One of the most unseemly aspects of the beginning of any new administration are the campaigns waged by various job-seekers and their friends (and foes) in order to secure appointments to important positions. The longer a post is kept vacant, which generally happens when the people at the top either haven’t made up their minds or they’re turned down by their first choices, the more intense the jockeying between the camps of the various hopefuls becomes.
This often involves leaks and planted stories about one candidate or another being “seriously considered” by the president and his advisers. Those stories can be an attempt by the would-be officeholder to promote himself or herself as the most qualified person for the job. The goal of such a leak would be to generate buzz around the name and to build up public support for them, giving the impression that choosing them would be popular.
But such rumors, which are never backed up by quotes from people who are in a position to know what’s going on behind the scenes who are willing to be named, can also be an attempt to sabotage a candidate. The purpose of that tactic is to generate outrage from those who are personally opposed to the candidate or policies it’s assumed they would promote. Doing that sends a message to the decision-makers that they will pay a high price in political capital if they insist on choosing someone with so many enemies.
Remembering these facts of political life is the only way to understand the controversy that has emerged over the possibility that Robert Malley might be appointed by President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to be the administration’s special envoy on Iran.
The free-for-all over Malley began with the publication of a story this week in Jewish Insider that said that “sources with knowledge of the plans” said he was being considered for the post. That prompted Eli Lake, one of the best informed and insightful journalists when it comes to national security issues, to write a column in Bloomberg that argued that picking Malley would mean that Biden’s “first foreign-policy blunder could be on Iran.” Lake’s argument was that Malley, who has been a foreign-policy player for a quarter-century with a long record of appeasing America’s enemies, is exactly the wrong person for such a job. Or at least he would be if the goal of the Biden team was not to simply turn the clock back to January 2017.
In recent weeks, Blinken and Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have been sounding as if their intentions towards Iran were both tough and sensible. They’ve been trying to give the impression that they are in no hurry for the United States to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal from which the Trump administration withdrew or to lift the sanctions that their predecessors imposed on it. Instead, they’ve been talking as if they should be taken seriously when they say they want Iran to show some good faith on the nuclear issue first. Moreover, they also are acknowledging that America’s objective must be to renegotiate the pact so as to ensure that Tehran isn’t allowed to eventually build a nuclear weapon, as well as to hold it accountable for being the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and a builder of illegal missiles whose only purpose would be acts of aggression and potential genocide.
Lake argues that appointing Malley as Biden’s go-to man on Iran would send a signal to the Islamist regime that, as was the case under Obama, they would be dealing with diplomats who are prepared to give them whatever they want. So it was no surprise that Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who want to push the administration not to give away the store to Iran, would retweet Lake’s article as part of an effort to forestall his appointment.
Lake’s column has prompted a flurry of competing statements from Malley’s friends in the foreign-policy establishment, such as Aaron David Miller, Dennis Ross and Ben Rhodes, lauding his record, integrity and policy bona fides, as well as firing back at Cotton in an attempt to support his cause.
So, who is Robert Malley?
He served in a variety of positions during the Clinton administration, but became a lightning rod for controversy in 2001 when he published articles in The New York Times and the New York Review of Books about the Camp David Summit of 2000. Malley, who was one of the staffers assisting President Bill Clinton at the summit, contradicted his boss and just about everyone else who had been there by claiming that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was not to blame for its failure.
With Clinton’s approval, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered Arafat independence and statehood in the Gaza Strip, almost the entire West Bank and a share of Jerusalem, and still, the veteran terrorist said “no.” A few months later, Arafat further answered the offer of peace by launching a terrorist war of attrition—known as the Second Intifada—that cost the lives of thousands of Jews and Arabs alike, as well as blew up the Oslo peace process.
There is little doubt that Arafat was never interested in peace, let alone statehood. But Malley perversely argued that Arafat had been wronged by Clinton (who has never forgiven Arafat for depriving him of a Nobel Peace Prize) and Barak, and that he was justified in turning down such an inadequate offer that didn’t fully satisfy Palestinian ambitions.
Such a stand should have marginalized Malley. Instead, he has prospered and grown in influence. He did have a setback in 2008, when he was forced to step down as then candidate Barack Obama’s foreign-policy adviser after it emerged that he had met with leaders of the Hamas terrorist group, whom he has since consistently argued must be included in peace negotiations with Israel. But he eventually returned to the corridors of power during the second term of the Obama administration when he became the president’s point man on the Middle East at the National Security Council.
Since then, he returned to the International Crisis Group, an influential think tank and non-governmental organization that is a pillar of the foreign-policy establishment, and where he now serves as president and CEO. In recent years, has used that bully pulpit not merely to oppose the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and its “maximum pressure” policy aimed at forcing its renegotiation, but also against former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s demands that Tehran enact democratic reforms, end support of terrorism and taking foreign hostages, in addition to ceasing its military adventures aimed at achieving regional hegemony.
Malley is, therefore, Iran’s ideal candidate for the position of American envoy.
Rather than answer the trenchant criticisms of Malley’s awful record, his friends—in particular, the other Jews who were, along with him, part of a cohort of State Department peace processors determined to unfairly pressure Israel and to appease the Palestinians—claimed both in 2008 and now that his reputation is being smeared by his critics. They’re right that he shouldn’t be held accountable for the fact that his father was a well-known Communist sympathizer and that he doesn’t directly advocate Israel’s destruction or for allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Still, Malley is, nevertheless, a perfect example of establishment thinking that is not merely wrongheaded, but has led to disastrous decisions that both made the world less safe and made peace in the Middle East less likely. The contrast between the policies he advocates and those implemented by the amateurs that ran foreign policy under former President Donald Trump that both weakened Iran and led to normalization agreements between Israel and Arab and Muslim states is instructive.
Without knowing what’s going on inside the heads of Biden, Blinken and Sullivan, it’s hard to say which side came out ahead in the recent exchange about Malley. But Malley’s opponents have, if nothing else, made it clear to the White House that appointing him will generate controversy and a fight that could be both time-consuming and a distraction at a time when they already have more than enough on their plates.
The reason why these kinds of political games are played has less to do with personal ambitions than it does with the consequences of such appointments. The question of which individuals are put in such crucial positions matters. It is for that reason that those who are concerned about whether Biden will vigorously defend American interests have voiced concerns about the appointment of Wendy Sherman as the No. 2 person in the State Department after her past disastrous negotiations with North Korea and Iran.
It is policy that is at stake in the battle over personnel. If Blinken means what he says and Biden is determined to be tough on Iran, then that is more important than whether or not Malley is given a job in his administration. But if toughness is wanted, then why hire someone who has staked their career on justifying appeasement of terrorists like Arafat and Islamist tyrants like the Iranians? That’s why the question of whether Malley is brought into the administration not only matters, but will also speak volumes about what’s in store for America and its allies in the next four years.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.