Obama declines to answer

I subscribe to Jewish Insider’s emailed Daily Kickoff roundup. Most of the time it strikes me as an arm of the Democrats’ press relations team. Occasionally, however, I find an item of interest. One such is Matthew Kassel’s interview with Barack Obama posted this morning in connection with the publication of Obama’s memoir A Promised Land.

Saying I found the interview of interest is a slight overstatement. Jewish Insider is a friendly forum for Obama, yet Obama chose to answer a grand total of five of 13 questions submitted to him by Kassel. JI has published the exchange with Obama in its entirety here. To say the least, I found Obama’s silence more interesting than his answers. These are the 8 questions Obama declined to answer:

JI: In A Promised Land, you write about devouring “the works of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer” in high school, “moved by the stories of men trying to find their place in an America that didn’t welcome them.” Do you still return to these authors, and what lessons do you feel they can impart to new readers approaching their books for the first time? Moreover, are there any contemporary Jewish writers you’d like to mention whose works you admire?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: You’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with the Jewish community, one that predates your career in politics. The book describes your pre-political life and the decisions you made about pursuing community service and organizing instead of a big law career. What was your relationship with the Jewish community in Chicago then and how has it developed since?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: In Chapter 25 of A Promised Land, you write: “On Election Day, I’d end up getting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote, but as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties: someone whose support for Israel, as one of Axe’s friends colorfully put it, wasn’t ‘felt in his kishkes’ — ‘guts,’ in Yiddish.” And earlier in that paragraph, you write, “they attributed these whisper campaigns not to any particular positions I’d taken (my backing of a two-state solution and opposition to Israeli settlements were identical to the positions of other candidates) but rather to my expressions of concern for ordinary Paelstinians; my friendships with certain critics of Israeli policy, including an activist and Middle East scholar named Rashid Khalidi; and the fact that, as Ben bluntly put it, ‘You’re a Black man with a Muslim name who lived in the same neighborhood as Louis Farrakhan and went to Jeremiah Wright’s church.’”

Throughout the book, you appear to convey a sense of frustration with folks casting aspersions on your motivations and not assessing your actual policy positions. But to invert that dynamic for a moment, what do you say to folks on the other side who perhaps opposed the JCPOA on policy grounds yet are characterized as having prioritized the interests of another country? Is it possible for there to be disagreement on something like the JCPOA on the merits?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: In her book The Education of an Idealist, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power takes readers behind the scenes as your administration sought congressional approval for a military operation in Syria, writing that “an important factor in their thinking was Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vocal support for US military action, along with that of the influential lobbying group AIPAC.” AIPAC lobbied Congress in support of your plan. It’s clear there were times that you disagreed with AIPAC’s positions and other times where you sought to collaborate with the group (for instance, on nominations requiring Senate confirmation). You also addressed AIPAC’s annual policy conference more than any other president (your successor did not attend a single time while in office). In your view, what did the pro-Israel community in the U.S. get right and what did it get wrong during your time in office?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: During the Green Movement in Iran 12 years ago, you admit to feeling constrained in your desire to support Iranian protesters: “As the violence escalated, so did my condemnation. Still, such a passive approach didn’t sit well with me — and not just because I had to listen to Republicans howl that I was coddling a murderous regime. I was learning yet another difficult lesson about the presidency: that my heart was now chained to strategic considerations and tactical analysis, my convictions subject to counterintuitive arguments; that in the most powerful office on earth, I had less freedom to say what I meant and act on what I felt as a senator — or as an ordinary citizen disgusted by the sight of a young woman gunned down by her own government.” Now that you are a citizen again — though perhaps not so ordinary — do you feel as if there is any hope for Iran’s pro-democracy demonstrators?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: On Middle East issues, did you feel less inhibited in your second term than in your first? If so, does that partially explain the U.S. decision, in 2016, to abstain on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlement construction?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: Over the past year, Arab countries including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have normalized ties with Israel. What factors would you attribute this development in the region to? Was it mutual opposition to Iran? A recognition from these countries of the closeness between the U.S. and Israel? Economic incentives? Or something else entirely?

Obama: [No answer.]

JI: The second volume of your book is expected to include your perspective on the JCPOA. The parties are currently negotiating in Vienna. Does that impact your writing in any way? What should readers expect in your second book on this topic and how do you expect it to be received given the ongoing negotiations?

Obama: [No answer.]

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