Feature

Obama’s Global “Narrative”

Fuzzy feelings and a confused grasp of the human condition.

By From the April 2009 issue

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About a decade ago I was working in Washington with some colleagues on a TV documentary— subsequently aired worldwide by the BBC— about the Israeli-Palestinian agreement known as the "Oslo Accords." One of our interviews was with the prominent Palestinian American academic Rashid Khalidi, at the time a professor at the University of Chicago. I had not previously met Dr. Khalidi, and he certainly wasn't as controversial then as he was to become later during candidate Obama's presidential campaign. He was gracious and articulate. A particular word, however, kept wandering into his remarks. He would speak of "the Palestinian narrative," or "the Israeli narrative."

From the context of his comments, it became clear what he had in mind. By "narrative" Khalidi seemed to be denoting a particular interpretation of history. The term, evidently, had materialized from the fever swamps of academic postmodernist jargon, a world where there may never be real facts or real truth, where "narratives" of reality float around seeking a hospitable brain to settle in. Khalidi's own "narrative" of Israeli-Palestinian relations was to become very clear over time. Israel, he thinks, is "an apartheid state in creation" that has used "weapons of mass destruction" against Palestinian "cities, villages, and refugee camps." He has described former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz as "a fanatical, extreme right-wing Zionist," and the eminently reasonable think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as directing its studies "against the Arabs, and against the Muslims in general. Its products describe the Palestinians as terrorists, and in fact its basic function is to spread lies and falsehoods about the Arab world…."

It's doubtful that the dozens of Arab diplomats, scholars, and journalists who regularly attend the Institute's functions share Khalidi's perspective. What became important during last year's presidential campaign, however, is whether Barack Obama did. The two were on very friendly terms when both taught at the University of Chicago. The issue came up last spring, when worried questioners at a Florida campaign stop asked Obama whether he shared Khalidi's perspectives on the Israel-Palestine issue, particularly in the wake of a Los Angeles Times report that Obama had said that his warm conversations with the Khalidis over many shared meals had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases." And just what had those "blind spots" and "biases" been? Those comments were made at a party in honor of Khalidi on his departure from Chicago to Columbia University in 2003. The event remains one of the best-kept secrets of the Obama campaign. The Times story noted that the paper had obtained a video of the evening's speeches, but it flatly refused to release it or even publish a transcript of it during the presidential campaign.

One reason for the bashful shyness may be that, in one account of the dinner, Obama also congratulated Khalidi for his scholarly work, and offered the following nuggets: "Israel has no God-given right to occupy Palestine" and there had indeed been "genocide against the Palestinian people by Israelis."

Until and unless the Los Angeles Times—or someone else—releases the video, we won't know whether those words were actually spoken by Obama. But there is strong circumstantial evidence that Obama's "narrative" of Israeli-Palestinian issues is strikingly different from that of any previous occupant of the Oval Office. The sometime close Obama family friend, Rev. Jesse Jackson, promised participants at a foreign policy forum in Evian, France, last fall that "the Zionists who have controlled American policy for decades would lose their clout in an Obama White House" and that "decades of putting Israel's interests first would end."

NOTHING PRESIDENT OBAMA HAS SAID so far points specifically in that direction. But some of the Middle East-related signals he has made during his first few weeks in the White House reinforce the impression that Obama's Middle East "narrative" is not only radically different from any previous president's but may also have profound implications for American foreign policy. A few of those signals were symbolic: the decision, for example, to make his first post-inauguration foreign leader phone call to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

A few days later, he gave his first interview with a foreign news organization. It was with El-Arabiya, a Dubaibased TV network owned by the Saudis. The White House didn't provide any quotes from the Abbas phone conversation, but Obama's El-Arabiya comments were revealing. Obama reaffirmed a commitment made during the presidential campaign that he would soon make a major speech to the Muslim world from an as-yet-unannounced Islamic capital city. (He later indicated that this would be in the spring of 2009.) On Israeli-Palestinian relations, he said he thought the Israelis who strongly wanted peace would "be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and there is serious partnership on the other side." As for the U.S. efforts in that direction, Washington, he said, would be "working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region" in a peace effort he said he was "absolutely certain" could make "significant progress."

Israel, of course, under one government or another, might indeed be willing to "make sacrifices" for the cause of peace. But it's highly doubtful that any Israeli official indicated any such thing to Obama before his El-Arabiya interview. It's also extremely unlikely that any Israeli government, on hearing that the U.S. was going to gang up with Russia, the EU, and the UN to propose a peace settlement, would agree to make "sacrifices" under those terms.

But then the "narrative" in the Arab TV interview took a slightly different direction. Obama said that he wanted the U.S. to rekindle "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago." Say that again? What "respect and partnership"? Commenting on those remarks in the Washington Post, columnist Charles Krauthammer dryly observed: "Astonishing. In these most recent 20 years—the alleged winter of our disrespect of the Islamic world—America did not just respect Muslims, it bled for them. It engaged in five military campaigns, every one of which involved—and resulted in—the liberation of a Muslim people: Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq….In these 20 years, this nation has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on Earth. Why are we apologizing?" The answer is that Obama's "narrative" of Muslim-Western relations is one in which the offending party was almost always the West, and we all have a lot of guilt to overcome.

Where, if that is what Obama really thinks, did this part of his "narrative" come from? It is surely not unreasonable to suggest that exposure for 20 years to Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Black Liberation theology—even if Obama was never present for that infamous "Goddamn America" sermon— may have had some impact on his thinking.

Nor is it implausible to imagine that those postprandial discussions around Mona and Rashid Khalidi's dinner table on the Israeli- Palestinian question had their impact. It is difficult to remain friends for a long time with a strongly opinionated person without ingesting at least some of his opinions.

IN THE EL-ARABIYA INTERVIEW, when he was listing the various faiths of America, Obama rather curiously listed the Muslim faith first, then the Jewish faith, and only then "Christians and non-believers." In his inaugural address in January, Obama put the order of religions in America even more oddly, placing Christians first but Muslims second and Jews third (with Hindus fourth). This was really odd, since it's clear that Jews are not only far more numerous than American Muslims, but have played an infinitely more influential role in America's historical development. In fact, Obama's inaugural notion that "we are shaped by every language and culture" is one of the strangest aspects of his "narrative." Can anyone suggest which feature of American contemporary culture reflects Islamic influence, or which feature (other than Hollywood's use of "karma" in screenplays) reflects Hinduism?

But even Obama's "narrative" of Islam is curious. Unlike President Bush, who made the wellmeaning but inaccurate comment after 9/11 that Islam was "a religion of peace," Obama, at February's presidential prayer breakfast, tried to attribute to Islam the "golden rule" principle—"do unto others as you would have them do unto you"—that is common to many global faiths. The problem is, Islam doesn't have a "golden rule." It certainly doesn't have a "love your enemy" component. The haddith (a saying attributed to Muhammad) that Obama cited at the prayer breakfast, "none of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself," is an injunction for Muslims to demonstrate their piety |to Allah by behaving toward fellow Muslims in a brotherly manner, not at all to treat with warmth and hospitality any Tom, Dick, or Harry who comes along. The Muslim concept of "brother" is absolutely not the same thing as the Christian concept of "neighbor" in "love your neighbor."

At past prayer breakfasts, most presidents have been eager to speak about their Christian faith, often with anecdotes fondly recalling some Christian spiritual experience from the past. But this year Obama seemed to show no special affection for Christianity. In wanting, like Bush after 9/11, not to offend Muslims, he also offered this bromide: "But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know." Well, actually, we don't. In the Koran there is the famous "Verse of the Sword." Sura 9:5 reads, "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them," and Sura 9:29, "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the last day, nor acknowledge the religion of truth even if they are the people of the book [i.e., Christians or Jews] until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued." As for "hatred," there is no more odious demonstration of it within contemporary Islam than in the Jew-baiting cartoons, Holocaust denials, and descriptions of Jews in general as "descendants of apes and pigs" that are commonly encountered in even "moderate" Islamic countries. Where does Obama get this "narrative" from?

To be sure, Obama's "narrative" does allow for the existence of evil in the world. At the celebrated appearance of candidates in Rev. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California last autumn, Warren specifically asked whether Obama believed in evil. "Evil does exist," the candidate replied. "I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted." Fine. But then this "narrative" seemed to disappear into the mist. "Now, the one thing that I think is very important," he added as a follow-up, "is for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil's been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil." Well, true. But does Obama think America has ever successfully confronted evil? It's not at all clear as we delve deeper into his "narrative."

NOWHERE WAS THE PREVARICATION about American virtue in confronting evil more evident than in Obama's brief foray overseas last summer to try to fortify his portfolio of foreign policy expertise. In front of one of the largest crowds ever assembled in Berlin for a political event—at least since the fall of the Third Reich—Obama spoke about the city as a place where "a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one."

This "narrative" of the end of the Berlin Wall is a bit like describing Shakespeare's Macbeth and forgetting the murder of Banquo. The wall didn't come down because "a continent came together," but because an American president roundly described the empire that had erected it as "evil" and confronted it forcefully with a buildup of military power until it collapsed.

In this he was aided by a Soviet leader who though he believed devoutly in the validity of Communism lacked the ruthless backbone of a Stalin or a Khrushchev that might have enabled him to preserve it for a few more years. There was never a kumbaya moment of "a world that stands as one" in the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was American will— "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"—and American power that caused it to collapse.

But the Berlin speech revealed perhaps one of the most disturbing facets of Obama's narrative: his slight but unmistakable disconnection from identifying wholly with America. Very early on in the speech he said that he didn't "look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city."

He'd come to Germany, he said, not "as a candidate for president, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow-citizen of the world." Well, we are all "citizens of the world," but when we went to the polls last November, we went as citizens of the U.S. in order to elect a president of the U.S. During the presidential campaign, some observers criticized Obama's patriotism because he almost never wore a flag pin, sometimes didn't put his hand on his heart for the playing of the national anthem, and showed a distinct elitism (his infamous "clinging to guns and religion" remark). Senator McCain may well have been accurate—and was surely being generous— when he affirmed in public that Obama was indeed patriotic. But what is the "narrative" of that patriotism? Is there anything basically and fundamentally American with which Obama wants to identify, and of which he is really proud?

I think many Americans would like to know. Then they might feel a lot more comfortable with his "narrative."  

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About the Author

David Aikman is a former senior correspondent for Time Magazine and the author of ten books, including, most recently, The Delusion of Disbelief: How the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness and The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Unending Conflict in the Middle East.