Barack Obama is like any candidate for president in that he’s opted for the politically expedient at the expense of a higher principle – most notably when he thumbed his nose at the same public financing system that he’d long championed. Not surprisingly, his supporters shrugged that one off and echoed their candidate’s rationalizations. Better to implement real reform as president than to stand on principle and lose an election, he and they both reasoned.
That logic also explains why so many of his supporters on the left have remained silent, save for some grumbling among themselves that occasionally spills into the blogosphere, while Mr. Obama has systematically distanced himself from the concerns of Muslim and Arab-Americans.
The fact that two Muslim women wearing head scarves were prohibited from standing behind Mr. Obama at a Detroit rally made national news, but it was hardly the first – and it almost certainly won’t be the last – slight from Mr. Obama. Last December, Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American ever elected to Congress, volunteered to speak on Mr. Obama’s behalf at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was told not to.
By contrast, Mr. Obama has bent over backward to satisfy Jewish leaders that he understands and is sympathetic to their concerns about Israel. He made a high-profile visit to a synagogue in Florida last month, where he fielded questions from congregants and repeatedly affirmed his support for Israel, and held a similar session with influential Jewish activists in Cleveland back in February.
He also addressed AIPAC’s annual convention the day after clinching the Democratic nomination (where he declared that Jerusalem “will remain the capital of Israel and it must be undivided”) and has leaned heavily on prominent Jewish supporters for cover, treating them far differently than he’s treated Mr. Ellison. Nor has he hesitated to toss aside backers whose views are upsetting to the pro-Israel advocates, most notably Zbiegniew Brzezinski.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has refused to set foot in a mosque, has given no major (or minor, for that matter) speeches about the concerns of Muslim or Arab-Americans, and has adamantly refrained from expressing to those groups any of the solidarity he professes to feel with the pro-Israel crowd.
Still, Obama supporters on the left who have latched onto him as the last great hope for a less reflexively hard-line Middle East policy are sticking with him. They’re convinced that a President Obama will be free to act in a way that candidate Obama can’t.
Certainly, there’s reason to believe that he wants to. Back in his Illinois days, Mr. Obama eagerly reached out to Muslims and Arabs. He and his wife frequently broke bread with Rashid Khalidi, a scholar and Palestinian rights activist, and he even dined with and attended a speech given by Edward Said. In private, some people who knew him back then have said Mr. Obama was frank about his sympathy for the Palestinian plight – and the impracticality of discussing it in a campaign. Plus, there’s his background, which includes ties to Kenya and Indonesia, two countries with sizable Muslim populations.
The problem is that, even if this calculation is correct and the real Barack Obama has yet to reveal himself (at least on Middle East issues), it’s tough to see how he’d have any more latitude as president.
From a political standpoint, Mr. Obama has handled Middle East questions deftly this campaign. Because of his cosmopolitan background and his middle name, he has faced knee-jerk suspicions that he is either a Muslim or somehow insufficiently tough on “the terrorists” – or both. To counter this, he can’t be “pro-Israel” enough – and he can’t distance himself far enough from Arabs and Muslims.
But his election won’t magically undo his vulnerability to these suspicions. If a President Obama were, say, to challenge Israel’s posture toward Iran, or to speak out firmly against Israel’s settlement policy? A good chunk of the electorate, including those who don’t follow Middle East issues but do respond to the noise around them, would fall back on those not-so-buried suspicions. Offering reassurance would be impossibly difficult for Mr. Obama.
The old saying that only Nixon could go to China, roughly translated, means that only a hard-liner has the cover to pursue a dove’s agenda. In his heart, Mr. Obama may identify with the peaceniks on the Middle East more than any presidential candidate in memory. But as his campaign has shown, he might not be in a position to do a thing for them.