Antony Blinken has been secretary of state for less than 100 days. On the most important strategic issue facing the United States, China, and on the most important moral issue, human rights, he has marked those days with a brand of muscular internationalism that has been absent from Foggy Bottom for too long. He has labeled China’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority as genocide and taken a tough stance on trade imbalances, while committing to work with China on issues like the environment—using exact but firm language backed by coherent policy.
For the most part, Blinken’s stated policies have been strong yet moderate. On the one hand, for example, he will probably not press for international sanctions or reparations from China when it comes to its responsibility for the COVID outbreak. He will probably not use a boycott of the Beijing Olympics to respond to China’s crimes against the Uyghurs. On the other hand, he will push to sanction Chinese officials for their clear, documented, ongoing violations of human rights in Hong Kong. The Biden administration has warned Wall Street not to expect government support for corporate expansion in China—a stand with real substance, since it affects both daily investments and America’s ethical position in the world. For its part, the Treasury Department is pushing for a global minimum tax rate to constrain corporate outsourcing.
But Blinken does have blind spots when it comes to both rhetoric and policy, and these could have large consequences for him and the Biden administration in its larger project of promoting human rights abroad while confronting China. The twinned issues where Blinken has remained conspicuously reticent and indistinct are the Middle East and the elephant in the Middle East, Iran. In lieu of asserting himself, the secretary of state has approved the reopening of nuclear talks with Iran and outsourced them to Robert Malley, whom he appointed or allowed to be appointed U.S. special envoy to that country. Blinken’s reliance on Malley, and Malley’s own history of finding any opportunity to engage with groups and countries that demonstrably align themselves against American interests, point to a large lacuna, so far, in the otherwise sober vision Blinken has laid out.
It is worth noting here that Malley, besides being an architect of President Barack Obama’s Iran deal and a longtime proponent of outreach to Iran and Hamas, is a childhood friend of Blinken’s: The two grew up together in Paris, Malley as the son of a European-style Jewish communist with anti-imperialist politics and links to Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro, and Blinken as the stepson of an active and influential Zionist businessman and philanthropist who was also a public supporter of détente between the West and the Soviet Union. The divergences and convergences of their fathers’ politics are not irrelevant to understanding the sons.
Malley’s vision is shaped, he and others have repeatedly told us, by the immersion of his father, the Egyptian-born journalist and publicist Simon Malley, in the Algerian struggle for independence from France; his American-born mother was also an advocate for Third World causes. The younger Malley’s anti-imperialist heritage has made his concern for the oppressed categorical, not contextual: In his view, any opponent of American postwar international expansion is on the side of the angels, and therefore a worthy candidate for rapprochement. This kind of sentimental attachment to the anti-colonial politics of the late-middle Cold War period might explain why the Iranian mullahs and Hamas have earned more outreach from Malley during his time in government than, say, the victims of the Syrian civil war.
Blinken’s vision, which I know from his time at Harvard and from having employed him with great satisfaction at The New Republic, is shaped by a belief in improving human lives through building international institutions, along with support for the occasional use of force to stop human rights abuses. His vision doesn’t lack power. But its reliance on multilateral institutions as the go-to mechanisms for improving international relations means that it sometimes misses something else: appreciation for the on-the-ground context that delineates what is possible in a particular situation and what is not—the kind of practical horse sense that determines the difference in real world impact between policies and tropes.
The assignment of Malley—who, when he is out of government, runs his inherited anti-imperialist priorities through dogmatic internationalists like George Soros, for whom the idea of a national interest is inherently suspect—shows that Blinken hasn’t looked very hard at the reality of Iran’s actions on the ground, or paid much attention to the recent history of attempted rapprochements with the regime, especially Malley’s. (Soros has not been mentioned in the debate over Malley’s appointment, but he should be: No one can claim that Malley’s proximity to an ideologically driven billionaire who funds a multinational, activist NGO empire and has real interests in international decision-making, currency, and oil markets is irrelevant or an unfit subject of discussion.)
Since George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq threw the Middle East into realignment, the mullahs in Iran have taken every opportunity to aggrandize themselves at the expense of peaceful, ordered, democratic government: sponsoring Iraqi extremist militias and backing the Palestinian extremist group Hamas, the corrupt Lebanese armed forces, Bashar Assad’s genocidal regime in Syria, and the incompetent and oppressive regime in Venezuela, all while turning to Russia and China for great power support when it comes to energy and cash. Malley’s actions from 2014 to 2017 represent the archetypal attempt to tame Iran by engaging it, and the abject failure of that attempt—in both its local and geopolitical context—points to the misguided futility of the project.
Malley’s main contribution to Middle Eastern geopolitics was to solicit Iran’s help in combating ISIS, while ignoring the cause of ISIS—the Syrian civil war—and throwing U.S. backing behind Kurdish militias like the YPG, which, unlike other Kurdish fighting units, has direct ties to Bashar Assad, and thus to Iran. Malley had nothing to show for this strategy, only hundreds of thousands dead in Syria, millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Europe, a further destabilized Iraq, an increasingly disordered Lebanon, and an Iran which rapidly gained influence in the Middle East, spreading chaos and death throughout the region.
Iran’s U.S.-funded aggrandizements were not byplays made in some larger game of eventual engagement with “the international order”: They are the game, which itself is part of a larger realignment of autocracies like Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia, and China against liberal democracies. On March 29, China and Iran signed a $400 billion energy deal by which further Chinese investment in Iran will strengthen its influence in Eurasia, giving both countries leverage over America. That deal took place in the context of a 25-year “strategic cooperation” agreement signed two days earlier, formally bringing Iran into China’s Belt and Road Initiative. “Our relations with Iran will not be affected by the current situation, but will be permanent and strategic,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who had concluded a meeting with Blinken in Alaska only a few days earlier with public contempt.
We don’t really know what President Biden thinks or feels about Iran’s ties with China, only that he has publicly supported reentering Obama’s Iran deal as fast as possible. Yet the ever-increasing and consequential public ties between the two countries underline the extent to which the Middle East can no longer be understood in isolation from China’s drive to supplant the United States as the world’s preeminent power.
Something more than childhood chumminess is therefore at work when Blinken sends an actor with Malley’s track record out to negotiate with a state that is openly allying with America’s main strategic rival. At root, it means that there exists some level of underlying tolerance for a version of what Malley espouses: engagement no matter the circumstances, regardless of actual present-day human misery and oppression in Syria—and even if it strengthens Iran’s strategic ally in Beijing. By turning the means of international coalition-building and decision-making into a political end, Blinken risks abetting Malley’s worst instincts rather than checking them, as some moderate and mainstream congressional Democrats had openly hoped.
While Blinken’s muscular rhetoric may appeal more to liberal centrists than to the ghoulish regimes Malley openly courts, policy is something other than language; it is what happens on the ground once the talking stops. Just as Malley’s toxic brand of Third World “empowerment” must be subjected to the real-world test of whether it actually benefits the people it purports to champion, Blinken’s rhetoric about curbing Chinese abuses and blunting Beijing’s drive for supremacy must be analyzed in terms of the actual impact of Malley’s diplomacy in the Middle East.
Malley’s preferred policy can be summed up in a single word: realignment, toward Iran and away from America’s traditional allies in Israel and the Gulf. It is in that context that other moves in Malley’s regional purview can be understood: downgrading the Abraham Accords, amping up support for the YPG, delisting the Houthis as sponsors of terrorism even as they starve Yemen’s civilian population and launch missiles into Saudi cities, sending cash to Palestinian officials to circumvent the Taylor Force “pay for slay” Act, and reinstituting U.S. financial support for UNWRA, the Palestinian aid organization, with $150 million—a symbolic move that implicitly shifts the onus for peace from Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to Israel.
Maybe Blinken and Biden feel constrained by Obama’s Mideast realignment policy and obligated to continue his intended legacy-making initiative, at least for a time; maybe Malley is leveraging the public strength of Obama’s legacy, and the former president’s sway with key administration figures like Susan Rice, to exercise undue influence in the Biden White House.
In any case, sometimes engagement is the wrong approach, because it weakens America’s strategic and moral imperatives, and keeps policymakers from seeing the forest for the trees. Iran is the place to start the practice of isolation, sooner rather than later.
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.