Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide
Michael B. Oren (New York: Random House, 2015)
Early in Ally, a memoir of his tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the United States between 2009 and 2013, Michael Oren, who was born and raised in the US, recounts playing the title role in his New Jersey high school’s production of Man of La Mancha. Decades later, he self-deprecatingly writes about how he felt he was regularly reprising the role of Don Quixote while working as envoy of the Jewish state. Whether it was trying to speak over the cries of anti-Israel hecklers disrupting a lecture at UC Irvine—an experience replayed in late June when someone set off the fire alarm at a book talk in Philadelphia—or replying to hostile questions from the media, Oren has often found himself tilting at windmills.
After finishing Ally and interviewing its author, I can’t quite get the allusions to these quixotic pursuits out of my head. Maybe it’s because I recently saw (twice) the Washington Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed production of the 1965 musical, so popular in the nation’s capital that rumors began swirling of a Broadway revival. But in reading the voluminous commentary that has poured forth over Oren’s tome since the former ambassador took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Foreign Policy to promote his book, it has occurred to me that it isn’t so much Oren’s diplomatic career that has been “The Impossible Dream” but President Obama’s Middle East policies.
Now a member of the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) with the centrist Kulanu party, Oren has come under ferocious attack from the Obama administration and its allies in the media, in addition to prominent figures in the American Jewish community. The American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, accused Oren, an award-winning historian who lectured at Harvard and Yale (where I took his course on America and the Middle East), of being nothing more than “a politician and an author who wants to sell books.” Writing in the Atlantic, Leon Wieseltier compares Oren (who chided Wieseltier for his “pathological” antagonism to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) to Inspector Javert, the lawman who pulls out all the stops in hunting down a poor father who steals a loaf of bread in Les Misérables. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, meanwhile, has assailed Oren for “veer[ing] into the realm of conspiracy theories” and engaging in “amateur psychoanalysis” for speculating in Ally about how Obama’s childhood relationship to Islam might have affected his present-day attitude toward America’s role in the Middle East. Interestingly, many of those assailing Oren for psychoanalyzing Obama have no problem putting Netanyahu on the couch, speculating about how his relationship to his late father—a historian of Spanish anti-Semitism whose expertise endowed him with a tragic view of Jewish history—informed the younger Netanyahu’s view of the Jewish predicament.
That Oren would be caricatured as some sort of anti-Muslim obsessive—not least by Foxman, who vocally opposed the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero in New York—can only come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his scholarly work and diplomatic career. A longtime proponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Oren has been a leading public intellectual and a darling of the American Jewish community for years. Ever since publishing his bestselling and critically acclaimed history Six Days of War, he’s been one of the most popular speakers on the synagogue and seder circuit. As the Jewish state’s ambassador to Washington, he hosted the embassy’s first Iftar dinner, inviting prominent Muslims from across the country to break bread. In his book, he displays a nuanced understanding of Muslims and their faith, certainly more so than the American president, who, from the very beginning of his first term, has attempted to address the “Muslim world” as if it were a monolithic entity, rather than a diverse and disputatious religious community of many different sects and tribes.
Indeed, it is this simplistic and somewhat patronizing attitude by the current administration toward Muslims that Oren finds so troubling. From the beginning of his first term, he notes, Obama has warmed to Muslim political leaders—no matter how authoritarian, thuggish, or anti-American—provided they were “democratically” elected, seeing them as “authentic” representatives of Islam. An early, troubling sign of this predisposition was the affection Obama displayed for Turkish Prime Minister (now President) Recep Erdogan, who hosted Obama’s first overseas visit as president. Asked about the Turkish leader’s 2009 eruption at Davos, where he shouted at his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres, “You know well how to kill” and stormed off the stage, Obama coldly replied, “I wasn’t there.” For years, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country on earth, but that did not stop Obama from telling the journalist Fareed Zakaria that Erdogan is one of the five foreign leaders, alongside Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of Britain, with whom he’s closest. “We could do much worse than have a bunch of Erdogans in the Middle East,” Oren reports the president telling Netanyahu in 2013.
This embrace of leaders and movements antagonistic to American interests and values, Oren argues, is emblematic of a broader strategic incoherence. When large-scale protests erupted against the rule of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, Obama quickly insisted that Mubarak, a three-decade ally of the United States, leave “now.” Mubarak’s hurried departure not only brought about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; it sent shockwaves across the region. “Obama’s just killed the Israeli peace camp!” Oren recalls a left-wing member of the Knesset yelling at him. Meanwhile, in Syria, where a tried and true enemy of the United States—Bashar al-Assad—faced the first serious revolt against his rule, Obama dithered, as he has continued to do for more than four years now. “This is the most fucked-up thing I’ve seen in my entire political career,” Oren reports Senator John McCain saying in the aftermath of Obama’s decision not to launch airstrikes against Assad, after the Syrian leader crossed the president’s self-declared “red line” by using chemical weapons against his own people. Putting on his historian’s cap, Oren likens Obama’s approach to the Middle East to that of Dwight Eisenhower’s knee-jerk opposition to the French-British-Israeli attempt to stop Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. “When dealing with the shifting loyalties of Middle Eastern autocrats, stick with your stable, democratic allies,” Oren writes, advice that’s as good now as it would have been six decades ago.
The most consequential revelations in Ally involve Oren’s account of the administration’s attempt to distance the United States from Israel (and its traditional Sunni Arab allies) as it desperately seeks a rapprochement with Iran. Driving this policy is a belief that the United States is militarily and diplomatically overstretched and that the revolutionary Islamist regime in Tehran can serve as a “stabilizing” presence in a post-American Middle East. In our talk, Oren pointed me to a telling statement Obama made in 2010. “Whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower,” the president said at a nuclear security summit.
“That’s an extraordinary line,” Oren remarked. “We [Israelis] wake up in the morning and say a little blessing that the world’s leading superpower also happens to be the world’s greatest democracy.”
Ceding the region to the mullahs was always going to create tension between Washington and its traditional allies in the Middle East, and so, Oren argues, the administration early on set about preparing Israel’s allies in the US for this about-face. In his first presidential meeting with American Jewish leaders, Obama told the assembled machers that he would seek to establish “daylight” between the United States and Israel. The White House then proceeded to launch secret negotiations with the Islamic Republic, keeping its ally Israel in the dark.
Oren is a historian, and what gives his memoir heft is not just his lucid and entertaining writing style, but his analytical prowess. He goes back into the past, looking for the documents, speeches, and overarching themes that help inform the present. He brings to readers’ attention a little-known 2008 paper authored by a variety of future, senior Obama administration officials arguing that the Iranian nuclear program ought not be “overhyped” and that the US ought seek out “more moderate elements of political Islam.” He reminds readers of Strategic Communications Adviser Ben Rhodes’s declaration that a deal with Iran would be “the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy,” all but foreclosing the possibility of any military action against Tehran should it reject a deal, military action that the president and his various surrogates had repeatedly stressed was always on the table. Oren notes the four letters Obama has written to Ayatollah Khamenei, practically begging him to become friends with the United States. The president’s affections, needless to say, remain unrequited.
Today, we’ve come to the point where—as part of a doomed strategy against the Islamic State—the United States has formed a de facto military and diplomatic alliance with Iran, and is even sharing an airbase with Iran in Iraq. Last month, Obama told Israeli television that there’s no military option to stop the Iranian nuclear program, signaling to the Iranians that they have nothing to fear from the US Air Force while explicitly turning his back on statements he has been making to the contrary since he launched his campaign for the presidency.
It wasn’t long ago, Oren writes, that Obama was telling the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, that he’s “got Israel’s back” and “I don’t bluff” when it comes to threatening military action against those countries that threaten the Middle Eastern status quo. Many Israelis were willing to believe that, Oren says, until September 2013. For years, Oren told me, there was “acrid debate” in Israel about whether Jerusalem should preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, with well-respected figures like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan arguing publically against such a move. “That debate ended on one day,” however: September 4, 2013, when Obama not only failed to enforce his self-declared red line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people but denied ever having set one. While many Israelis still believe a solo strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities may be inadvisable, “no one is [any longer] saying that we don’t have to act because we can trust” the United States, according to Oren.
Merely for pointing out these facts, Oren has had to endure a series of withering personal attacks from the White House and its surrogates. “Instead of just trying to explain the policy, they’re trying to delegitimize me,” he says. But he sees this as standard operating procedure for an administration for which “ad hominem attacks are just a way of operating.” When a senior administration official called Netanyahu “chickenshit” and “a coward” last year, it wasn’t just playground antics, it was “dangerous for America,” Oren says, sending a signal to the world that purportedly close American allies can and will be treated with mocking and disdain should they stand in the way of the coming “grand bargain” with the ayatollahs.
As I wrapped up my conversation with Oren, I was reminded of his previous book, a sweeping history of American involvement in the Middle East called Power, Faith, and Fantasy. Those three words capture the variety of America’s enchantment with the region, and it is the last that aptly describes this current administration’s quixotic obsession. “At the end of the day, perhaps the most influential factor is the fantasy,” Oren says. “And the fantasy is the one that gets America in the most trouble.”