Michael Oren Walks Back One Mistake With Another

by Ali Gharib

Last week, Michael Oren published a piece in Foreign Policy about President Obama’s relations with the Muslim world. Tackling everything from Obama’s upbringing to his unsuccessful recent summit of Gulf Arab leaders, Oren’s piece called Obama’s Muslim outreach a failure—which it more or less has been. But Oren’s piece veered off the rails in several ways.

Intercept journalist Murtaza Hussain called the piece a “sophisticate’s case that Obama is a crypto-Muslim,” a position that even Abe Foxman (despite his own bigotry against Muslims) seemed to come close to endorsing. I’m not sure Oren’s essay was quite that, but it certainly kicked off a controversy, and for good reason. It was a very weak attack on the president: tendentious, mean-spirited, lacking context, and, in a few instances, flat out wrong. Oren also indulged in what my friend Matt Duss called “bong-hit psychoanalysis” by telling readers that Obama’s complicated relationship with his Muslim father and stepfather was at the root of the strategic failure of his Middle East policies.

In response to the criticisms of Oren’s FP piece—and other op-eds, as well as his new book—Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf handed down a strongly worded defense of his college roommate and friend that admonished the critics. Rothkopf is an engaging and thoughtful writer. His trenchant criticisms of Obama, whether you agree with them or not, have been a pleasure to mull over. But his defense falls short in several respects.

Rothkopf’s Flawed Defense

Let’s start with this strange parenthetical aside:

Haaretz has a thought-provoking piece suggesting the timing of the book was planned with the Iran deal in mind. Oren wanted, it asserts, to mobilize U.S. opposition to the deal.

But the Haaretz piece does not suggest that the Iran deal was the impetus for the book’s timing. It reports on an event where Oren said so. Nor does it “assert” that Oren sought to “mobilize U.S. opposition to the deal,” but again reports it! (Oren said the same thing on MSNBC on Tuesday.) I found Rothkopf’s phrasing here so strange because he goes to great lengths to differentiate the facts in Oren’s piece from Oren’s interpretation of those facts, and FP‘s right to publish those interpretations. Here’s Rothkopf on that notion:

Foreign Policy has heard from waves of folks suggesting his views do not even deserve to be published. That is simply wrong. The reality is his views demand to be published because they are a vital piece of evidence as to why the rift in the U.S.-Israel relationship has become what it is. Speaking for FP, it is our view that our readers are sophisticated enough to assess such views for what they are and piece them into the wide range of perspectives offered on our site and in the media in general.

That’s all well and fine. But can Rothkopf name one person of any standing who suggested Oren’s views don’t deserve to be published? Rather, it’s Oren’s statement of the “facts” that’s problematic.

Take this passage from Oren’s essay, where he introduces and quotes at length from Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech (with my emphasis):

These pronouncements presaged what was, in fact, a profound recasting of U.S. policy. While reiterating America’s support for Israel’s security, Obama stridently criticized its settlement policy in the West Bank and endorsed the Palestinian claim to statehood. He also recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, upheld the principle of nonproliferation, and rejected former President George W. Bush’s policy of promoting American-style democracy in the Middle East. “No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons,” he said. “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”

Let’s leave aside for a moment Oren’s “interpretation” that criticizing settlements and endorsing a Palestinian state constituted part of a “profound recasting of U.S. policy” (they didn’t) or that Obama had rejected Bush’s Freedom Agenda (as if Bush himself had not abandoned it years before). What really galls is the section about Iran’s right to enrichment. Obama never “recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes” in his Cairo speech. Rothkopf admitted that he and his editors could have made the passage more clear:

It is unclear from his text whether he means Obama asserted Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment in his Cairo speech—which he did not do, he only acknowledged a right to peaceful civilian nuclear power—or whether the speech “presaged” the later change. This should have been clearer. We at FP could have done better clarifying that.

That’s tough to swallow: Oren’s piece goes from quoting the speech, to the line about “presaging,” then clearly back to the speech. Those three things he listed? Those were from the Cairo speech (though the Iran one was wrong). The Obama quote that comes after the three things is also from the Cairo speech. To assert that it’s hard to know what Oren meant is to obfuscate what he clearly meant; these are apologetics that stretch credulity.

Insert Foot Deeper into Mouth

But then Rothkopf does something stunning. He let’s Oren come back in and say something that has no basis in reality:

Michael adds with regard to the language in the FP piece, “The speech does not specify enrichment though the president later admitted Iran’s right to it. Still, acknowledging Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy was, in 2009, quite revolutionary.”

What? Anyone familiar with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed in 1968, knows that the right of the signatories to peaceful nuclear energy was a major part of the deal. It’s mentioned again and again in the treaty itself, referred to as an “inalienable right.” There’s nothing “quite revolutionary” about restating a 40-year-old fact, and to imply otherwise is not “interpreting” history, it’s rewriting it. But one needn’t even be familiar with the treaty—they just have to read Obama’s text from Cairo:

[A]ny nation—including Iran—should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it.

Having failed to stop Oren from peddling an assertion unrecognizable as fact once, Rothkopf lets him revise it by doing the same thing.

Another problem arises with Rothkopf’s defense of Oren’s criticism of “Obama’s boycotting of the memorial in Paris” for the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Criticisms of Obama’s failure to send a high-ranking official are one thing; labeling it a “boycott” is another. But Rothkopf defends it: “[N]ot attending was clearly a decision made by someone. Is that a ‘boycott’?” To which the resounding answer is No. A decision not to do something does not a “boycott” make. The term is reserved for a decision not to do something as a form of organized protest, for which neither Oren nor Rothkopf has a shred of evidence to offer in this case—evidence being something that should accompany even “interpretation” when it appears as journalism.

Rothkopf readily admits that on many things he disagrees with Oren. That much was clear from a fascinating debate, in the form of exchanged letters, they had on FP‘s pages last year. In that forum, however, Oren also got some facts wrong. Listen, everybody makes mistakes, especially in quick-response formats like debates. But in journalism you cannot let them stand. Rothkopf is being a good friend, and defending the intellectual principle of hearing out different perspectives. Unfortunately, in this case, he’s forsaken the journalistic principle of making sure everything you publish is true. His defense that varied “interpretations” should be openly published would hold more water if he’d be willing, in the more narrow cases of factual mistakes, to acknowledge the errors and correct them.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.


One Comment

  1. Ali Gharib: your article/commentary is just another nit picking, word twisting nonsense attempting to discredit anything that discredits Obama (Oren’s book) and specifically anti Israel and insane desire to strike a deal with fanatically led Iran.

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