There’s penis envy and then there’s whatever condition Michael Oren is afflicted with. I call it Obama-envy, and it consists of an outsized need to smear a powerful leader of your nation’s leading ally because he doesn’t share your own phobia-driven view of your place in the world.
There’s penis-envy and then there’s whatever condition Michael Oren is afflicted with. I call it Obama-envy, and it consists of an outsized need to smear a powerful leader of your nation’s leading ally because he doesn’t share your own phobia-driven view of your place in the world.
It would be one thing if this affliction were confined to a single patient, but it appears highly contagious. There are even enablers in the publishing and media world who’ve not only permitted, but welcomed, this spreading virus.
A word about Oren’s professional background is in order: There was a time when he had set his sights on academia. He wrote a well-received book on American history linking the early Pilgrims’ theology with proto-Zionism. Another book dealt with the Six-Day War of 1967. He could’ve earned a comfortable academic position teaching at an Ivy League school.
But somewhere along the line he made a sharp detour, switching from the white hats to the black hats after becoming an Israeli Defense Forces press representative. His defense of the indefensible, “Operation Cast Lead,” must’ve brought him to the attention of senior Likudniks, because the next thing we knew he was Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States.
My only close encounter with him in this role was when he came to Seattle to rally the pro-Israel troops in June 2012. His speech at Temple de Hirsch was by self-invitation only. Prospective attendees had to provide personal information to the Israeli consulate organizing the event and make a reservation ahead of time. When Oren spoke the next day on public radio station KUOW, he prohibited the station from inviting any other guests to offer an alternate perspective. He also prohibited any interaction with listeners in the form of call-ins. When I complained to station management about this lopsided, unfair format, they didn’t share my concern and said they would provide “balance” in the future in some unspecified manner. The next time you hear Israeli officials complain about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement being anti-democratic or anti-free speech, remember this.
Bitten by the political bug
Oren returned to Israel bitten by the political bug, and joined Moshe Kahlon’s “soft-right” party, Kulanu. He was elected to the Knesset. Apparently, he’s been told that to make a name for yourself, you have to stake a claim to some readily-identifiable issue, so he wrote a book. And what a book it is! It falls into the general vein of those conspiracy-monger books purporting to expose President Obama’s secret Communist roots or his Muslim allegiance.
Oren appears to see his political brand as based in the foreign policy arena. But he isn’t subtle like a typical diplomat. No, he’s going to combine what little expertise he has in that realm with notions of Israel being bullied by the U.S. world super power. This sort of America-bashing is popular in Likudist circles. It’s the ideological flip-side of Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin, who conceal(ed) their own bullying and authoritarianism behind a veneer of opposition to Yankee imperialism.
The Jewish Forward’s Larry Cohler-Esses exposes a rather elaborate set of lies in Oren’s “Ally,” in which Oren claims he offered an op-ed to The New York Times penned by Shimon Peres and that the Times editors rejected it. He offers this anecdote as proof of the Times’ hatred of this Israeli government. However, Cohler-Esses interviewed a Times editor, who flatly denied that any Peres manuscript had ever been offered or refused publication. In fact, the paper had made a standing offer to Peres or Netanyahu to publish an op-ed, which was rejected by the Israelis.
The anti-Obama vitriol in the book was so intense that even Kahlon rejected it and reaffirmed his own warm feelings for the U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro publicly asked Netanyahu to do the same, but the prime minister refused. That only emboldened Oren, who wrote a bizarre piece riddled with Islamophobia for Foreign Policy last month. Its incendiary themes claim, in essence, that a Muslim template of sorts operates in Obama’s brain. The author purports that the president’s supposed visceral dislike for Israel lies in his vision of being the first U.S. president to embrace the “Muslim world.” Oren infers the false notion that a president who seeks conciliation with the Arab or Muslim world must be two things: Muslim and a traitor to American values. But in truth, there is nothing criminal or even suspect in seeking to “bridge” the Western world with Islam.
There is a deep level of fear and hysteria in Oren’s notion that Islam is evil and anyone who says otherwise is a temporizer or, worse, a closet Muslim. It’s McCarthyism under an Islamophobic guise. Instead of red-baiting, I’ll call it “green-baiting,” in honor of the color often associated with Islam.
As part of his “study” of the president, which he sophomorically dubs “Obama 101,” he raises the specter of Edward Said. He claims because the Columbia professor was the pre-eminent theorist on the Middle East in academic circles (Obama attended Columbia for two years), that the future leader of the U.S. became infused with this radical agenda.
Here’s an example of Oren’s summarizing Said’s views:
“The notion that Islam was a uniform, universal entity with which the West must peacefully engage became widespread on American campuses and eventually penetrated the policymaking community.”
Neither Said nor many Muslim theologians claim that Islam is “uniform” (and in fact, though Said was agnostic, both his parents were Palestinian Christians). In fact, the 2012 Pew Research Center survey of the world’s Muslims found that a significant minority reject the notion that there is only “one true way to interpret the teachings” of Islam. And few Muslim theologians have said it is universal in the sense of seeking world dominion. But even if they had endorsed universalism, is that any different that Jewish theologians who suggest that prophetic Judaism offers a set of universalist ethical values? Or from evangelical Christianity, which views proselytizing about the “Good Word” to all peoples as a profound obligation? How is seeking world-wide mass conversion in order to bring the Second Coming different than what Oren attributes to Islam? Why deny to Muslims what we arrogate to ourselves?
Oren never shows that Obama took a course with Said, or that he ever took any courses on Middle East studies at all. It’s enough for the author to note that Said’s intellectual abilities were so profound that they somehow seeped into the water supply and were imbibed by all who drank from it.
One of the items that most exercises Oren is Obama’s repeated use of the term “Muslim world,” which the writer falsely claims is a code-word for the Arabic, ”ummah.” Though unstated, he appears to believe that Obama, in reaching out to the world’s Muslims, is encouraging them to take over the world. Oren’s a bit too slick to articulate it quite so baldly, but the entire essay points in that direction.
Separating psychoanalytic claptrap from outright lies
The article also includes pop psychoanalysis claiming Obama’s two “missing” Muslim fathers infuse his own personal childhood trauma into U.S. foreign policy:
“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 coreligionists.”
There are eminent historians who employ psychoanalytic method to great effect in their studies of historical figures. But Oren is not doing so as a historian, which he’s long ceased to be. He’s exploiting psychoanalysis to score cheap political points.
Perhaps Oren could “imagine” this bit of analytical “thinking,” but not even Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, is buying it. Foxman released a statement on June 21 saying Oren’s essay “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.”
“This results in borderline stereotyping and insensitivity,” added Foxman.
Oren’s “analysis” isn’t even pop psychology; it’s intellectual-political fraud abetted by the editors of a distinguished foreign policy publication.
The fraud continues in passages like this one:
“Drone strikes, many of them personally approved by the president, killed hundreds of terrorists, but also untold numbers of civilians.”
Where does Oren think the U.S. learned how to use drones as an anchor of counter-terror policy? From the Israelis, of course. They were the first to use drones as a lethal weapon. Obama and his generals merely learned at the knees of the IDF in this field. It’s the height of hypocrisy for Oren to pretend to harbor any sympathy for the victims or for him to criticize Obama’s counter-terror policies.
Among the many lies and half-truths in his writing, Oren claims Obama “supported” the Muslim Brotherhood. If he supported anything, it was the democratically-elected government of Egypt, headed by former President Mohammed Morsi. This government was violently overthrown by a military putsch in 2013 — a putsch Obama did nothing to oppose. In fact, in the days before the military took power, U.S. diplomats were urging Morsi to step down.
Oren also suggests that Obama’s “strident” opposition to Israeli settlements and his embrace of a Palestinian state are somehow part of this closet pro-Muslim agenda. This, of course, leaves sight of the fact that these two policy positions have been endorsed by presidents going back four decades.
He almost comically chides the current president for turning his back on George W. Bush’s campaign for democracy in the Middle East. This elides the fact that Bush’s “campaign” amounted to little more than two major wars — wars still being fought more than a decade later– which brought carnage to the region and precious little democracy.
‘A combination of curiosity and incredulousness’
Oren closes the Foreign Policy article with this bit of personal opinion masquerading as academic analysis:
“Historians will likely look back at Obama’s policy toward Islam with a combination of curiosity and incredulousness.”
I’ve got news for Oren, echoing Lloyd Bentsen’s immortal words: I know historians, I’ve studied with historians, and you’re no historian. At least, you are no longer one. Now, you’re just a run-of-the-mill political huckster. It’s far more likely historians will look back on Oren’s book with a combination of horror and incredulousness. Actually, they already are. Leon Wieseltier too has published an especially sharp critique of Oren’s book and views in The Atlantic.
But Oren wasn’t content to leave it at that. He’s made the rounds of the talk shows and the op-ed circuit, publishing stinging rebukes of the President in the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and CNN, among others. But then he sunk down into the media miasa, doing an interview with Breitbart-style ambush-journalist, Aaron Klein, on the wingnut site, WND.
Media Matters shows that Klein has stated that he “doesn’t know” if Obama is Muslim; that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the Obama administration; and that Obama “might be with” al-Qaida given his “Muslim background.” Klein’s book about Obama is “The Manchurian President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists and other Anti-American Extremists.” This Klein profile contains equally damaging material about his reporting, noting that he regularly profiles Jewish settler terrorists in flattering portraits. I find it astonishing that Time magazine’s Jerusalem correspondent, Karl Vick, co-authors articles with Klein in that publication. Do the editors not vet their contributors? Michael Oren is selling cheap thrills, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the media world has to buy it.
Alas, it’s not surprising that Oren chose WND to “peddle his papers.” Both share a penchant for the scurrilous smear. In the Klein interview, Oren expanded upon the president’s use of the term “Muslim world”:
“That was his term, The Muslim world. Which also is very indicative. I don’t believe there is a Muslim world. It’s a very loaded term. It’s taken from Islam.”
This strikes me as borderline ”Protocol of the Elders of Zion” stuff. He seems to be implying that, but for figures like himself and perhaps Pam Geller, Robert Spencer and Geert Wilders, Muslims are hell-bent on world domination. Denying there is a “Muslim world” is his way of erecting a bulwark against the Islamist “hordes.”
Oren is, I believe, jealous of Obama. He’s jealous of the president’s success both in the world and in navigating the dangerous shoals of the Israel-U.S. relationship. Though Obama has by no means been successful in negotiating Israel-Palestine peace, he has maintained his self-respect and popularity despite concerted efforts by the Likudist government to smear him. It has attempted to make him pay a price for his Cairo speech and his attempts to engage with the Muslim world, though most of the president’s efforts ended in failure. Despite all this, Obama remains a figure far more respected than Netanyahu throughout the world, in part because of his rejection of Netanyahu’s values. That has to sting both Oren and his patron, the prime minister.