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Who’s Afraid of Brett McGurk?

Brett McGurk
Because Brett McGurk has spent two decades helping set American Middle East policy, almost everyone in the Blob can point to something they hate him for. Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
February 6, 2024

Everyone in Washington, it seems, loves to hate on Brett McGurk. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who likes him,” one former senior State Department official said of the seemingly indestructible D.C. lifer who is currently President Biden’s Middle East coordinator on the National Security Council. “Literally, at the end of my book club the other night, this came up. Every administration, he gets promoted one level up and no one understands why. How did he get here? Everyone in town has the same question, and no one has a good answer for it.” 

McGurk didn’t set out to be a D.C. lightning rod. He was going to be a lawyer, but 9/11 changed all that. When the plane slammed into the Pentagon, a young McGurk was across the river at the Supreme Court, where he had just begun a clerkship with Chief Justice William Rehnquist. But like so many people of his generation, he became infatuated with the Middle East. People rushed to sign up for Arabic and Middle East history classes; others enlisted in the military. McGurk was pulled in, too, but through a different route. In the fall of 2003, several months after America’s invasion of Iraq, a friend called him and offered him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Did he want to help write the Iraqi constitution? McGurk spoke no Arabic, but it seemed like an interesting and important job. He went.