in the region could lead to the kind of disaster that we’re trying to [remove] ourselves from.”

Pressing matters of security, energy and transportation rights for key trade routes in the Middle East pointed to the difficulties surrounding American involvement abroad, especially in as contentious a region as the Middle East. According to Singh, the nature of global economic interests based in the Middle East as well as the security of the United States and its western allies often puts the U.S. in a position to take action, understanding that no other state can or will.

“Because we have this global view of our security and our foreign policy, we have to care about those kinds of concentrated commodities,” Singh said in reference to action the U.S. takes to secure global trade and fight terror.

“There is nobody else globally that would take care of these interests for us…because we think it’s important to our security and international order, we do it,” he continued.

In his diplomatic experience, Malley said he believes it is difficult for the United States to fully commit to long-term goals in the region because of frequent political turnover at home. U.S. policy has the propensity to drastically change every four to eight years, while countries such as Russia and China have the relative stability in message afforded by consistency in leadership. Foreign negotiators are acutely aware of American turnover, and U.S. diplomatic missions can be undercut by other countries’ abilities to simply wait for a new administration before attempting to discuss diplomatic solutions to problems in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“I spent the last two and a half [years] at the NSC negotiating with Russians over Syria,” Singh said of his experience in the Obama Administration. “And I could say I envied the fact that they were thinking that they were going to be in power for…who knows how many decades, and we had six months to go.”

Though he made it clear he would not trade the American political system for any alternatives similar to that of Russia or China, Malley’s firsthand experience with political turnover as a detriment to American negotiating power led to some frustration, with which both Singh and Simon nodded their heads in understanding.

Looking forward, one audience member asked the panelists what could be done to catalyze successful, bipartisan negotiations for major policy relative to the Middle East.

In response, Singh said he believes that “If you’re a president who wants to see your policy succeed and sort of outlast you, you have to make an effort to get bipartisan support. You have to get your domestic coalition.”

Based on his recent experience with negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, Malley countered Singh’s ideal scenario. “It’s hard to imagine something that President Obama could have done that would have somehow captured bipartisan support.”

Following the event, Ian McClaugherty, a junior computer science major at Amherst College, said he learned a lot from the event, from two people who served such close advisory roles in policy in the Middle East. He also found that personally, he felt he needed to do more to understand global issues that are affecting American lives as well.

“I feel like I have not done enough on my own to understand our relationship with the Middle East,” McClaugherty said. “I’ve wondered, kind of in retrospect of the conflicts that we’ve been involved in over there…I just really thought I never had an understanding of why that was happening.”

Because the night covered so many topics related to the United States and the Middle East, McClaugherty said he hopes to try and stay more in touch with issues as they develop, and American responses to them.

“It’s really opening up this notion to me that geopolitics is really complicated,” he said.

Will Soltero can be reached at wsoltero@umass.edu or followed on Twitter at @WillSoltero.

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