Brett McGurk: US 'going back to basics' with Middle East policy

In an exclusive interview with 'The National', the White House Middle East co-ordinator reflects on 'hard lessons learnt' in the region

Brett McGurk speaks during the 17th Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on November 21. AFP
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Key officials from the US administration have been on a charm mission to the Gulf over the past two weeks. The Biden administration is seeking to strengthen ties in the Gulf and assuage concerns about its policies following the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle and in the lead-up to the resumption of talks with the new Iranian government.

Among those who visited the region were Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, US Special Envoy to Iran Rob Malley and US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking. None of these men are strangers to the Arab world: all have worked on files related to the region in different capacities and have various ties to its leaders.

Brett McGurk, however, stands out among them as he has worked in the White House under the last four US presidents — George W Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden. Mr McGurk, the White House co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, says lessons have been learnt from the policies of the last three presidents, leading Washington to adopt a strategy of “going back to basics” in foreign affairs, including giving up “regime change policies”.

In an exclusive interview with The National, conducted in Manama after the conclusion of the Manama Dialogue conference, Mr McGurk said: “If you look back over the last 20 years … the George W Bush administration had an agenda of ‘regional transformation’, and the invasion of Iraq was part of that, democratisation and nation-building, massive investments, and I saw a lot of that up close and the costs are extremely high.”

He went on to say: “The Obama administration took a different tack, but after the Arab [uprisings], similarly very maximalist objectives were set in terms of what the US stated it was hoping to see, and it included regime change policies … ironically, President Trump said he didn’t want to be invested here but the policies that were set were uber-maximalist in Iran and elsewhere, so that necessarily leads to unintended consequences.”

Previous administrations pursued maximalist aims that rebounded against US interests, he explained, leading to “hard lessons learnt”. He said the current US administration is focused on “the basics of building, maintaining and strengthening our partnerships and alliances here”, describing those alliances as a “unique comparative advantage”.

Mr McGurk would not be drawn into discussing the details of US foreign policy in the Arab world or whether the Biden administration has “red lines” that it would not cross. However he repeated: “We are deeply committed to strengthening the defensive capabilities of our partners here in the Middle East.”

He added that policies would be set by “studying facts on the ground and quiet consultation with our allies” while “making very clear that we will protect our interests and our friends”.

The Houthis are the aggressors in Yemen, there is no question about it; we are working with the Saudis on new initiatives to de-escalate the violence
Brett McGurk, White House Middle East Co-ordinator

While the US may not strike Iran, there are increased expectations that Israel may choose to take out Iranian nuclear facilities if the next round of talks fail. Mr McGurk declined to address whether the US would oppose such a strike, simply stating: “We are committed to ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.”

As to criticisms being directed at the US, Mr McGurk said he is aware of them. He took the example of the decision to remove a Patriot missile battery system from Saudi Arabia as Riyadh continues to work to protect its airspace from Houthi attacks from Yemen.

“Small things can take an outsize impact”, he said, explaining that “you take one Patriot missile battery that was in Saudi Arabia protecting a US facility. The US surged Patriot missile batteries here in 2019 after the attacks from Iran against our friends here, and to maintain those systems, they have to be rotated out, and that is a natural redeployment”.

He went on to say that the US is working to strengthen Saudi defence networks — something that has a more lasting impact. Congress has been notified of the Biden administration’s intended arms sales to help Saudi Arabia with its defence capabilities.

Although the Biden administration was hesitant to criticise the Houthis at first, Mr McGurk said that “the Houthis are the aggressors in Yemen, there is no question about it; we are working with the Saudis on new initiatives to de-escalate the violence”, but he did not go into the details of those initiatives.

'We intend to stay' in Syria

While Mr McGurk stressed that hard lessons had been learnt, he would not go into detail about what outcome the US would support in Syria, saying he would not be “drawn into a discussion on end states because this is the Middle East and talking about end states, you can get yourself into trouble”.

“We have taken a comprehensive look at the situation in Syria in consultation with our friends and partners in the region,” he said.

“Civil war violence is at its lowest levels in years … we want to make sure that continues and we have discussed that with the Russians … and the Russians have told us they are committed to the ceasefires and we are committed to them.”

The White House Middle East co-ordinator noted that “the humanitarian situation is at one of its worse points”, explaining that in consultation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and others, the US is looking at ways to avoid sanctions that could affect humanitarian deliveries.

“That was never the intent of our sanctions, so we worked very hard on the humanitarian situations.”

He referenced the unanimous renewal of the UN Security Council resolution on cross-border delivery to Syria as an example of success. “We have maintained our sanctions … but we have tried to make clear that in terms of helping the Syrian people in all parts of Syria, our sanctions do not get in the way of those types of activities.”

Mr McGurk stressed that “we intend to stay” inside Syria, with a troop presence in the northern part of the country to combat ISIS remnants. On Israeli strikes in Syria, Mr McGurk said: “We fully support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

He also pointed to his country’s support for continued UN talks and constitutional committee efforts, noting that the UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pederson, has made some progress.

With a stabilising of the situation in Syria, there are concerns about the implosion of the economic and political system in Lebanon. Mr McGurk would not link developments in Syria with Lebanon, saying: “One of the hard truths is that it is up to the Lebanese leadership to do some hard things to save their country. We are doing all we can to incentivise those decisions”, including sanctioning those whom Washington finds problematic.

Praise for Iraq's elections

On Iraq, Mr McGurk again emphasised the role of the UN, saying the US invested in the world body's mission in Iraq to help with the October elections. Mr McGurk said that, despite the objections of some parties in Iraq, “from all accounts, including all the observers from the EU, US and UN, these were the most credible and transparent elections in Iraq’s history … that is a real achievement”.

As Iraqis work to finalise the election results and form a government, Mr McGurk said: “We support Iraq’s institutions, the constitutional process and stand by them.”

On the militias that continue to challenge those institutions, Mr McGurk said: “A lot of these groups are hiding under the banner of the Grand Ayotallah Ali Sistani’s fatwa against ISIS to carry out activities that are harmful to the Iraqi people and it is a real threat.”

He added that the Iraqi security forces have improved their capabilities, which means “it is very important for Iraq over time to take full control of armed groups under the authority of the state”. And while “some of the groups under the Hashed [Al Shaabi] act under the authority of the state, some don’t. And those who don’t have a lot of answer for”.

Mr McGurk referenced the attack on the residence of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi as a very serious escalation, saying the groups behind it “are a threat to the Iraqi people”. And while the “combat role” of US troops has ended, Mr McGurk said that the “advise and assist role” will continue in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Updated: November 25, 2021, 6:33 PM