Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 14 November 2023


Obama’s Lesson for Rashida Tlaib


“Many of them,” she said of her colleagues, “have shown me that Palestinian lives simply do not matter to them, but I still do not police their rhetoric or actions.” This from a congresswoman who posted a video on social media accusing Joe Biden of supporting the “genocide of the Palestinian people.”

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Then there’s the Obama approach. At about the same time Ms. Tlaib was drawing condemnation even from Democrats, the “Pod Save America” podcast released a clip from an interview. In it Mr. Obama also made a case for moral equivalence. But he went about it in an underhanded manner that is more damaging to Democratic unity and support for Mr. Biden’s policy than anything Ms. Tlaib could do.

It’s all wrapped in his call for an admission of “complexity.” The 44th president did declare that what Hamas did on Oct. 7 was “horrific” and unjustified. But complexity means it’s also true the “occupation” was “unbearable” for Palestinians and that “nobody’s hands are clean.”

Get it? To look at the atrocities of Oct. 7 and conclude that Israel has the right to ensure that Hamas can never again pull off such an attack lacks nuance. Mr. Obama didn’t criticize Mr. Biden by name or say Hamas and Israel are morally equivalent. Then again, he didn’t have to. Everyone understood it for what it was: a jab at the Biden administration’s support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he takes on Hamas.

Yet unlike Ms. Tlaib, Mr. Obama’s moral equivalence drew only scattered criticism outside a few commentators such as “Real Time” host Bill Maher. The silence from Democrats is deafening.

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Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is an exception. In an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business, he accused Mr. Obama of having “lied through his teeth” when he spoke of the unbearable occupation (presumably Israel’s, though it left Gaza in 2005).

“To compare those disputed claims with the rapes, beheadings, burnings, kidnappings, it’s just obscene and despicable,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “And what it does is it lends support to those students basically, who are saying, ‘Well, what Hamas really did was not so bad. . . . It was in response to the occupation.’ ”

Mr. Dershowitz added: “Although he said that the attacks by Hamas are not justifiable, he made them justifiable because if life really is unbearable, as it’s not, then you can do anything you want.”

These columns haven’t been friendly to Joe Biden. But the president doesn’t deserve to have his backing for an ally’s counterterror campaign undermined by a man whom he served faithfully as vice president for eight years. Especially when people with Ms. Tlaib’s views are threatening to tear the Democratic Party apart.

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Unlike other former presidents who returned home after their time in the White House was over, Mr. Obama never left Washington. Unlike Mr. Biden, Mr. Obama influences hearts and minds. While he would never use any language as incendiary as Ms. Tlaib’s, and doesn’t believe the extreme claims she makes, Mr. Obama is more corrosive because what he says gets repeated in America’s genteel quarters.

So while Ms. Tlaib’s censure was welcome, it was easy. As the resolution’s text pointed out, she has “defended the brutal rapes, murders, be-headings and kidnapping” of Hamas; “spread the false narrative that Israel intentionally bombed the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital”; and used the river-to-the-sea rhetoric that is a genocidal call to wipe Israel off the map.

But her influence is limited because she is recognized by the American public as a left-wing kook.

Mr. Obama would never be so crude as to invoke the river-to-the-sea language or actually come out and say that Israel is as evil as Hamas. But notwithstanding his more-moderate views, the former president’s call for “complexity” and his declaration that the “whole truth” means we are all complicit in the bloodshed serve the same purpose: clouding fundamental moral distinctions and undermining Mr. Biden’s backing of Israel’s campaign against Hamas.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) addressed both Ms. Tlaib and Mr. Obama in comments on the Senate floor. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the shameful moral equivalence that has been creeping across elite and influential corners of the left has now been embraced by a former commander in chief.”

When Rashida Tlaib makes the case for moral equivalence, she is outrageous and extreme. But when Barack Obama does, his argument is smooth and sophisticated. That’s what makes it all the more pernicious.

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