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A New Appointment Causes Hope for Reality-Based Mideast Policy

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Personality is not always policy. But it is telling that the elevation of Robert Malley to the bureaucratic-sounding but actually pretty important post of senior director at the National Security Council is being treated as such. His task is going to be shoring up support among the United States’ traditional Arab allies in the Middle East—chiefly Sunni states like Saudia Arabia—as the U.S. at the same time engages in negotiations with those allies’ enemy, Iran, over the latter’s nuclear program.

Malley is known for pushing a version of the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David talks between Israel’s Ehud Barak and the Palestinians’ Yasser Arafat that took a good deal of the responsibility for the failure off Arafat’s shoulders (Malley was an advisor to President Bill Clinton at the time). He also had to distance himself from President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign after it became known that, in his capacity with the International Crisis Group—“an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict”—he met with Hamas. He also advocated engaging with Syria’s Assad regime, at least before that regime decidedly more explicitly to wage war on its own people.

That last policy was, in my opinion, a mistake. Actually I’d go further and say that it betrayed an error in moral judgment. It would probably prevent me from voting for Robert Malley for president. It is a little troubling that the administration, which in my opinion continues to be too forgiving of Assad’s butchery, has selected him.

Still, Malley isn’t running for president, and U.S. Syria policy is not changing anytime soon. Them’s the facts. And so it’s a little bizarre to see, for example, Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin so agitated by the appointment (although in fairness Tobin links it to what he sees as the Obama administration’s broader unfriendliness to Israel). According to media reports, Malley is being brought in to do a specific job: reassure the Sunni states with whom he has cultivated relationships through his ICG work, which involved him talking to as many parties in the region as he could (including, yes, Hamas). The appointment is unlikely fundamentally to change current administration policy in the region, which is already pretty set. It involves, simultaneously, trying (I would bet futilely, but let’s see) to strike a deal with Iran; keeping the Sunni allies in line; doing God knows what with Syria beyond hoping that we actually get its chemical-weapons stockpile and watch the varying bad guys bleed each other; and trying to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward in part by convincing Israel, as a friend and ally, that it is in its own best interest to move forward, and that the water will be fine if they do.

Rather, the appointment tells us that the administration wants knowledgeable hands onboard. In my experience, ICG reports from the region are admirable for their reportorial rigor and analytical bias in favor of the actual facts. The group is relentlessly empiricist, its conclusions often less hopefully prescriptive than sullenly descriptive. 

Lee Smith, a writer generally unfriendly in his views toward the Obama administration, could not help but pen a sympathetic profile of Malley several years ago in Tablet: “To the disillusioned, the problem with the Middle East peace process is not Hamas but the premise of the peace process itself,” Smith concluded. “That’s not Robert Malley’s fault. He didn’t invent the peace process; he’s just honest enough to state what everyone else chooses to wish away.” Stating what everyone else chooses to wish away is a good summary for ICG’s ethos; hopefully Malley can inject a dash of reality-basedness into the administration’s policy, too.