On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal published Matti Friedman’s review of Michael Oren’s new book. Friedman’s review is accessible here via Google. Friedman’s review strikes me as jaded and superficial. As such, it is a disservice to potential readers who would be interested in what Oren’s timely book has to offer. I am taking the liberty of reposting my comments on Oren’s book from this past Tuesday as a review and counter to Friedman’s.
Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s Ally: My Journey Across the Israeli-American Divide is out from Random House this week. The book is part autobiography, part memoir, part history and part (as they say in the bookstore) current events. I urge interested readers to pick it up now and study it with care.
The book makes a valuable contribution to recent history in which he has been a participant and to which he has been an eyewitness. The heart of the book gives us an important angle on the long, strange trip we have been on for the past six-and-a-half years.
Oren’s account of the Obama administration’s betrayal of Israel in favor of the Islamic Republic provides its most important narrative thread. Combining an insider’s perspective with what is already publicly known, Oren offers a powerful portrait of the administration’s deceit and misjudgment.
Oren is a distinguished historian. He is also a liberal former contributor to The New Republic. His many contributions to TNR are collected here. His critique of the Obama administration based on the facts presented in the book derives from no personal or political antipathy.
Indeed, Oren asserts that Obama is a friend of Israel. Oren nevertheless studied Obama in 2008 and developed prescient concerns about Obama’s ambivalence toward the United States and Israel. In the book he presents his short course on Obama under the heading “Obama 101.” Based on his study of Obama in 2008, Oren avoided drinking the Obama Kool-Aid.
The intelligent reader may well observe on the strength of Oren’s book that Obama is a friend of Israel’s enemies, from the anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood to the anti-Semitic Turkish Prime Minister to the insanely anti-Semitic Islamic Republic of Iran. Based on the evidence Oren presents, the intelligent reader can draw a conclusion about Obama at odds with Oren’s own.
Oren’s account has teeth. The Obama administration has therefore demanded that Prime Minister Netanyahu renounce it. Oren is if anything more charitable toward Obama than Netanyahu is. Netanyahu’s views are discernible directly or by inference over pages 50-375 passim. In substance, Netanyahu’s views do not in relevant part diverge from Oren’s. In the book they disagree only on how tactically to negotiate Obama’s demands on Israel.
Obama’s demand (through US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro) that Netanyahu now denounce Oren is of great interest. Oren’s book strikes a nerve at a critical moment. The demand represents standard operating procedure, Chicago style, but it is absurd (a word which we will quote Oren himself using presently). Oren’s book offers more than sufficient evidence for interested readers to make up their own minds.
From Oren’s first day on the job in 2009 as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Israel’s relations with the United States — with the Obama administration — are in a constant state of crisis. To some extent the crisis is manufactured by Obama and his minions. One may infer that the crisis reflects the strategic reorientation of the United States away from Israel toward its enemies by the Obama administration.
Of these enemies the Islamic Republic of Iran is of course preeminent. While Oren was studying Obama before his election, he recalls hearing the theory that Iran could assist in resolving regional conflicts. “I first heard the theory at Georgetown back in 2008,” he writes, “in conversation with think tankers and former State Department officials. They also believed that Iran’s radical Islam was merely an expression of interests and feats that the United States could, with sufficient goodwill, meet and allay.”
Oren drily comments: “Such ideas initially struck me as absurd.” They still strike him as absurd. He adds: “After all, even irrational regimes such as Nazi Germany could take rational steps to reach fanatical goals.”
What Oren first heard in Georgetown he soon heard from Obama. “Obama, himself,” Oren writes “now began describing Iran’s behavior as ‘strategic’ and ‘not impulsive.'”
“Finally, after many months of attentiveness,” Oren notes, ” I reached my conclusion. In the absence of a high-profile provocation…the United States would not use force against Iran. Rather, the administration would remain committed to diplomatically resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, even at the risk of reaching a deal unacceptable to Israel.”
In the course of his ambassadorial service, Oren observes the administration asserting that it reserves “all options” against Iran’s nuclear program, yet he finds the assertion to be a thin pretense. The administration effectively undermines Israel’s efforts against Iran. It treats the prospect of Israeli military action in 2011 and 2012 as a threat to be deterred. When its deterrence works, it brands Netanyahu a “chickenshit.” Israel finally discovers in 2013 that the administration has been negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran behind its back for seven months. By that point, even Ray Charles could read the writing on the wall.
Oren’s book is built on several narrative threads. The first 40 pages are autobiographical. Most of the narrative threads, however, derive from Oren’s overlapping responsibilities representing Israel in the United States. In one thread, for example, he works to correct media misconduct regarding Israel. This thread stars Tom Friedman, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 60 Minutes. In another narrative thread he works to represent Israel to the Jewish community in the United States. Given their worship of liberalism and Obama, that is a tall challenge. Not all of these threads are equally compelling or necessary. I found them all to be of interest, however, and the Iran thread is devastating.
Oren employs the jargonistic word “liaise”. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard of diplomatic service. At one point he makes an I/me error. An editor at Random House should have saved him from that mistake. The book lacks the distinctive elegance of Power, Faith, and Fantasy, in particular (for the record, published by Norton). The occasional clunkiness of the prose here probably reflects Oren’s urgency to get the book published before our pending arrangement with Iran is finalized and Israel is formally left to shift for herself.
The United States is about to make a mistake of monumental proportions. It is a mistake that has been likened to the Munich Agreement, but we are about to make the mistake with far less excuse than the British ever had. Like Munich, it is a mistake the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road. Michael Oren exerts himself with all his considerable power here to avert us from that mistake. His book is necessary reading.