Has Robert Malley’s life and career prepared him for his new job?

It remains to be seen how he will deliver as only his performance will authoritatively answer the sceptics. But for now he should be at least given the benefit of the doubt.
Thursday 18/02/2021
A 2018 file picture shows Robert “Rob” Malley, in his office in Washington. (AFP)
A 2018 file picture shows Robert “Rob” Malley, in his office in Washington. (AFP)

“The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution and the Turn to Islam” was published in 1996. Robert Malley’s book remains one of the best ever written on modern Algeria, but also essential reading to anyone following Middle East and North Africa politics and the extrapolation of the old “North-South” struggle into the “New World Disorder.” As an interpretation of Algeria’s past and present agonies, the book is set against the broader backdrop of the rise and fall of Third Worldism and remains as pertinent today as it was twenty-five years ago.

Malley has just been appointed US special envoy to Iran by President Joe Biden. He is perceived by many experts as quite suited for the challenge of tackling Middle East issues, not least for reasons of family history and professional experience.

Malley started off as a brilliant analyst of a country which, to many Western observers, remains both elusive and hostile; from the turn of the century, he has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, on which he penned a series of articles with Hussein Agha in the New York Review of Books that are arguably among the best ever written on the subject. During former US President Barack Obama’s second term, he was an important actor in the 2015 negotiations with Iran.

In 2008, he was  sidelined from his role as a top adviser on the Middle East after a barrage of attacks by right-wing pro-Israeli groups and also by Gulf politicians distrustful of Iranian designs and of Obama policies towards Tehran. The same groups went on the attack again in January, claiming that Malley is biased against Israel and is “Iran’s ideal candidate for the position of US envoy.” However, unlike thirteen years ago, this time a counter-barrage came with a bevvy of foreign policy experts, including some pro-Israel voices.

Malley was born in 1963 to Barbara (Silverstein) Malley, a New Yorker who worked for the United Nations delegation of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), and her husband, an Egyptian-born Jewish journalist who grew up in Egypt and worked as a foreign correspondent for Al Gomhuria. A communist sympathiser, the elder Malley spent time in New York writing about international affairs, particularly about nationalist, anti-imperialist movements in Africa, and made a key contribution by putting the FLN on the world map. In 1969, the family moved to France where Simon Malley founded the left-wing magazine Africasia, later known as Afrique Asie, which was very close to Algerian leaders, notably President Houari Boumediene. Simon Malley was expelled from France in 1980 by President Giscard d’Estaing due to his hostility towards Western colonialism and Israel.

Robert Malley attended Harvard Law School, where he met his future wife Caroline Brown. In 1991-1992, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White while Brown clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then moved to the Council on Foreign Relations, where he published his book on Algeria which charts the political evolution of that country from independence in 1962 to the mid 1990s, exploring the historical and intellectual underpinnings of the civil war that gripped it in the 1990s. His world-weary, slightly ironic style and sense of drama makes it an unforgettable book.

Robert Malley’s family origins and professional life explain why, more than most observers of the Middle East, he understands how crisis in North Africa washes up in waves over the Middle East (the Fertile Crescent and Iran) and vice versa. The war of independence in Algeria had a huge impact on the Middle East. It brought General Charles de Gaulle back to power in France after the collapse of the Fourth Republic in 1958 and, due to the wide use of torture during the conflict by the French army, was a major factor leading to the founding of Amnesty International. Conversely, the Suez Crisis and the collapse of the Shah’s regime had a huge impact on North Africa, as did Saudi Arabia’s decision after the siege of the mosque in Mecca to send more than $100 billion on spreading the most rigorous form of Islam, Wahhabism, across the Middle East and the wider world.

Most observers of the Middle East scene, notably in the UK and the US, know little if anything of North Africa. Many observers of North Africa are French because France dominated North Africa after the occupation of Algeria between 1830 and 1871, but thumb their noses  at journalists and scholars who write on Algeria in particular in UK or US universities. Yet the two ends of the Arab world are more intimately linked than many suppose. Today, confrontation between Sunnis and Shias very much resembles the endless fights between Protestantism and Catholicism in 16th-17th century Europe – politics dressed up as religion. The West, however, has all too often fallen into the trap of looking down on its southern and eastern neighbours through its fear of Islam and even greater fear of terrorism. Being intimately acquainted with three major areas in the Middle East arc of crisis which stretches from Iran to Morocco, Malley understands like few of his peers how multi- layered the history of this region is. His empathy does not stop him from approaching negotiations with facts, unlike his predecessor Elliott Abrams, who has always argued more like a lawyer for Israel than a mediator.

Much of the analysis that underpins “A Call from Algeria” remains true today. With Third Worldism, “European left-wing activists and intellectuals projected their ideals onto the seemingly virgin lands of the less developed nations,” the book reads. “This was not an uncharacteristic behaviour: the reader need not look very far in history for illustration, as colonial expeditions were celebrated by European parties of the Left in the name of universalism and as a prerequisite to the Third World’s development. In this respect, Third Worldism might be viewed as an outgrowth of the Orientalism that Edward Said so masterfully described, the West’s construction of the Orient.”

In his book, Malley focuses on three themes. “First is the perspective on history, viewed as an inexorable march towards progress. Leaders, guerrilla fighters, journalists and others represented history as a logical and meaningful unfolding, and it became common practise to assail opponents for standing ‘in history’s way.’ Another element is the depiction of the historical actor or subject. Third Worldism took as its premise the exigence of a general will, successively labelled ‘revolutionary’ or ‘popular’. It thereby created a highly manipulable yardstick, since all political positions were measured against this elusive standard. And elusive it was, for who had ever heard of ‘unpopular’ masses? The third motif was the image of power, viewed as something one either possessed or endured, and imagined at the ultimate aim of all political struggle. Of equal importance was the related belief that once in the right hands (the hands of progress, of the revolutionary masses, and so on) power would be benign; indeed, the more of it, the better.”

These three themes and the attitude of left-wing parties to many issues related to Arab and Third World countries are as relevant today as they were in 1996. At the very least, they suggest that Robert Malley could be well equipped for the challenge he faces today. It remains to be seen how he will deliver as only his performance will authoritatively answer the sceptics. He should be at least given the benefit of the doubt.