Are Obama’s Friends Fair Game?

Prof. Khalidi thinks your associates matter.

It’s not every presidential election that American voters are introduced to characters like former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers or Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi — both of whom, we have learned, Barack Obama worked and socialized with in Chicago.

[Commentary] AP

Bill Ayers.

To the Obama campaign, these men are unimportant, except as products of the McCain campaign’s desperate willingness to deploy tactics of guilt-by-association. But faced with Mr. Obama’s short record, pundits and voters are looking for clues about Mr. Obama’s character, and thus at friends like Messrs. Ayers and Khalidi.

I took a class with Mr. Khalidi at Columbia University. He designed the course, a survey of Modern Middle East history, on his 2004 book, “Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East.” The book, inspired by the work of the late Edward Said, is a polemic against the use of American power in the Middle East. Said is quoted, prophesying: “We are in for many more years of turmoil and misery in the Middle East, where one of the main problems is, to put it as plainly as possible, American power.”

For the final exam, we were asked to respond to the following: “The United States has been an unmitigated force for good in the world.” No one doubted the professor’s view on the matter.

Disdain for American power and a muscular foreign policy are the standard at Columbia. But in rereading “Resurrecting Empire” this past week, I took new note of the book’s dedication: to Said, and to Mr. Ayers. Mr. Khalidi writes: “First, chronologically and in other ways, comes Bill Ayers. He persuaded me a little over a year ago that I should write this book . . . Bill was particularly generous in letting me use his family’s dining room table to do some of the writing for this project.” Mr. Khalidi also thanks Mr. Ayers’s notorious wife: “Bernardine Dohrn continually encouraged me to keep working on the book when I was traveling and at home.”

This dedication is an insight into Mr. Obama’s social milieu in Chicago. In April, Mr. Obama dismissed Mr. Ayers simply as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood” — omitting that the two men had worked together for years at a multimillion dollar foundation. Other notable parts of the record: Mr. Obama held an early meeting of his campaign for Illinois State Senate in Mr. Ayers’s living room; Mr. Obama blurbed a 1997 book of Mr. Ayers as “searing and timely”; and Mr. Obama toasted Mr. Khalidi at a 2003 farewell dinner for the professor who was moving from the University of Chicago to Columbia.

Is it fair for voters to judge Mr. Obama by some of the company he has kept? Mr. Khalidi implied last week that he thinks not. The controversy over his connection to Mr. Obama was “an idiot wind,” he said. But Mr. Khalidi is not shy about judging others by their associations. In explaining the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Mr. Khalidi pointed to a favorite target of left-wing academics, neoconservative government policy makers and their connections to Israel. He wrote:

“The idea that the neocons and [the Israeli right-wing party] Likud are joined at the hip is reinforced by a revealing piece of intellectual affinity: University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss, the revered mentor of [Deputy Defense Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy in the Pentagon Avram Shulsky, and many other neocon leading lights, was a great admirer of Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the extreme ultranationalist Revisionist branch of Zionism from which Likud has grown.”

So on the one hand, Mr. Khalidi charges that American voters today would be caught in an “idiot wind” if they worry about Mr. Obama’s connections to radical intellectuals. Yet Mr. Khalidi and many of his colleagues write volumes about how a group of intellectuals supposedly hijacked American foreign policy during this decade. It’s not only the right that argues that friendships — particularly when they are animated by political questions — should be taken into account.

Ms. Weiss is a writer living in New York.

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