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The soft birtherism of Michael Oren

Michael Oren.
Michael Oren.
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Michael Oren — who was Israel's ambassador to the US until 2013, and is now a member of Israel's legislature and the author of a new book on the US-Israel alliance — has been spending a lot of his book tour promoting a very strange idea. President Obama's Middle East policy, Oren says, is really a product of two personal links to Islam: his Kenyan father and his Indonesian stepfather.

"I could imagine how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands," Oren wrote in Foreign Policy. "I could also speculate how that child's abandonment by those men could lead him, many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists."

It's a kind of soft birtherism. Oren isn't saying that Obama is a secret Muslim. He's just saying that Obama's upbringing inculcated a pathological desire to please Muslims, which now, decades later, is the secret key to understanding Obama's foreign policy.

Oren has drawn heavy criticism for this argument, and for good reason. Even if it didn't indulge some of the worst tropes of birtherism, it would still be based on little more than speculation and armchair psychology.

Two interviewers recently spoke to Oren about his accusations. Both gave him the opportunity to back down. But he didn't, both times reasserting his argument. He seems to really believe that he's unlocked the key to Obama's psyche — and that's disturbing.

On Monday, Oren appeared on Jake Tapper's CNN show, where Tapper asked him about this "shocking bit of armchair psychology." Here's what Oren said:

I looked at everything he wrote, everything he talked about, and I looked at his policies — and he used to talk a lot about his own family connections, about his relationships with his biological father, his stepfathers. And he would talk about them quite frequently. He talked about it in his first inaugural address, he talked about it in his first trips abroad (which were to Cairo and Turkey). His first interview on international television was on al-Arabiya television. He thought of himself as the personal bridge between America and what he called "the Muslim world."

In the book I simply quote what he said about himself, and it was important for Israel to understand this. And I also said that if the president could reconcile himself with this Muslim world, as he called it, then that would be in Israel's interests.

But the assertions in the Foreign Policy piece aren't just "what Obama said." Oren is drawing a straight line between Obama's childhood experiences and his policies. If Obama ever actually said he was, say, negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran because he has daddy issues, I'll buy Michael Oren a new car.

The problem here isn't just accuracy. It's that Oren's assertions are uncomfortably close to polemicist Dinesh D'Souza's claim that Obama's worldview is product of his Kenyan father's supposedly anti-American, "anticolonial" mindset. These sorts of psychoanalyses aren't just impossible to prove, though they are: they're also insidious.

These arguments position Obama as some kind of foreign other, who can't possibly be understood in the same way you'd understand any other American president. America's first black president just isn't "American;" he's an alien, and his policies are a radical break with the US' past.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg confronted Oren, in an in-depth interview, on this very point. Oren admitted that he "should stay away from the psychoanalysis," and complained about only having "700 words to make a subtle argument." But, strangely, he went on to defend and reiterate that very argument:

I was trying to figure out what are the origins of his feelings toward Islam. He has deep feelings about Islam, obviously. [He] talks about them—I'm not making them up—and he has a high regard for Islam. And I wanted to know where it came from. If George Bush all of a sudden came out and expressed very strong feelings about Islam, you'd want to know where they're coming from. I think these were legitimate questions for an ambassador to ask and to inquire about, and think about.

This, if anything, makes matters worse. Oren's claim isn't just that he's divined the hidden motivations behind Obama's policy — it's that he used this divination to steer the US-Israel relationship during his job as ambassador to the US. Inasmuch as Oren's view of Obama mattered in Jerusalem, the Israeli government was getting assessments filtered through the lens of a pretty out-there psychological theory.

That's definitely not the primary reason US-Israel relations have gotten so bad under Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (this is). For one thing, Ha'aretz's Barak Ravid thinks Oren wasn't all that influential in the Netanyahu administration.

But it does speak to a certain disconnect between the way the US and Israel see American policy. In the Goldberg interview, Oren says that the reason he reached for psychology is that Obama's Middle East policy is "completely revolutionary" compared to other presidents. As Goldberg points out there is little real basis for this, and Obama's policies toward Israel are largely in line with those previous presidents. But the idea that they represent a major break with the past is common in the Israeli government.

That gets at what may be the more important issue here. Oren's psychological spelunking is silly and borderline offensive, but it's born out of a real problem: an Israeli inability to understand why President Obama does what he does. And that speaks to just how bad US-Israeli relations have gotten in the last several years.