Why Rob Malley Matters

You want bipartisanship? Just look at Joe Biden’s foreign policy team. Last week, Lindsey Graham called Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, an “outstanding choice.” Victoria Nuland, Biden’s choice to be undersecretary of state for political affairs—the third ranking post at Foggy Bottom—has not only worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations, she’s also served as deputy national security advisor to Dick Cheney. Several top Biden picks have ties to the Center for New American Security, which is currently led by a former aide to John McCain.

But the bipartisanship curdled last week when Jewish Insider reported that Biden was considering naming Rob Malley to be his special envoy to Iran. Foreign policy hawks quickly pounced. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton—who has claimed a war with Iran would only take “several days”—alleged that Malley “has a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel.” Hawkish commentators warned that if Biden chooses Malley, he can kiss the bipartisan goodwill goodbye.

At one level, the venom is absurdly overblown. Malley has exhibited neither “sympathy” for the Iranian regime nor “animus” toward Israel. In fact, as veteran Middle East hand Aaron Miller has noted, “Malley’s views on Iran parallel [other] senior folks” Biden has hired.

But dig deeper and you can understand why people like Cotton are worried. Because Rob Malley has shown the capacity to do something Beltway militarists find deeply threatening: See beyond America’s self-congratulatory self-conception and grasp how the US and its allies look to their victims. That’s what makes Rob Malley special.

To understand what sets Malley apart, compare him to the nominee Lindsey Graham adores, Antony Blinken. In his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blinken repeated a story he has told many times. It’s about his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from a Nazi death march and, upon encountering an American tank, sank to his knees and exclaimed “God Bless America.” It’s a moving story—and a politically safe one because it depicts American tanks as an unambiguous force for good. In fact, Blinken’s narrative of the United States—as savior of the world from Nazism, creator of the postwar “liberal international order,” and vanquisher of a second totalitarian menace, Soviet communism—dominates Beltway foreign policy discourse. The narrative, it’s worth noting, is mostly about American policy in Europe. 

Rob Malley’s family story is different. His father Simon—born in Egypt to a family with roots in Syria—was an Arab Jew. And the experiences that shaped Simon Malley’s view of the world, and of the United States, were rooted in the struggle against not European totalitarianism but European colonialism. Algeria’s war of independence, noted a Guardian obituary, proved the “turning point” in his life. He chronicled the war as a journalist, then met his wife while she was working for the Algerian nationalist movement at the United Nations. Simon Malley went on to found a magazine, Africasia, which covered “newly independent states like Algeria and Egypt,” and “liberation struggles throughout the world, most notably the Palestinians”— subjects Malley believed were “poorly reported by the mainstream media.”

If the anti-totalitarian story highlights American virtue, the anti-colonial story—in which the US frequently picks up where European colonial powers left off—challenges it. Which is why it rarely enters Beltway foreign policy discourse. US policymakers rarely admit that many people in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas have good reason to fear American tanks. When politicians do reckon honestly with the history of US policy in the developing world—for instance, when Barack Obama acknowledged America’s role in overthrowing a democratic prime minister in Iran in 1953—people like Tom Cotton label them anti-American.

Rob Malley is not his father. He’s not a champion of anti-imperial movements in the developing world. But, like Obama, Malley’s background enables him to see America—and the West more generally—from the outside in and the bottom up. In 1996, Malley published The Call From Algeria, a careful study of what he called Third Worldism—“the belief in the revolutionary aspirations of the Third World masses”—an ideology, he notes, to which his parents “dedicated their lives.” The Call From Algeria is not uncritical or apologetic. But it delves deeply into the colonial experience. And by linking colonialism’s legacy to the “social, economic and political frustration” that led many Algerians to embrace Islamist movements, Malley challenged arguments—which became pervasive in Washington after 9/11—that the problem in the Middle East was Islam and the answer was more military intervention by the West.

This understanding of experiences that official Washington tends to ignore has been a hallmark of Malley’s career. After the Clinton administration failed to broker a peace agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000, Malley penned an essay challenging the claim that the Palestinians bore sole blame for the collapse of talks. The essay didn’t excuse Arafat’s failures. To the contrary, it criticized him for having failed to “present a cogent and specific counterproposal.” In a separate op-ed, Malley accused the Palestinian delegation of “passivity and [an] inability to seize the moment.”

Still, Malley’s essay was remarkable for two reasons. First, he co-authored it with a former Palestinian negotiator, Hussein Agha, thus challenging the marginalization of Palestinian voices that characterizes official US debate about Israel-Palestine. (As if to illustrate the point, conservative columnist Jonathan Tobin last week claimed that Malley’s account of Camp David “contradicted his boss and just about everyone else who had been there”—as if Agha and the other Palestinians at Camp David didn’t exist). Second, Malley and Agha empathetically described the perspective of both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. While recognizing that Barak offered the Palestinians more than any previous Israeli leader, they also acknowledged Palestinian concessions, which included allowing Israel to annex settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that the Palestinians considered illegal under international law, and being willing to restrict the return of Palestinian refugees in accordance with Israel’s demographic concerns.

These Palestinian compromises, Malley and Agha note, were often ignored by an American delegation (comprised of several American Jews but no Palestinian-Americans) that because of its “acute sensitivity to Israeli domestic concerns…often pondered whether Barak could sell a given proposal to his people” but “rarely, if ever,” asked the same question about Arafat.

The backlash against Malley and Agha’s essay was ferocious. But it inadvertently confirmed the very biases they highlighted. Malley’s former boss, Dennis Ross, answered them by blaming Camp David’s failure on “a mindset that has plagued the Palestinians throughout their history,” a tendency to “fall back on blaming everyone else for their predicament” that “perpetuates the avoidance of responsibility.” In his rejoinder, Ehud Barak called Palestinians “products of a culture in which to tell a lie…creates no dissonance. They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category.”

Were such sweeping and condescending stereotypes applied to other peoples denied basic rights—Black South Africans under apartheid, for instance, or Black Americans under Jim Crow—they would be quickly labeled racist. So it says a lot about the Israel-Palestine debate in Washington that, in the two decades since that exchange, it has been Malley—not Ross—who elicits fiercer political opposition.

In 2008, the Obama campaign disavowed Malley—who had been serving as an informal advisor—for the sin of merely meeting with members of Hamas. Malley had not praised or aided the Islamist group. He merely argued that, “you’re going to have to find some way of neutralizing Hamas’s spoiling capacity and that means to some extent, engaging with it.” But even though Malley had met Hamas representatives in his private capacity as a researcher for the International Crisis Group, he was blocked from entering Obama’s administration until late in his second term. Meanwhile, Obama’s strategy of isolating Hamas in the hopes that people in Gaza would overthrow it, failed miserably. More than a decade later, Hamas remains in control in Gaza, the Palestinian national movement remains divided, and the US continues to support an Israeli blockade that, in the words of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, has created a “manmade humanitarian disaster” for almost two million people. Yet, in Washington, suggesting that the United States should talk openly to Hamas remains a career-killer.

That’s why the fight over Rob Malley’s appointment matters. It constitutes a test of whether someone who sees beyond the smug and blinkered narrative that dominates Beltway discourse—and tries to elevate the voices of people who Washington policymakers often ignore—can win an important job in even a Democratic administration. Ambitious young wonks will take note and adjust their behavior accordingly.

I have another, more personal, interest in Rob Malley’s success. Simon Malley was born at one end of the African continent, in Egypt. My father, Julian Beinart, of blessed memory, was born at the other, in Cape Town. But both were partisans of African nationalism, and the anti-imperial struggle more generally. As a child, I remember fingering my father’s worn copies of Transition—a journal founded in Uganda in 1961—which, like Simon Malley’s Africasia, captured the aspirations and creativity of peoples long subject to colonial domination. Among my father’s proudest memories was being asked in the 1960s, by a delegation from Robert Sobukwe’s Pan-African Congress—the Black nationalist rival to Nelson Mandela’s ANC—to design a new capital city for the day when apartheid finally fell.

Like Malley, I’ve tried to honor that anti-imperial inheritance while participating in the foreign policy debates of the world’s most powerful empire. I would sleep easier knowing there was someone crafting Biden’s Iran policy who was doing the same.

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As usual, we’ll be hosting a Zoom call for paid subscribers this Friday. Hope to see you then.

Peter