Who Robert Malley Is—and Isn’t
The Biden administration’s Iran envoy has become an object of controversy—for good reasons and bad.
It is still too soon to know whether the foreign policy of the Biden administration will fall on the left or the right side of the liberal internationalist consensus among centrist Democrats. Indeed, U.S. President Joe Biden’s team can’t know the answer themselves, for it is only in reaction to unforeseen events that a president’s foreign policy fully reveals itself. Nevertheless, there are telltale signs, and both sides are eager to assign them meaning.
No appointment that Biden has made has provoked as much controversy as his choice of Robert Malley, most recently the head of the International Crisis Group, as special envoy to Iran. (See, for example, this recent piece in the New York Times.) Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s top foreign-policy advisor, welcomed the announcement as a sign that Biden wouldn’t back down in fights with “hardliners.” In the New York Times op-ed page, on the other hand, Bret Stephens declared that the decision “beggars belief” and demonstrates that “Biden’s foreign policy will be coldly transactional.”
Malley is just one official, and a second-tier one at that, yet there is nothing accidental about appointing a figure who so plainly favors diplomacy over military force for the one portfolio where that question has been most fiercely debated.
How should we describe the ideological debate that Malley has provoked? Bernie Sanders is plainly to the left of Bret Stephens—or of Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, another Malley critic—but these classical distinctions have not shed much light on foreign policy since Vietnam-era “doves” turned “hawk” when the United States was called on to stop atrocities in the Balkans. Stephens, who argues for a foreign policy driven by human rights, implies a more useful distinction between a neoconservative idealism and the new left-wing realism of groups like the Quincy Institute and perhaps the Crisis Group. But the idea that Malley—or, for that matter, Biden—is “coldly transactional” is so preposterous that the categories themselves seem self-serving.
A more meaningful distinction, which neither side would like, is between “hard” and “soft”—between, that is, coercion and diplomacy. The International Crisis Group, founded to promote dispute resolution, incarnates the doctrine of the soft. The group’s analytical reports, based on fine-grained reporting from the field, almost always conclude that coercion, whether through military force or sanctions, typically heightens rather than resolves conflicts, while diplomacy holds at least the potential to end them. That has predisposed the organization against U.S. intervention in places where it may be called for, like Syria, as well as against confrontations with bad actors like Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, if doing so diminishes the possibility of diplomatic settlement. That’s hardly amoral or transactional; it’s a different view of the moral goals of statecraft from those who insist that the United States must not shy from confrontation in the name of asserting its values. The last 20 years have not been good to that proposition.
Joe Biden, as I’ve written before, holds a deeply moralized, Cold War-era view of America’s role in the world that is very much at odds with the Crisis Group’s global perspective and its aversion to tub-thumping. He will not hesitate to draw the line between democracies and autocracies. Yet he is also deeply skeptical of the use of force and committed to a policy of talking to everyone all the time, as he demonstrated in his years working on Iraq as Barack Obama’s vice president. Diplomacy, for Biden, means listening to the person on the other side of the table—even intractable figures like Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—and trying to find a way of squaring their interests with those of the United States. Biden is a rhetorical hard but a practicing soft.
Iran is the great hard-soft wedge issue. The Obama administration infuriated Israel and the Gulf countries, as well as many American conservatives, by engaging in secret negotiations with Iran that led to the 2015 nuclear agreement. Though Iran abided by the terms of the agreement, idling much of its uranium enrichment program, subsequent President Donald Trump nevertheless withdrew from the agreement in 2018, insisting that Iran would remain a bad actor in the region unless Washington brought it to its knees through sanctions. In an article that year in Foreign Policy alongside the Obama administration’s Philip H. Gordon, Malley, who as a member of Obama’s National Security Council had helped negotiate the deal, predicted that “By imposing comprehensive sanctions that will only be lifted if Iran does everything the United States wants, the administration is likely ensuring that Iran will do nothing it wants.” That proved accurate: Iran has not only not called off proxies like Hezbollah and the Houthis but has also now begun increasing uranium enrichment and restricting access to United Nations weapons inspectors. Diplomacy worked; coercion failed.
Yet Obama-era diplomacy did nothing to restrain Iran’s support for those proxies or to reduce tensions between Iran and its archrival Saudi Arabia. Obama reluctantly supported Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which both the Saudis and their partners, the Emiratis, blamed on Iran, the Houthis’ chief sponsor. That war has produced the world’s worst humanitarian disaster without dislodging the Houthis from control over much of the country—yet another proof of the unavailing use of force. In an article that appeared after his appointment as Biden’s envoy (though written beforehand), Malley and his co-author called on the Biden administration to halt U.S. support for the war—which Biden has done—and to use negotiations over a return to the Iran deal as leverage to pressure the Houthis to “show flexibility in peace talks.”
Biden himself has made noises on Iran that hearten the hard-liners. He has insisted that he will not lift sanctions until Iran stops enriching uranium, pledged to strengthen the deal and lengthen its terms (many set to expire in four years), and promised to consult with Israel and Gulf allies before acting.
There are, however, two very different understandings—hard and soft—of what it would mean to “build on” the 2015 nuclear deal. One, whose premise is that Iran will only respond to the threat of further punishment, is to demand more, on timing as well as long-range missiles, without offering anything in exchange beyond phased-in sanctions relief. The other is, as Malley suggested, to nest the nuclear negotiations within a broader set of discussions involving the Gulf countries with the goal of reducing regional tensions.
To understand what this latter scenario might look like, you need to read a 2020 article in Foreign Affairs not by Malley but by his former Obama and now Biden colleagues, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Daniel Benaim, deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Peninsula affairs. Sullivan and Benaim proposed a Middle East policy “less ambitious in terms of the military ends the United States seeks” but “more ambitious in using U.S. leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.” They would encourage the cautious backroom discussions of the Saudis and Emiratis with Iran, press the Saudis to seek a diplomatic solution in Yemen, and seek a “follow-on agreement” while connecting “the pace and extent of sanctions relief” to Iranian cooperation in the proposed regional dialogue. It’s hard to see much space between Biden’s national security advisor and his special envoy to Iran.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all regard Iran as their existential enemy, if for different reasons. Each will resist any move that seems to legitimate the regime in Tehran. Each has a very powerful lobby in Washington. There is every reason to expect that any or all will try to sabotage the kind of effort Sullivan and Benaim proposed. That said, the experiment in hard-line tactics carried out over the last four years has almost nothing to show for itself. And success would allow the United States to reduce its forces in the region, which neither Obama nor Trump managed to do. Most Americans could not locate Yemen on a map, but most of them have also had it with American military adventures in the Middle East. Americans, too, tend to prefer hard rhetoric and soft practice.
The hackles that Malley’s appointment has raised probably have much less to do with Gulf diplomacy than with the older and very much left-right issue of Israel. Malley served on President Bill Clinton’s team of negotiators at the 2000 Camp David summit. In a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, Malley blamed the failure of the talks on the American and Israeli sides as well as the Palestinians. He was seen as soft on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Hamas long before he was soft on Iran.
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, for better or for worse, yesterday’s fight. On Iran, Malley is not an outlier in the Biden administration. Trita Parsi, an Iran expert at the Quincy Institute, another key institution of the softs, observes that if you’re going to pursue diplomacy rather than confrontation in the Gulf, “you need someone like Rob who knows the region and is deeply respected by the actors in the region.” Parsi, too, sees Malley’s appointment as an important straw in the wind. Biden will almost certainly not land entirely in either camp, but we’re beginning to learn who he’s more likely to disappoint.
James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.