This weekend, the New York Times covered the trials and tribulations of Samantha Power and Robert Malley–former and current Obama advisers, respectively, whose remarks on the Middle East have drawn fire. Unsurprisingly, much of this coverage trivialized their critics: a Daily News headline deriding Power as “Pretty Dumb!” was portrayed as representative, while Malley’s detractors were dismissed as “a handful of Jewish bloggers.” As I wrote last week, one need not be Jewish to observe that Malley has frequently called events in the Palestinian political sphere blatantly wrong, while Noah Pollak and Martin Kramer’s dissections of Power’s statements demonstrate that the attacks on Power have been substantive, rather than ad hominem.
Yet the real story behind Power and Malley’s poor public receptions should have little to do with their critics. After all, we were merely responding to their previous statements. Rather, the scrutiny that Power and Malley have faced should provide a cautionary tale regarding the limits that aspiring experts must obey if they value their credibility.
Let’s start with Power. Prior to achieving “top adviser” status on Barack Obama’s foreign policy staff, Power had established herself as a certifiable expert on genocide: from 1993 to 1995, she covered the Yugoslav wars as a correspondent in Bosnia, and she later traveled to Rwanda. Her first book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, drew on these experiences, exploring American responses to the genocides of the 20th century. Yet as her star kept rising, Power seemed to forget the limits of her true expertise, acting as if her study of genocide had imbued her with expertise in just about anything foreign policy-related. Downright ignorant statements on Iran, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict followed, with critics rightfully questioning her depth as a consequence.
Malley’s story is different: although he has limited his statements to his area of expertise-the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-his writings frequently reflect the triumph of ideology over analysis. In this vein, Malley has continually furthered the myth that Palestinian national unity is an attainable prerequisite for Israeli-Palestinian peace, thereby advocating policies that have ultimately strengthened Hamas and undermined U.S. interests. For example, as I noted last month, Malley supported the inclusion of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and later predicted that the 2007 Hamas-Fatah Mecca Accord-which ended with Hamas seizing Gaza barely four months after its signing-would likely hold. Indeed, the scrutiny that Malley has faced is not a matter of pro-Israel bloggers vocally disagreeing with a pro-Palestinian expert on key assumptions. Rather, at issue is how Malley’s gushing over Yasser Arafat has motivated bad policy analysis.
In short, two lessons can be drawn from Power and Malley’s poor public receptions. First, aspiring “experts” should stick to their areas of expertise. Second, they should avoid the interference of political sympathies with policy analysis. Sadly, neither Power-who argued that her critics were really just attacking Obama-nor Malley-who thought that revealing his Jewish identity would allay his detractors’ concerns-seems to understand this.