Center Field: Michael Oren versus Obama and Obamerica: A damage assessment

I was disappointed with Michael Oren and the controversy his new book created – until I bothered reading it.

Michael Oren and Barack Obama (photo credit: REUTERS,JPOST STAFF)
Michael Oren and Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS,JPOST STAFF)
I was disappointed with Michael Oren and the controversy his new book created – until I bothered reading it. Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israel Divide, is a beautifully written dual love story of a Jewish kid from New Jersey entranced by two of the world’s liberal democratic wonders, America and Israel. Ambassador Oren, who represented Israel in Washington from 2009 to 2013, skillfully brings readers inside the rooms where decisions are made, inside the studios where images are shaped, and inside the Israeli and American mentalities where this critical relationship plays out.
While navigating conflicting loyalties to America and Israel, Oren also balances being a truth-telling historian with a sensibility-massaging diplomat. In Washington, a “gaffe” means a politician caught telling the truth. Oren the historian has returned, to the statesman’s detriment.
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Currently a Kulanu Knesset member, this ex-diplomat committed the biggest modern gaffe – he dared tell the truth about President Barack Obama’s politically correct Third Worldist foreign policy which has America’s president wooing Iran and indulging Palestinians while believing he’s saving Israel from itself by bullying its democratically-elected leaders.
To Oren, Obama is not anti-Israel – but he’s not Israel’s “best friend ever” either. Oren transcends this democracy- distorting polarity pitting Obama-the-perfect-and-unassailable versus Obama-the-evil. Conservatives must learn that Obama is not anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic or Muslim; he is just wrong. And liberals can love Obama, support him domestically, yet dislike his foreign policy.
Obama fails to understand, Oren argues, how necessary American world leadership is, how dangerous Islamism is, how untrustworthy Iran is, how important a close US-Israel relationship is and how American love works better than American contempt in inching Israel toward compromise.
Oren is not the only reasonable critic who believes Obama’s foreign policy is as flawed in conception as it is in execution, particularly regarding the Middle East. Leslie Gelb, a center-left establishment foreign policy guru and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently begged Obama to fire his entire foreign policy team. Beyond bad staffing, Gelb said, Obama remains “the key problem,” mishandling the “terrorism and cyber warfare challenges” which “imperil our very survival.”
Oren knows better than his critics that American presidents have squabbled with Israel before. But after two decades of warm if occasionally contentious Clinton-Bush bonding, Oren charges that Obama has “abandoned” Israel by being so harsh. I see another pattern: many presidents started more coolly, but appreciated Israel’s predicament the more they encountered Palestinian hostility and Islamist terror.
Obama broke the pattern because, as Oren shows, his ideology blinds him: Obama blames Israeli settlements for the impasse, above all else.
Obama sees Palestinians as a Third World people victimized by a Western power and a people of color victimized by whites. He cannot even utter the phrase “Islamist terrorism.”
Therefore, this president seems even more annoyed by Israeli policy today than in 2008.
Obama’s worldview requires an honest debate. The vicious counterattack against Oren has demonstrated why the debate rarely occurs.
Oren breached the Obama Omerta, enforced by Obama’s ruthless, accept-no-criticism loyalists. Never forget that beneath Obama’s Harvard- Hawaii veneer lies a Chicago pol. The cult of Obama has his supporters in a polarized America caricaturing any criticisms as a Fox News, implicitly racist assault on Obama and his multicultural rainbow “Obamerica.”
Ironically, Oren’s book teaches that this unfair overreaction was predictable. He chronicles the press exaggerations – Israeli and American – regularly escalating tiffs into crises.
Ally also analyzes the growing ideological gap between Netanyahu’s Israel and Obama’s America.
I believe Michael Oren is sufficiently terrified by the pending Iran deal – which Obama seems more anxious to close than the ayatollahs – that he sounded the alarm, aware he was risking his diplomatic future. I both respect and regret the move. I benefited from reading Ally but believe that public servants should wait a decade before writing govern-andtell memoirs.
Curiously, despite Oren’s critics insisting that America and Israel are closer than ever, we read about relations being “frosty,” “no-punches- pulled discussions,” “exasperated” American officials and a “notoriously acrimonious meeting between Obama and Netanyahu” in former secretary of defense Robert Gates’ memoir. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s memoir describes “a highly personal standoff between President Obama and Netanyahu,” a “furious” President Obama, and how “the relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama continued to deteriorate.” Perhaps Oren isn’t imagining tensions. Perhaps Oren’s crime is that the criticizing and memoiring comes from little Israel, not superpower America.
The impunity with which administration officials lambaste Israelis, and their fury when Israelis dare retaliate, reflects Obamerica’s asymmetrical heads-I-win-tails-you-lose rules. Israel is always expected to tolerate terror, absorb missiles, avoid any anti-Arab anger and continue making concessions. The bias is worse in UNland, that down-is-up, nihilistic, Third World dictator-dominated alternate universe. But it also distorts Obamaerica’s more genteel, post-modern, Third Worldist, politically correct world.
Obama and his comrades cannot have it both ways. They cannot call Netanyahu “chickensh*t” then deny any tensions exist. They cannot berate Israel then claim no other president has ever been so supportive.
I wish an Obama supporter would read Ally and say, “Yes, we are pro-Israel but against the status quo and Oren describes that.” Similarly, I wish Oren had been more critical about Israel’s culpability and Netanyahu’s strategy while being more forthcoming about what was supposedly his own abrupt retirement, which he sanitizes into a longsought homecoming.
As an historian, I welcome this honest, thought-provoking, challenging, important book. However, as an American-Israel patriot, sharing Oren’s joint passion, I mourn the loss of his street cred as a bridge-building statesman. Meanwhile, given Israel’s own pathologies, by confronting Obama, Oren’s popularity among Israelis may soar.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, to be published by Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin’s Press in October 2015. A professor of history at McGill University, he will be a Visiting Scholar at the Brookings Institution in the fall. His previous book was the award-winning Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism. Follow him on Twitter