In the rhetoric of restoration-era Washington, D.C., reality is reclaiming a place. The post-insurrection hoopla was always going to deflate into the realpolitik of competing ideologies—and, in foreign policy, it already has. Robert Malley’s appointment as special envoy to Iran points to a deepening fissure within the Democratic Party: It is being hailed as a victory for those who reject the postwar liberal promotion of American capitalism and democracy and instead identify with the credo of institutional progressivism. This is an ideology increasingly endorsed by powerful American structures, in which correcting the West’s historical marginalization of people of color, people with different sexual identities, women, people from developing nations, and others is understood to be the determining goal of politics.
Malley is a policy expert and operative—he is a doer, not an active ideologue. But the policies he has promoted and facilitated over 20 years are consistently in the service of rapprochement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas, and Iran, which are held up by institutional progressives as the marquee victims of Western interventionism in the Middle East. To be fair, Biden’s entire foreign policy team, starting with Biden himself, supported and implemented the Iran deal, which was the cornerstone of Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy and would now appear to be heading into its third term—with Malley, Jake Sullivan, Antony Blinken, Wendy Sherman, and Samantha Power all serving in nearly the same roles they occupied while ensuring the Iran deal’s implementation and passage. What’s new is the liberal Democratic establishment’s use of the new, harder progressive logic, which holds that any opposition to its policies is psychologically rooted in inherited racism, sexism, or trauma.
Bernie Sanders backs Malley: Sanders does not speak the language of identity or the establishment, but his unqualified brand of democratic socialism mandates support for any group that American imperialism has plausibly impacted. And so, most fervently of all, does Peter Beinart, newly contributing editor to The New York Times, who in 14 years has successfully completed a 180-degree turn from writing “The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror” to writing “to honor [my] anti-imperial inheritance while participating in the foreign policy debates of the world’s most powerful empire,” while maintaining his positioning within the party’s dominant ideological framework. Beinart writes on his Substack that “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.”
Beinart, like many observers of Malley, ascribes the diplomat’s perspective to Malley’s Egyptian Syrian Jewish father’s experiences supporting the Algerian anti-colonial uprisings against France. Like many Democrats, he equates this perspective to the Democrats’ presidential icon: “Like Obama,” he concludes, “Malley’s background enables him to see America—and the West more generally—from the outside in and the bottom up.”
Empathy might or might not be a helpful capacity, but it is not a measurable one. Policy is—because policy can be held up to the criteria of its impact on the ground: Who benefits, who is harmed, what stays the same. The case of Rob Malley, with his extensive record setting the terms for policies that affect people in the Middle East, therefore offers a good test for the impact of policies that institutionalist progressives support, measured on their own terms, which they describe as democratic, organic, anti-systemic: addressing the reality of regular people left behind by the structures of power, as Beinart puts it, “from the outside in and the bottom up.”
Malley is known for three major diplomatic initiatives: with the Palestinians, the Iranians, and against the Islamic State group (previously known as ISIS or ISIL). His first recognition came with his participation in the Camp David Summit of 2000 as an adviser to Bill Clinton, and his subsequent recounting of the negotiations in a piece co-written with a Palestinian negotiator, Hussein Agha, in The New York Review of Books. This recounting didn’t absolve the Palestinians of responsibility for the negotiating breakdowns but made the case that Israel and the United States hadn’t laid the groundwork sufficiently to engage the (in this reading) justifiably paranoid Yasser Arafat. After this analytical foray, “engagement” became Malley’s theme—he was booted from his advisory role on the Obama campaign in 2008 when it was “discovered” that he had been meeting with representatives of Hamas. (But not to worry: When out of a job he could always count on George Soros to cover his expenses.)
Six years later, after serving in various unofficial diplomatic roles, Malley was formally appointed to the National Security Council; the next year he became White House coordinator for the Middle East, Africa and the Gulf region; that same year he was the lead U.S. negotiator on the Iran deal. It was in this period, from 2014 to 2017, that he worked with Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran and special presidential envoy to counter ISIL—now President Biden’s National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
The policies Malley and McGurk developed were continued, after Obama left the White House, by McGurk, who stayed on, and then by Donald Trump’s first Secretary of Defense James Mattis. This meant that the policies had time to produce concrete results—helping to create a new reality on the ground. It’s against these results that Malley’s policies can productively be judged.
The map of the Middle East in 2014 presented a dense but clearly delineated canvas for anyone who wanted to structurally, carefully realign the region in favor of its people. Iran had jumped on the U.S.-created muddle in Iraq beginning in the mid-aughts, sponsoring many of the militias that had created chaos in Iraq and killed hundreds of American soldiers. Meanwhile, Iran was contracting with Russia for missiles and arms, while sponsoring Hamas in the Gaza Strip and exercising de facto control in Lebanon through the corrupt, Iranian-backed Lebanese Armed Forces, which allowed the Iran-sponsored terrorist group Hezbollah to operate with impunity there. Iran was also sending operatives as far as Venezuela for rapprochements with Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, and it was suppressing protests at home with unapologetic, public brutality. And by 2013, through its backing of Bashar Assad, along with Russian assistance, it was functionally sponsoring the Syrian genocide.
These moves weren’t quiet, and they didn’t require an inductive leap of logic to understand. Whatever one thought about how best to respond to its aggression, Iran’s culpability in the Middle East’s problems was obvious: It was clearly the sponsor of regimes and actors that created chaos and repression on the ground. Compared to the aggressive gambles of Iran, Saudi Arabia—which led the other Middle Eastern bloc and was engaged in a canny balancing of its own radicals while assisting the United States’ war on terror— was a small-stakes player.
What was Malley’s response to this reality? He did not look at Iran, the underlying disruptive state actor, taking a root-and-branch approach to deconstruct some of what the Iranians had managed to build for themselves. Instead, he addressed the most immediate and most reported on problem in the region, the Islamic State group. IS had made its bones off the Syrian civil war: With Assad’s state on the defensive, a branch of the rebels took the opportunity to become street thugs of messianism. Yet Malley and McGurk ignored the causal reasons for IS, and instead swept the surfaces, treating it as the problem that had to be solved. This meant that Iran, which was supporting the state that had caused IS to exist, was now our partner in combating it in Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, some of the biggest enablers of these policies were institutional conservatives—people like Mattis, concerned above all with stability, making functional common cause with policies that originated in an institutional progressive agenda, the result of which was to bring the United States into alignment with Iran and Assad.
The real ground-setter for these moves was not Malley, of course, nor Mattis, nor McGurk. It was President Obama, who since the Iranian protests of 2009 had set an agenda directed toward rapprochement with Iran. The concrete results of Obama’s approach were institutional deals aimed at correcting what he saw as historical misunderstandings and promoting equity with enemies. In this case, that meant subordinating other concerns—human rights in Iran, the Syrian genocide—in favor of treating with America’s major regional enemy, thereby meliorating the faults of American policy, the list of which was familiar to any foreign policy progressive: The United States had (ostensibly) deposed Mohammad Mossadegh (per Kermit Roosevelt), and unquestionably supported the shah, thereby creating the conditions for Ruhollah Khomeini’s seizure of power.
The human detritus of Malley’s subordinations piled up quickly. Four-hundred-thousand people died in Syria; 4 or 5 million more were refugeed. Iranian protesters were jailed; its women stoned; relatives of dissidents coerced into denouncing them on camera. Hamas and Hezbollah continued to receive funding from Iran as they inflicted terror on Israel and disorder on Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia responded to Iran’s expansion of influence with pivots of its own. Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, has now been raised to de facto kingship, and this crown prince, at 35, plays an aggressive game with ambiguous outcomes: domestic liberalization, a war in Yemen that has cost 100,000 lives and counting, the sharp curtailing of the kingdom’s old intrafamily governing approach in favor of something more centralized, and the ostentatious execution of the former Saudi intelligence officer Jamal Khashoggi. Almost the only beneficiary of the Malley-McGurk-Obama plan in this region, ironically enough, turned out to be Israel: The Gulf states and the conservative monarchies have rushed to ally with the Jewish state to stave off the challenge of Iran.
The agenda husbanded by Obama and implemented by McGurk and Malley, judged on its own terms, has created a Middle Eastern reality very different than the reality it publicly claims to want. Ordinary people, people who have indeed lived with imperialism and domestic repression for a century or more and have demonstrated their willingness to take a stand against them, have been actively silenced by these policies. The institutionalist progressive use of international agreements to right historical wrongs has given power to states whose leaders claim to speak in the people’s name even as they cut off their voices, and murder their citizens on an industrial scale. No one could empirically argue that the people of the Middle East are better off materially or representationally because of the policies Malley promoted. And no one could empirically argue that the policies Malley promoted were root-and-branch, close to the ground, concerned with the realities of the region’s people or their actual spokespeople and leaders.
In fact—and this has become the pattern—institutionalist progressivism’s biggest allies are the people, like James Mattis during his time in the Pentagon, who want to protect some version of the status quo. Indeed, institutional progressivism seems not to be a solution to problems of the ground. Instead it seems to be an elite reaction to, actually an inversion of, the petering out of the midcentury liberal internationalist view: America not as liberator but as oppressor; the government and market not working to lift all boats (with all of the limits midcentury society imposed) but categorizing, through ideology, which boats are worthy of being lifted.
And it’s true: The old liberal ethos is threadbare—it increasingly doesn’t match the present as many people experience it. For most people, World War II and the creation of the postwar order—the one that saw expanding liberal democracy as a viable agenda—is a distant memory. The country is defined not by Western European culture but by the cultures of immigrants from all over the world, some of whom come from places exploited by the West. Capitalism and institutionalized democracy, which earlier generations saw as empowering, seem unresponsive and repressive. Unimpeded by any coherent set of American aims and values, both ordinary people and experts who come from elsewhere to reside in Washington naturally interpret both American domestic realities and American foreign policy through the lenses and values of the sectarian societies in which they were raised, and for which they offer themselves as interpreters and spokespeople.
Meanwhile, for many Middle Easterners, Western-backed modernization has come at too high a price. But both ordinary Americans, who are increasingly discouraged about the future, and ordinary Middle Easterners, who are enduring literal oppression, seem less attuned to the progressive reaction to liberalism’s petering out, to this narrow ideological answer to the receding of a worldview, than the people who promote it may want to believe. The view from above looks different from the view from below, even when the former is called progressive.
Martin Peretz was Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic for 36 years and taught social theory at Harvard University for nearly half a century.