It may seem odd that a single mid-level US government bureaucrat has collected a large club of passionate critics in Washington and the capitals of its most important Middle East allies. Yet, this is exactly what Robert Malley, the current US Special Envoy to Iran, has so impressively managed to achieve, and it becomes understandable once we recognize that he, almost single-handedly, managed to fundamentally alter the course of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Despite the recent news of a possibly career-ending mishap, the end of Malley’s official career will not undo the progressive foreign policy agenda that irreversibly changes America’s position in the region.
The State Department’s recent announcement that Robert Malley, the US Special Envoy to Iran, was being put on “leave” after his security clearance was suspended due to the mishandling of classified information is not the first time Malley is forced to take a break, due to questionable dealings. As a matter of fact, in 2008, Malley was forced to resign from the campaign of then-candidate Barack Obama after it was discovered that he was talking to officials in the Islamic Resistance Movement of Hamas only to return later to the Obama administration as the senior director of the National Security Council and one of the main architects of the United States foreign policy in the Middle East. Malley’s family history, professional record, and stated opinions that usually showed contempt for traditional US foreign policy and a bold readiness to call for new controversial approaches are the very reasons that made Malley a rising star in the liberal foreign policy establishment and a loathed figure among conservative circles. Malley was the right man in the right place at the right time to be part of the progressive turn in the American political establishment.
Malley is a man of the Third World in many different ways. Coming from a strong Third Worldist lineage, Malley was always straightforward and admirably unapologetic about his family history. His father, Simon Malley, was an Egyptian-born Jew and a staunch Arab Nationalist who worked for the Nasser regime, even as it led Arab states in expelling their native Jewish populations and declared a permanent war on Israel with the help of former Nazi officers. He dedicated his life to the anti-imperialist and anti-American causes of Third World national liberation movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the time when the Third World held the promise of a completely new human nature. The Maoist revolution of 1949, followed by the Algerian War of Liberation in 1954 and Nasser’s defiance of the 1956 invasion of Suez, unleashed a wave of salvific exhilaration and enthusiasm among all revolutionaries. Europe’s post-war malaise and disillusionment with Stalinism had left the ranks of passionate leftwing activists and intellectuals in a state of revolutionary pathos, a long dark night of the beautiful soul. Algeria, the “Mecca of Revolution,” and the Third World’s wave of national liberation and anti-imperialism suddenly illuminated the darkness in which the revolution had fallen. Franz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the entire French Left heralded that out of the sands of North Africa and the jungles of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, a new man and a new socialism are emerging to end history once and for all. For nearly three decades, the Third World was the cause that mobilized the Left more than any other cause in the world.
It is necessary to recall this air of international revolt if we are to grasp a glimpse of the life of Simon Malley, who, more than many, invested his life, his being, and his identity in the Third World. Malley’s political life started in his youth years in Egypt when he joined the Egyptian Communist Party, which was mostly dominated by bourgeois Jewish dilettantes who barely spoke Arabic but had a strong base of young students, aspiring intellectuals, and some figures in the Egyptian labor movement. Malley seemed to have come from a modest background and couldn’t further his formal education beyond high school. He found his way into journalism at an early age and where sent to cover the UN on behalf of an Egyptian newspaper, where he began a journalistic career that defined his life. Like many of his generation, the beginning of the war in Algeria was the key event that radicalized Malley and inspired him to become the francophone journalistic voice of the Third World. He had a major role in putting the Fanonian National Liberation Front (FLN) on the world map. He became one of Nasser’s official propagandists in New York despite the latter’s hostility toward Jews and communists. Thanks to his revolutionary commitment, Malley maintained his Egyptian passport despite the fact that Nasser made Egypt’s population of 80,000 Jews stateless. While he was in New York, he met his soon-to-be wife, Barbara Silverstein, a New Yorker who worked for the UN delegation of Algeria’s FLN.
The concept of imperialism, devised by Vladimir Lenin, was one of the most significant and consequential developments in the history of Marxist thought and played a huge role in the Marxification of the Third World and the revolutionization of idealistic Western youth. Lenin’s imperialism gave birth to worlds of Marxist theoretical innovations, international relations theories, international economic analysis, identities, and ideologies, effectively dominating entire academic disciplines, and it formed a significant portion of the nuclei around which the 1960s’ New Left was formed, producing a global network of Third World, national liberation, feminist, and other movements. As one English Communist thinker described it, the concept of imperialism is Marxism’s greatest propagandistic triumph with which it was able to dominate the thought of humanity.
According to the Leninist theory of imperialism, Western imperialist control of the colored nations, either through direct Western colonization or indirect methods of control, later to be known as neo-colonialism, was the highest stage in capitalism with which the capitalist forces are able to stifle the revolutionary forces at home and expand its capitalist markets abroad. This imperialism is a socially retrogressive force and prevents or distorts the economic development of Third World countries, creating relationships of subordination and dependence between rich and poor countries and retards indigenous economic development that might otherwise have occurred. In the 1960s, this official Communist view was supplemented by Western Marxist analysis deeming imperialism as the principal impediment to the rapid achievement of an advanced society and the eradication of poverty. Both views asserted that the political independence achieved in national liberation movements is merely nominal as long as imperialist power relations dominate the world. Accordingly, fighting imperialism in the Third World amounts to bringing the revolution of the Western working classes and the emancipation of all of humanity. Later theoretical developments, which will annex enormous bodies of political and economic analysis, will deepen the concept significantly as it will directly blame all the problems of the Third World, from poverty to women’s conditions and religious fanaticism, on Western imperialism, making Third World underdevelopment and state-failure the direct outcome of Western development. These theoretical developments established fighting Western imperialism and supporting Third World revolutionaries as the highest ethical commitment of anyone on the Left.
Simon Malley spared no effort in propagandizing the causes of Third World dictators and absolutist states who adopted the ideologies of anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and anti-Zionism. He was uncompromisingly anti-Israel, seeing nothing in Israel but an evil vestige of colonialism to be crushed by the rising heroes of the Palestinian revolution. He earned multiple Arab and African citizenship, including an honorary Palestinian one, awarded to him by one of his most iconic Third World heroes, Yasir Arafat. In short, Simon Malley was living a true hero’s journey and the committed intellectual’s quest for a salvific world revolution that ends capitalism and achieves a messianic social justice. Lumbaba, Che, Ho Chi Minh, Arafat, and Cabral were the prophets and saints of his religion.
In 1969, the Malleys moved to Paris, where the husband founded Africasia, later renamed Afrique Asie, a magazine specialized in promoting the causes of the Third World. Together, Simon and Barbara raised their son, Robert, taking him on multiple revolutionary tourism trips in Arab, African, and Asian countries. As his father was logging in an impressive 20-hour interview with Fidel Castro and many more hours with Yasir Arafat, Robert Malley’s childhood was a cosmopolitan, internationalist, and Third Worldist one that exposed him from an early age to a vast world of anti-imperialist passions and revolutionary intrigue. He played with many of his father’s friends, such as Arafat himself, but also played in Paris with other American children, such as Anthony Blinken, the future US Secretary of State. While most of the details we know of Malley’s father’s character and anti-American passions come from his son, he did not talk much about how his childhood influenced his subsequent development. Yet, once one sees that Robert Malley, too, spent his entire adult life, both as a student and as a professional, entirely dedicated to Third World politics, there remains no room for speculation. As a matter of fact, both Malley’s graduate degree and his only published book focus on Algeria, the central cause that defined his father’s and his family’s life. His book, The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution, and the Turn to Islam, remains to be one of the most insightful accounts of the ideological evolution of Third Worldism. Professionally, all of Robert Malley’s subsequent career focused entirely on the Palestinians, Syria, and Iran.
Simon Malley’s activities, writings, and involvement in the world revolution naturally earned him many enemies. His hostility to Sadat and the Egyptian peace with Israel caused Sadat to deny him his Egyptian passport. His publications were virulently anti-America, anti-French, anti-Israel, and pro-Soviet, and some of them incited the assassinations of political figures. He was accused of receiving Soviet money, especially after strongly supporting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Cuban intervention in Angola, the seizure of American hostages in Iran, and the Algerian-backed guerrilla war in southern Morocco. Ultimately, all of this caused French President Valéry d’Estaing to order the French police to grab Malley and throw him on a plane to New York, where the family relocated afterward. Arafat personally intervened and threatened that Malley’s expulsion would undermine France’s reputation in the Arab world.
In the US, Robert Malley finished his education at the most prestigious institutions of Yale and Harvard, where he studied along with future President Obama. In Yale (1980-1984), Robert Malley became a prominent anti-Israel voice publishing constant articles in the Yale Daily News condemning Zionism and supporting Palestinian terrorism. In an article published on October 27th, 1980, and titled “Examining the myth and reality of Zionism,” Malley argued that Zionism is the new Nazism and Palestinians are the new Jews whose terrorism is their only means of defending their cause and resisting neo-Nazi Israel. In Harvard, he studied along with former President Obama in what Obama recalled in his Dreams of My Father as the days, “I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists, and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.” It is hard to imagine that in such groups, anyone knew more about neocolonialism, Fanon, and Eurocentrism than Malley.
While Malley, the father, was busy trying to republish his magazine, now renamed Le Nouvel Afrique Asie, and promote it through the PLO’s official blessings, the son was embarking on his own path. After college, Malley became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a Supreme Court clerk, and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. These facts are often missed or conveniently ignored by many of Malley’s conservative detractors who prefer to engage in populist rightwing conspiracy theories, accusing Malley of being a foreign agent and an Ayatollah in disguise instead of facing the uncomfortable fact that Malley represents major transformations in American institutions and American culture. It is a transformation that is happening in every American family and home. Malley is a fully credentialed member of America’s most prestigious institutions, and he represents a new rising progressive America that largely internalized the anti-imperialist image of the United States’ global power or, at best, is ambivalent to America’s self-image.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Malley inherited his father’s diplomatic assets of wide connections with Third World leaders and autocrats. As a matter of fact, during his school years, Malley was already traveling to the Third World countries, personally advising African Marxist military dictators such as Thomas Sankara and helping Jerry Rawling, Ghana’s socialist military leaders, with writing speeches denouncing neoliberal economics and its attacks on Third World’s socialism.
Malley never left an honest, convincing account of what persuaded him to abandon his father’s anti-imperialist fascination and commitment to the dreams of the final perfection of man brought about by the Ghaddafs and Arafats of the world. Malley’s attempts to address this crucial question in his Algeria book and in his published lecture about his father are obfuscated by a thick mist of ambiguous romantic sense of disillusionment. No account or date is given, and no precise idea is discussed, but only a sentimental admission that he was completely disillusioned with Third Worldism as its many flaws started to appear to him.
This could be the case, or it could be a personal rationalization of what effectively was part of a general historical development that took place following the triumph of neoliberal economics and the 1990s collapse of Soviet Socialism, the single most monumental project ever to be conjured by intellectuals in human history. At the same time, free from the Cold War threats, American liberalism was actively trying to assimilate into itself the ideological pieces left behind by what seemed to be a bygone era. The success of Fukuyama’s End of History wasn’t due to its theoretical breakthroughs or philosophical innovations but because it provided a cohesive rational frame for what many in the American political establishment had felt. Assimilating those ideological pieces that once looked so scary but now looked harmless seemed like the prudent thing to do.
In this context, one could see Malley’s conversion to American liberalism, his joining of the bureaucratic ranks of what he once considered “American imperialism” was part of a larger phenomenon in which the Western leftwing anti-imperialist intelligentsia was fragmented between those who formed anti-globalization, anti-war, and environmentalist movements and those who merged with the liberal establishment and shaped its progressive wing. Like Obama himself, they were a new American class of international, urban, highly mobile, and highly credentialed professional intellectuals who came to age in the Edward Said moment. They are both comfortable in the professional corporate world and the activist world and both at home in Western and non-Western countries. They no longer believed in what Foucault propagandized as the spiritual humanism of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, nor in the inevitable world-transforming triumph of Palestinian guerrillas. They no longer believed in the conspiratorial villainy of American imperialism, but neither did they believe in American patriotism. Unlike what hot-headed and ill-tempered American conservative populists say, they do not hate America, and they do not work for America’s enemies, but they are merely ambivalent to what we think America represents. They were happy to merge their disillusioned sense of revolution with the American sense of order and settle with the march of orderly progress.
Typically, people with similar backgrounds to Malley stay in the academy to help educate the next generations of Americans into the quackeries of the social sciences and critical quackeries. But Malley already had a taste of working with power and advising Third World leaders and dictators. In 1998, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as the Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs, a post in which he oversaw the Camp David negotiations between Arafat and Ehud Barak. Malley recounted how every time he met with Clinton and Arafat, Arafat had to take the time to praise Malley’s father, the honorary Palestinian citizen, who spared no effort to support Palestine and oppose Zionist “lies.” Both Arafat and Malley had come a long way, the former from being a hunted international terrorist and the latter from being an advisor to African dictators to sitting in the White House. Their story, to a large degree, symbolizes, in a condensed way, the history of Third World ideological radicalism and how it seamlessly merged into the world America made. Malley himself understood this of Arafat, narrating in his book how Arafat’s disarmed recognition of Israel on the lawn of the White House symbolized the final defeat of the revolutionary dreams of the Third World. Whether what Arafat represented was indeed a defeat is debatable. But I wonder if Malley also understood that he, too, as he became a card-carrying member of America’s Democratic elite and one of the shapers of US foreign policy affecting the lives of hundreds of millions, symbolized a major socio-historical development.
As Malley watched Oslo devolve into the Second Intifada after the end of the Clinton administration without progress, Malley started to get known and noticed after he published a number of articles in which he entirely blamed the failure of the negotiations on Israel and the US. These articles, published in the New Yorker review, were co-authored with Hussein Agha, a Palestinian academic, a member of Arafat’s negotiating team, and the man who authored the PLO’s National Security framework. In these articles, Malley and Agha provided a cohesive narrative in which American partiality, Israeli insolence, and lies prevented the success of the Camp David negotiations. This account has been disputed by many, including by figures from the US and the Israeli government. Yet, it was wildly successful and managed to become the official narrative of the pro-Palestinian camp in the US. Perhaps this episode could give us insight into the nature of the relationship between Malley and his anti-imperialist heritage and the nature of the assimilation of such heritage into the American liberal establishment. It cannot be missed that the narrative itself is profoundly anti-imperialist despite the fact that Malley and Agha avoided its jargon. It basically expressed, in American technocratic terms, what the anti-Zionist works of Simon Malley would have said, America and Israel are conspiring to deprive the Palestinians of their human rights.
After leaving the government, Malley joined the International Crisis Group, a leftwing Foreign Policy Think Tank which was jump-started by George Soros’s funds, as the Director of its Middle East program. During his tenure, he advocated for progressive foreign policies, which were often the complete opposites of the prevailing preferences among Republicans and Democrats. As a matter of fact, his policy prescriptions were no less than a radical transformation of US Middle East foreign policy in a way that is practically an inversion of Washington’s vision of the region. During the Bush administration’s efforts to isolate Syria after its destabilizing activities in Lebanon, Malley advocated the opposite, and he led the ICG to open an office in Damascus, a strategic decision given the presence of the Hamas leadership and Iranian agents in the city. This policy preference was embedded in a larger framework in which Malley called for the US government to reach out to Iran and to conduct formal talks with Hamas, which would have been a formal recognition of the terrorist organization and a blow to all Arab allies of Washington, whose main domestic threat was the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, Malley was asking the US to reverse its positions on the Axis of Resistance completely. While this sounded ludicrous to many traditionally-minded foreign policy experts and Middle Eastern diplomats, it was Malley who got the last laugh.
Malley’s impressive credentials, his international un-square past, and his rising reputation as a new kind of policymaker who is not afraid to “move fast and break things,” defy American traditional foreign policy preferences, and formulate unconventional conclusions was a perfect fit for the post-Bush American Zeitgeist. The rise of the American idea of progressive, cool, iconoclastic, and unconventional ways was starting to take hold of America’s businesses, culture, and politics in the era of iPhone-powered dreams of bold, big changes. While it is unclear how much of a role their personal acquaintances during their years at Harvard Law played, it couldn’t have hurt. Obama had already made it clear that he was going to be the force that would be “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” And a transformative president naturally needed a transformative foreign policy.
During the elections, Malley became Obama’s advisor on Middle East foreign policy and helped the young candidate navigate the most continuous area of American foreign policy in post-Iraq politics. During the campaign, Malley was forced to resign after it was reported that he was communicating with members of Hamas. At the time, Malley was still running the ICG’s Middle East program, which had an office in Damascus where Hamas was based, and Malley admitted he regularly is in contact with Hamas officials. The episode forced Malley to return to the ICG, which was quickly becoming one of the most favored foreign policy think tanks in progressive and liberal circles in Washington and Europe. It would not be an exaggeration to say they created from scratch what did not exist before, an American leftwing foreign policy vision. Its progressive analysis and agenda w weren’t just adopted by many Western governments but forced many of the heritage progressive think tanks to move more to the left.
In 2014, six years after the Hamas scandal, Malley finally joined the Obama administration as senior director of the National Security Council. Shortly after, he became the Special Assistant to President Obama on Middle East policy. By that time, the ICG had already been systematically advocating for a pivot in US policy towards Iran through diplomatic outreach to reach a comprehensive agreement over the nuclear issue and avoid the spoilers such as Israel and the Arab Gulf. It presented the then-new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as America’s last chance to reach such an agreement. As a matter of fact, the principal points of the subsequent agreements with Iran could all be found in the publications of the ICG, such as Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube, and Iran and the P5+1 Getting to “Yes.” These publications were often explained at length in the constant meetings between the ICG and American and Western politicians and diplomats. It is not an exaggeration to say that the ICG is the lead think tank in formulating American and European policies toward Iran. This is so much of a fact in the diplomatic world that Middle East statesmen casually describe it as Washington and others “outsourcing” foreign policy to the ICG.
Only three months before Malley had joined the administration, the P5+1 countries and Iran had just signed the interim agreement, which was the first step towards the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), along the lines suggested by the ICG and which, without a doubt, were formed after talks with Iranian officials. The rest is history, and the JCPOA, which Malley oversaw, turned out to be the dawn of the beginning of the major unraveling of the American-sponsored order in the Middle East. On the way, America spared no effort to ignore allies, dishearten friends, and embolden enemies.
The enemies of the new Iran policies, in a larger context of major reassessments of Middle East policy and traditional alliances, were many. Republicans wasted no opportunity in trying to disrupt the administration’s plans through congressional actions and media campaigns. In turn, the administration fought back by constructing a new approach allowing the White House to circumvent Congress altogether and constructing a new narrative able to subvert public criticism. This new narrative depended on two pillars; the first was recalling one of anti-imperialism’s greatest myths: Western imperialism was responsible for Iran’s undemocratic political, social, and religious reality through its unforgivable guilt in orchestrating the 1953 coup which removed Mohammad Mosaddegh from power in Iran and restored a brutal monarchy. The second was the narrative of the new moderate Iranian leadership, which was already constructed by the ICG by Malley and Ali Vaez. These narratives, along with a peculiar atmosphere of secrecy and dishonesty, managed to make the new policies a reality.
The JCPOA pitted Israel and Arab Gulf countries against President Obama, the worshipped icon of American progressive and liberal politics, and started a major rift that only widened. Meanwhile, Iran emerged as more powerful, harnessing power-projection capabilities unmatched by any other regional power and operating a large network of terrorist organizations and armed militias. Most importantly, Iran is closer today than it has even been to arms-level nuclear enrichment. Arab Gulf monarchies are going their independent path and openly telling the US they are no longer bound by their traditional alliances and are defying Washington on its top priorities, Russia and China.
The rift was not just due to America’s Iran policy, but the former was one outcome of a major progressive turn in US foreign policy towards a worldview that is at best suspicious of Israel and contemptuous of Arab monarchies. Ideas that were once constricted to the quackery of Third Worldist anti-imperialism and decolonization are now a common stock in the most prestigious American political, diplomatic, and educational institutions. The language of anti-imperialist ideologies itself became a prominent feature in American public life with demands for decolonizing everything from hairstyles to mathematics and American diplomats developed a new routine of reciting a list of American historical sins in front of UN gatherings.
The recent news that Robert Malley has been put on leave from his position as the Special Evoy to Iran had many hoping, including many Iranian dissidents and activists, that the man who oversaw the empowerment of the Middle East’s leading criminal regime is finally leaving the picture for good. But this hope could prove to be misguided. Whether Robert Malley stays involved with the US government or retires and spends his remaining days fishing in the Bahamas, it won’t make much difference. Malley is merely one person, but the way of thinking he represents has already taken over, irreversibly, many American institutions. Whether the investigation reveals some career-ending bombshell, such as unauthorized communications, or turns out to be an inconsequential procedural issue, Malley already has won. The progressive path on which he helped place US foreign policy, a part of a larger national progressive turn, will be continued by others to even deeper quagmires.
I have one last word for those who have always been suspicious of Malley. Robert Malley is not part of a global America-hating conspiracy. He is not taking orders from Tehran and is not a fifth column for the Ayatollah. He is not a self-hating Jew who is secretly plotting with Hamas and the PLO the destruction of Israel. Such populist and obsessive language is one of the main reasons that Robert Malley, and the American socio-historical development he represents, gained the upper hand.
In the epilogue of his book on Third Worldist, Malley spoke of his relationship with the ideology in the past tense. He made it clear he is no longer a true believer. I believe Malley, not his detractors. I have very few reasons to believe that Malley still believes in the moral supremacy of single-party dictatorships like those of African dictators. However, what Malley does represent is a new America that is hellbent on undoing its own power. You do not need to be a Marxist or an Islamist to be so, but all you need to be is a member of an upper-middle-class coastal American family who got their education in the world’s most prestigious schools. The triumph of Malley’s view of the world reflects no conspiracies, no cosmic evil, and no hidden villains. It reflects only our failure to see what has been going on in our own institutions, homes, and in the minds of our most intelligent people.
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