An Anti-Imperialist Father and His American Diplomat Son

Robert Malley’s 2008 reflections on his father’s left-wing, anti-colonial commitments shed light on his own political formation.

Robert Malley
February 4, 2021
Robert Malley speaks at a diplomatic conference in Madrid, Spain, in 2011. Photo: Paul White/AP

Robert Malley’s critics—who failed last month to prevent Joe Biden from naming him special envoy to Iran—called him a radical. Senator Tom Cotton alleged that Malley “has a long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel.” Hawkish columnist Eli Lake claimed that Malley’s appointment would constitute Biden’s “first foreign policy blunder.”

The suggestion that Malley is outside the Beltway mainstream is false. In fact, he’s a denizen of the American foreign policy establishment: credentialed by Yale and Harvard Law school, a clerkship on the Supreme Court, and stints on Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s National Security Councils. Prior to joining the Biden administration, he ran the International Crisis Group, a prestigious conflict-resolution think tank based in Washington, DC. What distinguishes Malley is not his radicalism. Instead, as this previously unpublished June 2008 lecture reveals, it is his willingness to grapple with radicalism—in particular the radicalism of anti-imperialist struggles in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—and for the most intimate of reasons.

In his lecture, delivered as part of an annual series at Oxford in memory of the Egyptian-Lebanese diplomat George Antonious, Malley poignantly navigates several gulfs that separate him from his enigmatic, crusading, anti-imperialist father. The first is generational. Simon Malley devoted his life to the secular Third World nationalism ascendant in the 1950s and 1960s. His son looks back at that era from an early 21st century where America is dominant, leftist movements are weak, and Islamism has become the lingua franca of revolt against the West. The second gulf is national. Rob Malley is an American. Simon Malley was a man with nine passports, many of them from nations he hoped to liberate from Western imperialism’s grip. The third gulf is ideological. Rob Malley, the imperial diplomat, seeks to steward wisely the global order that his father, the revolutionary journalist, sought to overthrow.

Today, 12 years after Malley’s lecture, his description of the United States as an “awkward giant” sounds anachronistic and overly generous—both because America’s power has waned and because Donald Trump didn’t even offer an ideological figleaf for his predatory policies around the world. It is difficult to know what Simon Malley would make of the current era: How he would view the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring or the rise of China, a state-capitalist dictatorship that nonetheless speaks in the language of anti-imperialism and offers developing nations a non-Western patron. It is hard to know whether he would see in the movement against police violence in Nigeria, the rewriting of Augusto Pinochet’s constitution in Chile or the BDS movement in Israel-Palestine flickers of the defiant leftism to which he devoted his life. But looking back at Rob Malley looking back at Simon Malley, the contemporary reader may suspect that the battle of political faiths between father and son is not over yet.

–Peter Beinart

THE ONE THING we know for sure is that he was born in Cairo. He left us with few other certainties. His parents appear to have originally hailed from Aleppo, moving to Egypt at the turn of the last century. There is good reason to believe he was born in the 1920s, though as for the precise year or day, one could trust either one’s imagination or his word—the former often proving more reliable than the latter. His old Egyptian passport indicates a birth date of May 25th, 1923, but he had more than one—passports as well as birthdays. 

He also was Jewish, though the principal effect of his Judaism seems to have been that it provided him added reason to be an Arab nationalist of the fiercely secular, anti-Zionist sort. His life choices were dictated, one senses, by restrictions he faced as a Jew born in an Arab land. He embraced a strong Arab nationalistic worldview and I can’t recall him ever evincing much understanding for or even desire to understand Israelis and their state. He moved to America, but had no patience for the US either, whose foreign policy he denounced with relish and sometimes abandon. Once he’d had enough, he moved his entire family to France; his writings managed to so offend its then-president that, some 11 years later, he was forcefully expelled and put on a plane back to the US, from where he flew directly to Geneva, never even stepping out of Kennedy airport. In the interim, he had turned his back on his homeland as well, breaking his emotional ties with Egypt the moment Egypt had forged its political ties with Israel. I believe he returned there only twice since, both times as a tourist with his family, and both times marked less by affection than by a remote, confused, and guilty form of nostalgia.

It’s fair to say, in short, that my father—for, if you had not already guessed, that’s who this is about—felt overly cramped and confined in the life he was given. And so, he just gave himself another, and another, and yet another. During the course of his eight decades, he took on at a minimum three different names. Born Selim Ménache, he’s gone by Sélim Malek and settled at some point on Simon Malley. He founded six magazines, of which Africasia and Afrique-Asie were the better known. He was journalist and owner, commented on politics and involved himself in it, blurring the line between observer and actor. And he acquired no less than nine different citizenships—including Egyptian, American, Algerian, Tunisian, Angolan, Mozambican, French and an honorary Palestinian one. Each passport provided him with a different age, until at long last he achieved what surely must have ranked as the achievement of his lifetime, becoming a year younger than his at least nine-years younger wife. 

A non-Muslim with intimate and manifold ties to the West and one who longed for a more assertive, politically-minded Arab identity: it’s a stretched and rather tortuous comparison, I grant you, but in that sense at least he brings to mind the person in whose name we are gathered here today.[1] My father was, dare I say, an awakened Arab[2] or one who, at a minimum, awoke in me an interest in his part of the world. He’s not the only one who shaped me, my approach to the Middle East and my early encounter with the Arab world, of course. But both in terms of where I started out and the distance I have since traveled, my father looms largest.

HE CAME OF POLITICAL AGE at the dawn of what, in the dissertation I wrote while studying at Magdalen College, I referred to as Third Worldism. I summed the notion up, then, as a combination of belief in the revolutionary aspirations of Third World masses, faith in the inevitability of their fulfillment, and trust in the role of strong, centralized states and non-state actors in this undertaking. My father was not a Marxist; indeed, I doubt whether he ever had the patience to read one of Marx’s heavy tomes. He chafed at the idea of joining a party. I am quite certain he never complied with any hierarchical constraint whatsoever. 

In this, Third Worldism, chaotic and disjointed, messy and frenzied, without recognized mentor or imposed discipline, suited him just fine. It allowed him and others to rekindle hopes not long before shattered by Stalinism, to believe once again in a confident representation of history as a progressive and intelligible course, and to trust in an alternative to what had seemed an inescapable destiny. Politics, as he saw and lived it, was infused with a sense of exhilaration, as he could turn eyes and heart in rapid succession to Cuba, Guinea, Egypt, Algeria, to Vietnam, Tanzania, Mali, to Madagascar, Angola, Mozambique or Palestine. 

It was a world of shifting rights and evolving wrongs, but also replete with any number of solid constants. The US and the West on one side; movements and states that dared challenge and resist them on the other. The audacity, the insolence, the impetuousness of it all was what charmed and attracted: alone, Castro stood up to America and all its might; Algeria defied France; Nasser, not only a European coalition but also Israel and Arab reaction[3]; Arafat, all of the above.[4] There were glorious struggles, like those of Algeria, Angola and Mozambique; there were those that seemed to go on endlessly, with a touch of stoic despair, as in East Timor or the Western Sahara. There were tragedies and mourned victims: Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Che Guevara, Samora Machel. So much of what passes for politics feeds on such crude emotions, and so much of what is achieved, good and bad, is inspired by them.

Key to my father was that abstract yearning for dignity, equal status, and worth. It would not be too much of a stretch, I suspect, to project from his own personal condition—a religious minority in an Arab country, striving for recognition and respect—to that of the colonized, subordinate, or subjugated Third World rebelling at limitations imposed from outside and seeking to define itself through its own choices. The career advice he offered was to avoid joining any organization, protect one’s independence, and set up one’s own practice—words that, though ostensibly intended for me, tell us far more about his personal and political path than about my professional one.

Like any self-respecting Third Worldist, he had to care about Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But his first and true love was Arab, his understanding of that region was the most profound, his hopes as well as his disappointments greatest there, too. His romantic vision imagined—indeed, required—that the revolutionary masses someday would overthrow King Hassan of Morocco, rise up against a Bourguiba or a Mubarak,[5] dethrone the Jordanian monarch, thwart the latest American conspiracy. The Arab people could not stand for their leaders’ serial betrayals and unending corruption and, sooner or later, would make it known. 

Among Arab causes, none meant as much to him as the Palestinian one. It reflected, in his eyes, the essence of the Third Worldist struggle, the embodiment of historic dispossession, an uneven fight for recognition and justice, and the ultimately inevitable triumph of right over might. The Palestinian people would prevail and, more than that, their cause would be the spark that would awaken the Arab people as a whole. 

Much of my political relationship to my father revolved around the Palestinians, and one Palestinian in particular. The first one to whom he introduced me was Yasser Arafat, in 1984, when we were in Algiers. The loudest and most painful quarrels he and I had—whether during those years or much later—concerned the Palestinian cause, and these occurred whenever I had the impudence to question the PLO’s strategy or the disrespect to challenge the Old Man’s choices. My father felt close to Arafat and, as if making sure I would not forget, Arafat never missed an opportunity to bring his name up when meeting President Clinton during the time I worked for the American president, though in Arafat’s inimitable style, he evoked him never twice in the same way, and never quite accurately: on one occasion making him out to be the founder of the Egyptian Communist Party, on another a prisoner held captive in Nasser’s jails, and on what surely was the most bizarre of all, a world-renowned Torah expert who could vouch for the fact that the Jewish Temple never had been built in Jerusalem after all.

In at least some measure the two men appeared cut from the same cloth. In one of the articles we co-authored, Hussein Agha penned the following words:[6] “Arafat inhabited a Borgesian world where a thing and its opposite could cohabit at the same point in space and time; where what mattered was the impact of language, not the actual meaning of words; and where myths combined with facts to produce reality. Abu Mazen’s world is more rooted in what is familiar and recognized by most as the order of things.”[7] Only later did I fully realize why I enjoyed that description of Arafat so much. It’s because it could equally apply to my father. He had affection for both men, the current Palestinian president and the first. But at his core he was more Arafat than Abbas, more intuitive than pondering, more interested in exercising power than in seducing the powerful, unperturbed by his own inconsistencies so long as they served his self-defined higher goals. Even alone, he came in numbers, an assortment of diverse personalities, unfamiliar streams of logic; with him, even a tête-à-tête could become crowded. One would expect no less from a man with three names, seven passports and untold birthdays. My mother bears the scars of her tireless efforts to untangle the contradictions. 

IN TURN, that connection to Arafat and identification with the Palestinian cause helps explain why their misfortunes, which were of a piece with those that afflicted Third Worldist causes more broadly, affected my father so deeply. 

Why the failure, why did the future refuse to keep the promise those earlier days had held out? The story is too familiar and too long to warrant detailed recounting, and highlights must do. There was great naiveté, to begin, not least in the belief in history’s inexorable march toward progress or the masses’ assumed revolutionary convictions. There was, too, a complacent and undiscriminating attitude toward political repression, so long as it emanated from the presumed virtuous side, and towards all forms of political violence, as long as it served the assumed rightful purpose. More practically was the bankruptcy of the economic models, the relinquishment by central states of key social responsibilities, the endless narrowing of political systems till they resembled nothing more than the authoritarian systems they undertook to replace. The sad irony being that Third Worldism was a victim of those very conditions—inequality, poverty, repressive rule—out of which it originally had grown. And which, foolhardily, it had vowed to eradicate. 

And how ingloriously it all ended. No last brave stand or fight to the finish. Instead, a muted, slow, nondescript decline. As early as the 1980s, the illusions had all but expired. What happened later was mere survival, something very different even if sometimes under very similar names. The Arab world, with bountiful oil supply and lavish rhetoric to match it, yielded variants of militaristic or tyrannical rule, tribal and clan-based authoritarianisms, fratricidal violence. There were what, in my father’s perspective, amounted to depressing transitions: from Nasser to Sadat, from Boumedienne to Chadli.[8] And the even more depressing non-transitions from Asad to Asad and still Asad, and still Saddam Hussein. The permanence of an Asad, the persistence of a Saddam: these as much as anything were the real calamities. 

For my father, one of the most painful blows must have been the first Gulf War, when predictions of mass uprisings throughout the region and resistance to the US-led coalition fizzled as quickly as they had sprung. That much vaunted Arab street turned out to be little more than a vapid dead-end.[9]

Even the Palestinian front, which saw the signing of the Oslo Accords, left my father with a somewhat bitter and thoroughly baffling aftertaste. The White House scene itself was cause for mixed feelings. There they were: Arafat, the tamed rebel, extending his hand, relishing his moment in the sun. Bill Clinton, the compassionate mediator, prodding the Israeli Prime Minister. And Yitzhak Rabin, the old warrior, repulsed, hesitant and finally resigned. In its simplicity and immediacy, the snapshot said it all: who had asked, who had encouraged, who had reluctantly agreed. In his traditional military garb, a kaffiyeh wrapped around his head, Arafat appeared on the White House lawn as a man almost comically out of place. He had been let in, allowed to retain his trademark outfit and native tongue, but with firearm, grand aspirations, and vast dreams left behind. His success, as it were, consisted almost entirely in his being accepted by the powerful of this world, invited to share their stage.

In this odd blend of victory and loss, a striking fact went largely unnoticed in the West, yet it explains why what so many saw as Arafat’s moment in the sun others viewed as his twilight. The Palestinian leader had been on that stage not long before, its acclaimed and uncontested hero. The prize, back then, was to share the platform with Fidel Castro, Abdel Nasser, or Boumedienne. Indeed, the prize at that time was to appear with Arafat.

As Hussein and I have since written, the Oslo agreement introduced a fundamental contradiction at the core of the Palestinian national movement which it has yet to resolve and from which neither it nor my father ever fully recovered. Is it a national liberation movement, whose leaders are militants, whose objective is independence and whose main currency is resistance? Or is it a political party, whose leaders are statesmen, whose objective is institution-building, and whose main currency is negotiations? The persistent occupation tugged in the former direction, the newly-signed Oslo agreement pulled in the latter. The establishment of the Palestinian Authority, a quasi-state with incomplete powers exercised over a crazy quilt of land, strained the contradiction almost to a breaking point, implicitly redirecting Palestinian political energies from liberation struggle to statecraft. Even Arafat found it difficult to define the role of the Palestinian movement in a way that made sense to itself or to others. All of which made some Palestinians argue they lost the fight the day they gained a foothold. 

Uncomfortable and uncertain, my father had little to say about Oslo itself. But, tellingly, he never set foot in Israel, not even in the Palestinian territories. Not before they have an independent state, he would tell me, and he meant it. 

There was fight left, though for him, not much joy left in the fight. The next generation of self-styled revolutionaries—the Islamists, whether of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon—were a new, unfamiliar, and worrying breed to which he never took. They were not his type and, more to the point, had defined themselves almost entirely in opposition to that which he had most cared about: the Algerian revolution and the FLN,[10] Arafat and the PLO, and, more broadly, secular Arab nationalism. 

I’VE SPOKEN of the various shortcomings that plagued Arab Third Wordlists, but there is one that warrants special attention. Third Worldists may have been visionaries, but they also had their culpable blind spots. 

The first had to do with Israel, which many Arab activists—my father included—never really comprehended. They imagined a typical colonial model and projected typical anti-colonial solutions, but the diagnosis was wrong and the prescription erroneous. The fact that there were two competing national movements, not just one; that Jews and Arabs would have to find a way to live together; that any viable outcome required a strategic and permanent (as opposed to a tactical and reversible) recognition of Israel’s existence—these are things that simply went missing. Such lack of understanding clouded their moral compass, particularly when it came to deliberate violence against civilians, and hindered their political thinking. They never fully appreciated the genuine impact on Israelis of simple, symbolic, human gestures—one thinks here of President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem—and wholly disregarded the real cost of offensive language and even more offensive actions. 

But it is the second blind spot I wish to discuss at greater length. This concerns the United States and is one that largely persists to this day throughout the Arab world. Amateurs of the Marx Brothers will recall a scene in Duck Soup where Groucho is faced with an official document. “Why, a four year old child could understand this report,” he says. “Run out and find me a four year old child.” At times, it’s roughly the impression one gets in seeing how thoroughly Arabs misapprehend the US, and how, in searching for all-encompassing explanations, they miss the more obvious cues. 

This takes me to another phase of my personal journey. Fifteen years ago almost to the month, I joined the US administration. Four years later, I became one of those responsible for its Middle East policy. I’ve often wondered what my father, perpetual outsider and inveterate foe of US policy, must have thought at the time. He didn’t say, I didn’t ask, we’ll never know. For my part, I discovered a world that bore little resemblance to the malevolent conspiracy-filled image to which my father still clung. Once inside, much of the mystery vanishes from sight. It is all far more human and straightforward than that.

Abundantly judged, America is rarely if ever understood, which is odd given how centrally and prominently it figures in the Arab worldview. Odd also in my father’s personal case given that he lived in the US for a quarter century and married an American (though in fairness, to even begin to describe my mother as representative of Americans probably would provoke considerable shock and consternation both in her and in them). 

America in my father’s mind as in the mind of many alongside him was all hyperbole. Everything about her was supersized: The US was too omniscient and too ignorant; too mighty and too meek; too plotting and too plodding; too powerful, ineffective, naïve, Machiavellian, calculating, and bumbling; omnipotence mingling with ineptitude; devious conspiracies with amateurish execution. Then there are all the convenient explanations—convenient because they allow one to dispense with the need to think, and to understand, and to act. It’s all about oil, or imperialism, or—a perennial favorite—the Jewish lobby. 

The US as all-powerful, captive to Israeli interests, and careless about its own: how handy indeed, negating the need for critical understanding and careful strategizing over how best to shape and steer what happens in Washington, negating, too, the need for taking matters into one’s own hands. 

From my experience as actor-turned-observer, I can only say how truly costly and damaging this perspective is. Over time, it has led political actors toward one of two seemingly contradictory yet perfectly related and consistent attitudes: knee-jerk criticism on the one hand, blind adherence on the other, both reflecting in different forms resignation to a reality one believes cannot be changed. We know of the reflexive hostility, the disparagement of all things American, both of which my father was fond. The outlook smacks of defiance yet in most cases there is little of it really, at least at a practical level. Instead, it often amounts to passive surrender insofar as the underlying premise is that there is nothing to be done about the US, no leverage to be exercised, no deals to be struck, only hands to be thrown up in the air. What is striking, in fact, is the courtesy this stance extends to the policy it claims to confront since it is virtually of no use in changing it.

That constant suspicion of the US comes at a cost, one witnessed at the Israeli–Palestinian summit at Camp David, in 2000. The Palestinians and Arafat in particular appeared convinced this was a trap, a joint US/Israeli scheme to force a deal and extinguish their rights. So they adopted a passive attitude, more intent on weathering the storm than seizing an opportunity, satisfied with surviving the summit rather than benefiting from it. There were huge mistakes by Israel and the US, and, in our first collaborative piece, Hussein and I expounded upon them at length. But in this respect at least, the Palestinians were victims of their one-dimensional view of America. The flaw of US policy was not that we settled on a strategy well ahead of time but rather that we made it up as we went along. If there were six members of the American team, there were at least seven opinions about how to proceed and how the conflict ought to be settled. And there was also an intense, quasi-desperate American desire to clinch a deal. Which meant that we were not immune to persuasion and pressure, that the Palestinians—not only the Israelis—had the means to shape our views and the outcome, and that, in this, they proved profoundly derelict. 

The other dominant attitude is of those who believe it best to robotically acquiesce in the policies of the US administration on the ground that these cannot be altered, that it is better to be at the table than in the anteroom or that—how I detest the phrase—it’s the “only game in town.” I am an American and when I served in the administration I was determined to promote US interests. Yet I have no hesitation in asserting that automatic adherence to US policies whether by countries Arab or European, no more serves these interests than does reflexive criticism. To blindly and blithely parrot what one knows to be misguided is not to make oneself relevant. It is to make oneself redundant. In recent years, much of the Arab world—and indeed, much of Europe—has been reduced to that station, to what that fine wordsmith Lord Patten calls “a Pavlovian rejection of any course of action that might distance them from the Americans.” 

The attitude of so many Arab and European governments—lemmings, perhaps, being the technical term—which chose to passively endorse an Iraqi war they knew to be wrong but thought to be inevitable is only one of the more egregious cases.[11] There are many others. Privately, virtually all bemoaned the Israeli–Palestinian Roadmap, for its faulty assumptions, discredited sequentialism, absence of implementing mechanism.[12] Publicly, virtually all applauded it, arguing—those dreaded words again—that it was the only game in town. Much the same can be said of the broad Arab and European stance toward the short-lived Palestinian national unity government, approach toward Gaza, or Quartet conditions on Hamas.[13] In each instance, Arab actors seemingly internalized foreign assumptions about their own condition, thereby enabling policies that only made it worse. How much more stable would the region be, and how stronger America’s position within it, had there been a division of labor: Arabs and Europeans doing what the US couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t know how.

The point is not for Arabs or Europeans to indulge in angry and ultimately fruitless condemnation. It is to acknowledge that the US has concrete interests, to realize that those interests translate into specific needs, and to appreciate that as a consequence those non-American parties possess real leverage that can be put to constructive effect, eventually allowing all sides to gain. Even under the Bush administration—which, unfortunately, validated the most stereotypical and cartoon-like depictions of the US—there were things to do. The US needed practical Arab support in dealing with Iraq; it needed Arab backing to devise a new Arab–Israeli process; it needed President Abbas to improve its image in the region. Its policies might often have been beyond the pale, but they were not beyond one’s capacity to influence if Arabs and Europeans insisted on achieving a greater partnership in exchange for providing greater help. Yet in case after case, a willful form of impotence appears to have taken hold.

One example: I often hear it said, in response to questions about Palestinians’ inability to forge a unified front, that Washington would never deal with a unity government including Hamas, that without Washington’s support there would be no peace process, and without a peace process no more secular camp. But imagine this: Imagine that President Abbas, backed by a strong Arab consensus, had told the White House and the world that that government was his government, that there would be no other, that he was mandated to negotiate with Israel, that he would mediate a ceasefire and that, if the West balked, there would be no alternative Palestinian partner. Would the US really and truly have turned its back on the entire Israeli–Palestinian issue, discard the Palestinians’ most pragmatic leader and their only ally? And, if so, for how long and at what cost? It is those questions, about leverage and influence and the ability to steer a course between futile opposition and servile compliance that seldom get asked or answered. As reports come of possible renewed inter-Palestinian talks, now might be a good time to do so.[14]

THE REVERSE of what I just said, of course, is also true. By that I mean the persistent and at times remarkable lack of comprehension the US itself has displayed toward those who, in mirror image, have had such a difficult time understanding it. What little I know of the Arab world I owe first to my father and next to my current collaboration with Hussein, through which we’ve tried—more so in the many pieces that remain incomplete than in the ones we actually published—to scrutinize the forces that shape and move the Middle East, explain widespread misapprehensions, reevaluate the place of communal identity, nationalism, religion, or simple pride. 

Too often, America has acted like an awkward giant—more awkward than giant, and with a destructive awkwardness to boot. It clumsily intervenes in local politics, anoints pre-selected leaders, misreads local dynamics, misinterprets local balances of power, misuses its might, misjudges the toxicity of its embrace, encourages confrontation, exports political models, and plays with the sectarian genie. Throughout, it has tended to overestimate the role of money or security assistance, neglecting the impact of conviction, loyalty, ideology and faith. It has banked on people’s exhaustion with struggle, ignoring that exhaustion is least felt by those most eager to continue the fight. In the process, it has cut itself off from, and left itself with no leverage over, the region’s more dynamic actors. Instead, it helped create local elites that dutifully parrot the West’s discourse and depend on it for resources and support, yet are largely lacking in effective domestic constituencies. Worse, it helped create local elites weakened by the very support the US provides them. How much more and how much better it could have done with so much less.

We misplayed our hand in 2000 in the course of the Israeli–Syrian talks, when we squandered our leverage, acting as conveyor of Israel’s proposals rather than of our own. We did so again later that year at Camp David and after, when we picked our favorite Palestinian interlocutors, unwittingly sowed divisions, and put forward valuable ideas at a time when—having misjudged the Palestinian mood—they were least likely to be valued. More recently, America’s ignorance has cost its supposed allies dearly, whether in Palestine or Lebanon, providing them with military or political aid that backfired, discouraging them from reaching out to their respective oppositions, undermining their credibility, roping them into a regional confrontation from which they had little to gain and much to lose—in short, helping them in ways that hurt. 

None of this, I remain convinced—though I doubt I ever succeeded in persuading my father—is inherent in what the US is or in the inevitable pursuit of its interests. Yes, there are constants, and I always marvel at the belief voiced by some that the fundamentals of US strategy toward Israel or the Arab–Israeli conflict someday, somehow will change—once the American people realize where their true interests lie, or once they finally see the light. This will not happen and there are good reasons for that. 

But that hardly equates in my mind with the notion that nothing can change, that there are no differences between one administration and another, that those differences do not make a difference, or that those differences cannot be put to wise effect. Which is why for me the Bush administration’s performance over the last several years and its apparently unending appetite for getting things wrong have been so depressingly dispiriting. And why the willingness of so many others to go passively along has been so comprehensively mystifying. 

FOR SAYING AND WRITING SOME OF THESE THINGS, I became embroiled in the past several months in a petty and ridiculous public controversy which, as some of you may know, is related to the unfolding presidential campaign.[15] But ridicule can be contagious and, in the heat of the moment, I said some rather unwise things myself, neglecting that cardinal rule of politics: Always think twice before keeping your mouth shut.

In response to these attacks I mentioned two things in particular that I regret having said. First, I pointed out that I was Jewish. It was irrelevant and I shouldn’t have. I also took issue with some of my father’s positions. It was unwarranted and I wish I hadn’t.

By then, my father had been dead for a year and a half. The precise cause of his death is not known though I have my suspicions. By the time he passed away, much of my father’s body had given up. Heart, kidney, and liver had all, one by one, relented. Yet I am convinced he could have weathered that damage as he had weathered multiple strokes and other ailments in years past. What finally overcame him, the reason he surrendered that morning as he peacefully listened to his favorite sounds, the music of Oum Kalthoum, had less to do with body than it did with spirit. 

My father was one of those men against whom the world revolts and who, in turn, rise up against it. His insights as much as his excesses sprung from a single source, more instinctive than intellectual, less cerebral than intuitive. Hence his oftentimes impulsive opposition to the US and blind loyalty to the Algerian and Palestinian national movements among many others. To have been by their side, to have been a scrivener of their fate, was without a doubt his greatest pride and joy.

His path mirrored the Third Wordlist journey, during its climb but also throughout its descent. There was something about his stubborn convictions, his recurring enthusiasms, and ultimately, his sad if unacknowledged grief, that starkly captured that political voyage. A man of dogma and convictions, he never felt at ease amid nuances or shades of gray. At the twilight of his life, he still sought to cling to what remained of his hopes, but his look betrayed the painful nostalgia for yesterday’s certainties. He was not a prisoner of his illusions; rather, it was he who refused to let them go.

It was said, as it often is, that he died of a long illness. Perhaps. I believe he died of a long and heartrending disenchantment. He died of fighting for a cause long after it had tired of being fought for. He died of seeing Arafat detained while no one lifted a finger. He died of seeing an Arab country invaded and no one seeming to care. He died of seeing so many of the dreams that had kept him afloat collapse, one by one and bit by bit. He could hang on as long as what he felt inside was anger, not once he felt was despair. He lost his faith and that’s what killed him. His body was a mere afterthought. 

My father was a self-made and endlessly remade man. But even for this awakened Arab, at once Jewish and Arab nationalist, American and anti-US, it was one remake too many.


George Antonious, the Lebanese-Egyptian diplomat in whose memory Malley gave his lecture.


Antonious’s 1938 book The Arab Awakening became the definitive history of Arab nationalism.


A secular Arab nationalist, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser counted not only Western imperialists but also Islamists among his foes.


PLO chairman Yasser Arafat found himself at odds with the US, European governments, and other Arab states, especially after Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, recognized Israel in 1979.


Habib Bourgiba was the first president of Tunisia and ruled the country as an autocrat for 30 years until his death in 2000. Hosni Mubarak was Egypt’s president from 1981 until he resigned during the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Mubarak died in February 2020.


Hussein Agha is a senior associate of Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College. He and Malley are longtime collaborators and co-authors of several widely-read articles on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations published in The New York Review of Books.


Colloquialism for PLO chairman and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.


In Egypt, Sadat’s succession of Nasser marked the beginning of rapprochement with Israel and the West. In Algeria, Houari Boumedienne was succeeded by Chadli Bendjedid, under whose leadership the Algerian Civil War erupted.


Simon Malley and other opponents of the Gulf War hoped that it would spark an Arab revolt against US domination of the region. That did not happen.


The FLN, or Front de libération nationale, was the major anti-colonial nationalist movement during the Algerian War of Independence.


Dozens of countries around the world joined the US- and UK-led coalition forces in the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq—among them European countries, such as Spain, Poland, the Netherlands; Latin American countries, such as Nicaragua, the Domincan Republic, and Honduras; and Asian countries, such as Japan and the Philippines.


The “Roadmap” was the George W. Bush administration’s peace plan, which was divided up into three phases but included no concrete timeframe.


The Quartet (US, EU, UN, Russia) conditions required Hamas to recognize Israel, foreswear violence, and abide by past Palestinian agreements in order to gain international recognition.


At the time, Fatah and Hamas were in the midst of a reconciliation process, about which Malley and Agha wrote for The New York Review of Books.


The 2008 Obama campaign disavowed Malley, who had been working as an informal adviser, after it was reported that he had met with leaders of Hamas.

Robert Malley is the US special envoy to Iran.