Forces of darkness suffer setback!

A Biden foreign policy pick shows that reason can triumph.

Last week brought good news on the apocalypse aversion front. In fact, there were two pieces of good news, one in the realm of foreign policy and one in a realm that’s  less concrete than that—a realm you could call “psychological” or maybe even, in some sense of the word, “spiritual.” As it happens, both pieces of good news were embodied in a single personnel development in Joe Biden’s state department: the appointment of Rob Malley as special envoy for Iran.

The reason this is good news on the foreign policy front is straightforward. Malley was centrally involved in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump abandoned and which Biden hopes to restore. So Malley knows the territory, and he’s someone of proven diplomatic savvy. His appointment thus increases the chances of avoiding both a Middle Eastern war and a catastrophic implosion of Iran under the weight of American sanctions. Which would be nice! Here at the Apocalypse Aversion Project we favor avoiding wars and catastrophic implosions.

The good news in the psychological/spiritual realm has to do with the accusations that Malley had to weather in order to get appointed—and the fact that he weathered them. His triumph offers reason to hope that a longstanding impediment to human enlightenment may yet be overcome.  

The accusations came from predictable corners—from neoconservatives and other Iran hawks who wanted to sabotage the Malley appointment—and assumed predictable form. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens cast Malley as “one of Tehran’s premier apologists in Washington” and singled out a 2019 Malley utterance about Iran as supporting evidence. Jonathan Tobin, reaching further back in history to find an instance of alleged apologism, said Malley had claimed that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was “not to blame” for the failure of the Camp David peace negotiations in 2000.

What matters about these claims isn’t so much that they’re wrong as that they’re wrong in a particular way; they belong to a species of fallacious allegation that over the millennia has brought much darkness and bloodshed. Here is the way it works:

Suppose you’re inclined, as Malley is, to try to put yourself in the shoes of important actors in world affairs so you can better understand their perspective and thus better understand why they’ve done the things they’ve done or better predict what they’ll do in the future. And suppose those actors do things that are widely considered bad—like govern repressively, or reject a seemingly generous offer during peace negotiations, or whatever. Then, almost inevitably, you will get accused of justifying this behavior—of absolving them of blame, of being an “apologist” for them.

Which would be annoying as hell even if it weren’t consequential. But it is: If honest attempts at comprehending the world consistently get this kind of negative feedback, then there will be less comprehension in the world—we’ll fail to learn important lessons of history (like what led to past wars) and miss chances for constructive engagement (like how to reach peace agreements).

Consider what is, according to the standard right-wing critique of Malley, his original sin. In 2000 he was involved in the Clinton administration’s attempt to forge an Israel-Palestine peace deal at Camp David. When negotiations ended in failure, the US foreign policy establishment, led by Clinton, placed the blame entirely on Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. (Tobin, in one of the few illuminating passages in his anti-Malley screed, writes that Clinton “has never forgiven Arafat for depriving him of a Nobel Peace Prize.”) Arafat’s inexplicable failure to accept a generous offer, the story went, was just another example of the Palestinians “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Malley, pretty much alone among establishment figures, tried to paint a more balanced picture. He explained why, given Arafat’s political situation, the terms he was being offered seemed less than compelling.

For example: In cases where Israel was unwilling to remove its settlements from Palestinian territory, it offered to compensate the Palestinians with land in sparsely inhabited parts of Israel. Not a bad idea in principle. But Israel offered to give the Palestinians one acre of Israeli land for every nine acres of Palestinian land it was keeping—which seems unfair on the face of it, and seems only more so when you remember that, under international law, Israel is obliged to remove all the settlements, whose very existence violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel signed.

In an op-ed written shortly after the talks collapsed, Malley asked, “How would Mr. Arafat explain the unfavorable 9-to-1 ratio in land swaps to his people?” Obvious as this question may sound, it qualified as radically illuminating when viewed against the fogbank of propaganda generated by the Clinton administration and dutifully spread across America by the Blob-infested mainstream media.

Was Malley saying, as Tobin now claims, that Arafat was “not to blame” for the failure of the talks and that Arafat “was justified in turning down” the overall proposal?

Well, here is something else Malley wrote at the time (in one of the two pieces Tobin cites to justify his characterization of Malley): “Obsessed with [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak’s tactics, Arafat spent far less time worrying about the substance of a deal than he did fretting about a possible ploy. Fixated on potential traps, he could not see potential opportunities. He never quite realized how far the prime minister was prepared to go, how much the US was prepared to push, how strong a hand he had been dealt. Having spent a decade building a relationship with Washington, he proved incapable of using it when he needed it most.”

What an Arafat apologist!

As you may have surmised by now, Malley never said, as Tobin claims, that Arafat bore no blame. His argument, as he wrote at the time, was against “those inclined to blame Arafat alone [emphasis added].”

But even viewing Malley as working to apportion blame equitably may be, in a sense, misleading. As I read his analytical style, he sets about trying to understand why various actors do the things they do without worrying about the implications of this analysis for their culpability.

In any event, that is the analytical style that I think is going to have to become more widespread if Planet Earth is to survive the coming turmoil in good shape. We’re going to have to learn to separate empirical inquiry from moral assessment. We’re going to have to be allowed to try to understand why people do the things they do—including non-wonderful people like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and Bashar al-Assad—without being stigmatized by neocons and other hawks as “apologists.” The goal of this understanding isn’t to exonerate anyone for past or future sins but just to figure out if there’s something we can do to make the situation better—if not this time around, then maybe next time around.

I suggested at the outset of this piece that Malley’s having survived the onslaught of toxic obfuscation coming from people like Tobin and Stephens might be considered good news in the “spiritual” realm. Isn’t that going too far? After all, Malley’s great skill—an unusual capacity for putting oneself in the shoes of other people and understanding how they look at the world—is called “cognitive empathy,” which sounds like a straightforwardly psychological skill, not something mystical or divine.

Of course, the answer depends on how you define “spiritual,” and this isn’t the time for a treatise on that subject. (Stay tuned!) For now I would just say that I think cognitive empathy is an especially strong candidate for that label when (1) it is exercised in the interest of ending or avoiding conflict; and (2) it is extended to someone in very different circumstances from your own, especially someone on the other side of some line that has historically been a boundary between antagonistic parties. For example: Malley is Jewish, and Yasir Arafat was, of course, an Arab.

In any event, I do think Malley’s appointment is an inspiring story. The forces of darkness were arrayed against him, and people of good will rallied around him—in particular, a lot of foreign policy types who wrote an influential letter on his behalf. These kinds of victories don’t happen every day, and when they happen they’re worth celebrating.

P.S. Peter Beinart, in his very worthwhile newsletter, recently explained how Malley’s upbringing left him well prepared to exercise the kind of cognitive empathy he displayed after the Camp David peace talks of 2000.