It’s time to revisit the issue of President Obama’s Palestinian ties. During his time in the Illinois state senate, Obama forged close alliances with the most prominent Palestinian political leaders in America. Substantial evidence also indicates that during his pre-Washington years, Obama was both supportive of the Palestinian cause and critical of America’s stance toward Israel. Although Obama began to voice undifferentiated support for Israel around 2004 (as he ran for U.S. Senate and his national visibility rose), critics and even some backers have long suspected that his pro-Palestinian inclinations survive.
The continuing influence of Obama’s pro-Palestinian sentiments is the best way to make sense of the president’s recent tilt away from Israel. This is why supporters of Israel should fear Obama’s reelection. In 2013, with his political vulnerability a thing of the past, Obama’s pro-Palestinian sympathies would be released from hibernation, leaving Israel without support from its indispensable American defender.
To see this, we need to reconstruct Obama’s pro-Palestinian past and assess its influence on the present. Taken in context, and followed through the years, the evidence strongly suggests that Obama’s long-held pro-Palestinian sentiments were sincere, while his post-2004 pro-Israel stance has been dictated by political necessity.
Let’s begin at the beginning — with the controversial question of whether Obama’s cultural heritage through his nominally Muslim Kenyan father and his Muslim Indonesian stepfather, along with his having been raised for a time in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, might have had some effect on the president’s mature foreign-policy views. Obama supporters often mock this idea, but we have it on high authority that Obama’s unusual heritage and upbringing have had an effect on his adult views.
Top presidential aide and longtime Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett was born and raised in Iran for the first five years of her life. In explaining how she first grew close to Obama, Jarrett says they traded stories of their youthful travels. As Jarrett told Obama biographer David Remnick: “He and I shared a view of where the United States fit in the world, which is often different from the view people have who have not traveled outside the United States as young children.” Remnick continues: “Through her travels, Jarrett felt that she had come to see the United States with a greater objectivity as one country among many, rather than as the center of all wisdom and experience.” Speaking with the authority of a close personal friend and top political adviser, then, Jarrett affirms that she and Obama reject traditional American exceptionalism. One hallmark of America’s exceptionalist perspective, of course, is our unique alliance with a democratic Israel, even in the face of intense criticism of that alliance from much of the rest of the world.
Obama’s close friend and longtime ally, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said’s successor as the most prominent American advocate for the Palestinians, goes further. Khalidi told the Los Angeles Times that as president, Obama, “because of his unusual background, with family ties in Kenya and Indonesia, would be more understanding of the Palestinian experience than typical American politicians.” Khalidi’s testimony is important, since he speaks on the basis of years of friendship with Obama.
Those who know Obama best, then, affirm that his foreign-policy views are atypical for an American politician, and are grounded in his unique international heritage and upbringing. That is important, because our core task is to decide whether Obama’s pro-Palestinian past was a stance rooted in sincere sympathy, or nothing but a convenient sop to his leftist Hyde Park supporters. Jarrett and Khalidi give us reason to believe that Obama’s decidedly pro-Palestinian inclinations are rooted in his core conception of who he is.
Obama came to political consciousness at college, and prior to his discovery of community organizing late in his senior year, his focus was on international issues. Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, highlights his anti-apartheid activism during his sophomore year at California’s Occidental College. Obama’s anti-apartheid stance, however, was part of a far broader and more radical rejection of the West’s alleged imperialism. Obama himself tells us, in a famous passage in Dreams, that he was taken with criticism of “neocolonialism” and “Eurocentrism” during these early college years.
What Obama doesn’t tell us, but what I reveal in Radical-in-Chief, my political biography of the president, is that he was a convinced Marxist during his college years. More important, once Obama graduated and entered the world of community organizing, he absorbed the sophisticated and intentionally stealthy socialism of his mentors. Obama’s socialist mentors strongly supported what they saw as the “liberation struggles” carried on by rebels against American “oppression” throughout the world. So Obama’s continuous radical political history strongly suggests that his early support for Palestine’s “liberation struggle” grew out of authentic political conviction, not pandering.