Israel's former ambassador to Washington has ignited a firestorm of controversy over his criticism of Barack Obama. Has he gone too far...or have his critics?
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has just done something utterly unremarkable. He has written a memoir about his time in Washington. Few literary forms have so thoroughly earned the neglect diplomatic memoirs typically receive. That is because most diplomats are neither writers nor are they willing to reveal anything the least bit controversial. As a result, the books are a snooze, and they come and go without stirring the faintest reaction.
Oren’s book, however, has triggered a firestorm of reaction. The U.S. Secretary of State has denounced it, as has the U.S. ambassador to Israel. The head of Oren’s own political party in Israel — Oren now serves in the Knesset — has sent a letter of apology for the book to the U.S. government. And op-eds that Oren has written to promote the book — one in the Wall Street Journal, one in the Los Angeles Times, and one right here at Foreign Policy — have each triggered controversy and condemnation.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement, that Oren’s Foreign Policy essay — an adapted excerpt of the book that looks at U.S. President Barack Obama’s relationship with the Muslim world — “veers into the realm of conspiracy theories, and with an element of amateur psychoanalysis, he links U.S. policies in the Middle East to the president’s personal history of having a Muslim father. Then, taking it a step further by suggesting this ‘worldview’ of Muslims and Islam has driven the president to embrace the Muslim world at the expense of both Israel and U.S. national security interests. This results in borderline stereotyping and insensitivity.”
Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for Secretary of State John Kerry, called Oren’s assertions in “How Obama Abandoned Israel” (his column for Wall Street Journal), “absolutely inaccurate and false” and argued that Oren had “limited visibility” into the inner workings of the U.S.-Israel relationship he was writing about. Kirby then took a turn to the ad hominem suggesting that Oren is “a former ambassador and … a politician with a book to promote.”
All this and Oren’s book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, had yet to be released. (Its publication date is June 23.)
The question we have to ask is why the ferocity of the reaction? In my view, there are many reasons. Most have very little to do with Oren or with his book.
I have read the book. Indeed, I am mentioned in it several times — largely for comic relief. As readers of my past columns know, Michael is my friend and has been since we were roommates at Columbia back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Recognizing that it is hard for me to be completely objective about the author, I found Ally to be a well-written, compelling account of a fraught period in the U.S.-Israel relationship. It provides a very useful perspective into why the period was so fraught — both because of what it reports and what it reveals about Oren, as well as the Israeli viewpoint on key issues. Michael is exceptionally smart, and he cares deeply about the U.S-Israel relationship. The book offers the outlook of a man who moved to Israel shortly after university from New Jersey, changed his name from Bornstein to Oren, became an Israeli citizen, and has devoted himself to advancing the interests of his adopted country with a palpable passion.
There are parts of Ally and of some of Michael’s recent editorials with which I have serious disagreements. He correctly observes, for example, that while Jews are highly prominent in the U.S. media, this hardly makes the media pro-Israel. However, to illustrate this, he goes on to suggest that several prominent Jewish journalists cite their “Jewishness” to give credibility to their attacks on Israel or to gain prominence. “I’m Jewish,” he later suggests they might be saying. “But I’m not one of those Jews — the settlers, the rabbis, Israeli leaders, or the soldiers of the IDF.” He speculates that if their stance is not due to opportunism, then their position may be due to their insecurity — perhaps due to their fear of anti-Semitism. And yet, elsewhere in the book, he proposes their critique of Netanyahu is similar to the age-old, anti-Semitic image of the Jew as “the other.” Frequently, he expresses frustration with American Jewish critics of Israel, suggesting that many American Jews (meaning those who are too critical of Israel) are psychologically or culturally impeded from understanding the situation in which that country finds itself. Nowhere does he really seem to entertain the possibility that these critics might just be right and their views motivated by the same hope for a better future for the U.S.-Israel relationship, or for Israel itself, as are his.
This view is not just wrong. It is profoundly, offensively wrong. But it is also revealingly wrong. It illustrates a vitally important dimension of the U.S.-Israel relationship as it exists right now — the breakdown between the views of the current Israeli leadership and many in the Israeli establishment, and the views of not only the current U.S. leadership but also many in the Jewish American community. It is important for students of the relationship to understand the rationales employed by those Israelis who attack Americans critical of the Netanyahu government, its settlement policies, and its role in tragic conflicts like the recent bloodletting in Gaza.
Michael is not a Likud-nik, not a reflexive right-winger (in the Israeli sense of the word). He is thoughtful. He struggles with these issues. I know this because he and I have spent many hours grappling with them together. And yet on these issues, he is not just tone-deaf, he is rationalizing his view with perspectives and analysis that twist reality, pervert his analysis, and make it hard for him to accept the idea that perhaps these critiques don’t come from American Jews because of their flaws, but because of their objectivity or their strengths.
That said — and stipulating that there are other areas where the book’s analysis is unsettling — the strength of the book is that it is written from the perspective of a hands-on, passionate participant who was directly involved in an important relationship and that it provides an extraordinary view of why we are where we are when it comes to the “special” relationship. The cries and cavils of instant critics of his views aside, thoughtful observers must try to seek out insights where they can. As serious cultural and political observers, we cannot understand this relationship without reading sometimes hard-to-swallow books like this one.
Still, critics of the book (and their op-eds) do not simply take issue with Oren’s point of view. They go after him personally — questioning his motives and his credentials in a way that is both disproportionate and unjustified. Michael Oren is not just a politician trying to sell a book. Long before he was a politician, he was one of the most highly regarded, lauded historians of his generation, having written a definitive history of the Six Day War and Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, which the New York Times described as “hugely ambitious, drawing on hundreds of original sources to create a finely balanced overview of this enormously complex subject.” His academic credentials in this regard are impeccable, and his work product stands as testimony to the seriousness with which he takes the business of chronicling history.
The argument that he lacked “visibility” into the issues about which he is writing is also ridiculous. Was he in every meeting? Of course not. Was he in many and did he have a privileged vantage point? That is beyond dispute.
What of Foxman’s assertion that Oren was dangerously close to conspiracy theories? Foxman’s critique was clearly referring to a section in his column for Foreign Policy in which he wrote:
In addition to its academic and international affairs origins, Obama’s attitudes toward Islam clearly stem from his personal interactions with Muslims. These were described in depth in his candid memoir, Dreams from My Father, published 13 years before his election as president. Obama wrote passionately of the Kenyan villages where, after many years of dislocation, he felt most at home and of his childhood experiences in Indonesia. I could imagine how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands. I could also speculate how that child’s abandonment by those men could lead him, many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists.
This is sensitive territory, no doubt. It is roughly in the same ZIP code as the ridiculous natterings of the long-discredited birther campaign arguing that Obama was not even born in the United States. But it is not that. He is not making up facts. He is trying to interpret them. As Oren notes in his article, it was his job as ambassador to seek to understand the president of the United States. Is that “amateur psychology” as Foxman would have it? Yes, it is. It is also a professional obligation that all of whom are in a similar position would undertake. Seeking to understand why the president might behave as he does is key, especially to a country like Israel for which the views of the U.S. head of state are so central to its well-being.
Should Oren be censured for daring to ask whether the president’s origins or his relationship with his father (about which the president has himself written a book) have some impact on the decisions he makes as president? Or for trying to speculate as to how? Not only is it unreasonable to suggest he should be, but those who have attacked Foreign Policy for publishing Oren’s essay should also rethink their views. After all, however wrong or right Michael may be about Obama’s motives, the views he is describing are those of the Israeli ambassador to the United States, a man who had considerable contact with Obama and those around the president, and one whose views on these issues matter. (To say nothing of the fact that the prime minister of Israel rejected requests from the United States to disavow Oren’s views, and thus, it is just possible that others within the Israeli government might share them.)
In the sea of these critics, some have also suggested that Oren had his facts wrong. But upon closer examination, the instances cited in Twitter traffic don’t really hold up to scrutiny. For example: Oren asserts in his FP piece that Obama “boycotted” the Charlie Hebdo protest in Paris. Oren’s critics suggest this wasn’t the case. But the U.S. government made the decision not to send a senior official to the event, while many other governments found the time and the means to do so. In response to critics then, the United States asserted it was logistically impossible. But not attending was clearly a decision made by someone. Is that a “boycott”? The language may be a little strong, but the consequence is precisely the same. He interprets. Others interpret differently. That is the nature of this kind of debate.
When I asked Michael about this particular critique of the column, he responded to me in an email, “As for the absence of a high-level U.S. official in Paris, the article suggests that the reason was deep and related to Obama’s revolutionary approach to Islam. It’s a legitimate theory in which I set out to explore and substantiate. It is not, as Foxman alleges, an attempt to show that Obama is pro-Islam and anti-Israel and anti-America.”
Indeed, as someone who has read the book, I can tell you that, given all this hubbub, the average reader of Ally will be surprised at how many times in the book Oren gives specific examples of the active support Obama showed for Israel.
Certainly, other interpretations of the conclusions Oren draws in the memoir can — and will — be disputed. (Even some of the language he uses will surely be scrutinized. It is unclear from his text whether he means Obama asserted Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment in his Cairo speech — which he did not do, he only acknowledged a right to peaceful civilian nuclear power — or whether the speech “presaged” the later change. This should have been clearer. We at FP could have done better clarifying that. Michael adds with regard to the language in the FP piece, “The speech does not specify enrichment though the president later admitted Iran’s right to it. Still, acknowledging Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy was, in 2009, quite revolutionary.”)
That said, the negative reaction this book has received thus far has been disproportionate. People are not just arguing that it is misguided or wrong. Foreign Policy has heard from waves of folks suggesting his views do not even deserve to be published. That is simply wrong. The reality is his views demand to be published because they are a vital piece of evidence as to why the rift in the U.S.-Israel relationship has become what it is. Speaking for FP, it is our view that our readers are sophisticated enough to assess such views for what they are and piece them into the wide range of perspectives offered on our site and in the media in general.
But birds gotta fly, Twitteratti gotta opinionify. I get that. Why does the U.S. government feel compelled to go after this guy and what he is writing? The Wall Street Journal column that argues that the burden of the responsibility for the U.S.-Israel rift lies primarily with Obama is key. It runs directly contrary to the idea that Obama is “the most Jewish president America has ever had,” a champion of Israel who understands what the Middle East country needs better than the Israeli leadership does. In my view, Michael’s assertion is wrong on its face, given the public behavior of his former boss Bibi Netanyahu. But that is all old news. The Israelis blame Obama. The United States blames the Israelis.
What makes this especially fraught right now? “The reason for the disproportionate response is simple,” said Michael. “Iran.” He clearly feels that the president has a heavy legacy stake in the Iran deal and, in the White House’s view, can ill-afford to be seen at the moment as being unsupportive of Israel or as being so committed to a new relationship with the Muslim world that he is willing to overlook the threat posed by Iran. Agree with Oren or not, it is hard to dispute that in politics, as in other forms of comedy, timing is everything. Or, as my ex-wife, a psychotherapist, would put it, “If something produces a reaction that is out of proportion, then, in all likelihood, the reaction is based on something else altogether.” (Haaretz has a thought-provoking piece suggesting the timing of the book was planned with the Iran deal in mind. Oren wanted, it asserts, to mobilize U.S. opposition to the deal.)
Oren’s book should be read and debated. Oren should be heard and evaluated in the context of his background, the role he played, the government and the society he represented, and the events in which he participated. So too should be the response to the book, Ally. In many ways, the debate the book has triggered is as revealing as both its insights and its judgments — views with which many, including myself, will take issue.
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