Obama Needs His Own White House “Viziers With Moral Imaginations”

by James M. Wall

When President Obama spoke in Tucson Wednesday night, he called on Americans to

. . . expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

Commenting on the speech that remembered the victims of the Tucson murders, Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that the President’s words

spoke to our desire for reconciliation. . . .But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are.

Krugman pointed to the nation’s differences on how best to order its economy. He makes a cogent and valid point. It is a point that applies as well to another “great divide”, one that confronts the President as he and his advisors address the serious and volatile standoff between Israel and Palestine.

The Peace Talks ended when Israel refused to agree to a 90 day halt of settlement construction. The two opposing sides have gone their own way. Israel continued to expand its grip on Palestinian land and people; the Palestinians looked for, and found, new friends in Europe and Latin America. At last count, 110 United Nations members have recognized Palestine as a state.

In Washington, the President reshaped his White House team to deal with the problems looming ahead in the second half of his term. Signs of hope for peace in that reshaping have thus far been anything but encouraging.

For a leader who speaks eloquently about looking forward, President Obama still looks to the past, stacking his peace squad with personnel from previous Clinton and Bush administrations. There are very few signs of the “moral imagination” the President called for in Tucson.

What the President needs are new Middle East White House viziers with “moral imaginations”. The Nizámu’l Mulk (d 1092 CE) wrote an entry for the Medieval Sourcebook on the topic, On the Courtiers and Familars of Kings. In that entry he described a vizier:

Whenever the question is one appertaining to kingship, or campaigning, or raiding, or administration, or supplies, or gifts, or war and peace, or the army, or the king’s subjects, and the like matters, then such question had better be decided with the aid of the vizier and the great experts in these faculties, and the elders of experience, in order that affairs may follow their proper course.

To put it in more modern terms, a vizier must know the territory, not just of one side in dispute, but of all those affected by the king’s decisions. He or she must know the terrain, the culture, the customs, the religion, the history, and the emotional make-up of the people who are affected by the president’s actions.

A new set of viziers on this issue should not only know “about” Palestinian culture, but be “of” it as well, in order to match the Zionist passions of Obama’s current planners for peace.

The Arab world knows about viziers. Wikipedia explains: “The vizier was the highest official in Ancient Egypt to serve the king, or pharaoh during the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms.”

Barack Obama is not without candidates who could have served his administration as modern day viziers who bring with them an understanding of both the words and the music of the Palestinian perspective.

The President had known Edward Said, a prominent Palestinian-American scholar. Said taught Obama in 1981 when the President was an undergraduate student at Columbia.

David Remnick’s biography of Obama, The Bridge, contains a reference to a time in Obama’s college years that can only be seen as an historic missed opportunity. Obama and Said were together for an entire quarter in the same classroom. Said was a 46-year old professor; Obama a 20 year old undergraduate already showing intense intellectual curiosity. Remnick writes:

Obama’s academic emphasis was on political science–particularly foreign policy, social issues, political theory, and American history–but he also took a course in modern fiction with Edward Said.  Best known for his advocacy of the Palestinian cause and for his academic excoriation of the Eurocentric “Orientalism” practiced by Western authors and scholars, Said had done important work in literary criticism and theory.

And yet, Said’s theoretical approach in the course left Obama cold. “My whole thing, and Barack had a similar view, was that we would rather read Shakespeare’s plays than the criticism” [a fellow student] said.

Said’s major book, Orientalism, was published in 1978, three years before Obama took Said’s course in literary criticism.  Obama, a bright young political science student, was already demonstrating an intense curiosity in intellectual matters.

There is no indication, however that his curiosity extended into asking his professor about Said’s thesis that the western academic mindset treated what was for Said a pejorative term,  the “Orient”, as the “other” which was separate and inherently “inferior” to the more enlightened and advanced West.

Obama’s life experience up to that point in his life demonstrated to him that the circumstances of his birth placed him in both the white, and the “other”, community. He has written and spoken eloquently of his own awareness of living in those two worlds. Said’s “orientalism”  was there to be explored at Columbia. It appears, however,  to have been a connection he failed to explore.

However, when Obama taught in the Law School at the University of Chicago, he became friends with Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American scholar who is now the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. (Pictured here).

Obama and Khalidi were close enough so that when Khalidi was being honored before he left Chicago for New York, State Senator Barack Obama was the main speaker at Khalidi’s going away dinner.

That dinner later emerged as a campaign issue during Obama’s primary struggle with Hillary Clinton, when Obama’s relationships at the University of Chicago were first used to paint him as a political radical. Khalidi was linked in that “radical attack” on Obama with Professor Bill Ayers, a former Weatherman, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s outspoken United Church of Christ Chicago pastor.

When Obama became president of the United States. he unfortunately did not turn to his colleague Rashid Khalidi for counsel on the Middle East. Instead, he continued the practice of his two presidential predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and surrounded himself not with viziers, but with courtiers.

Nizámu’l Mulk gives a definition in that same Medieval Sourcebook on the subject, On the Courtiers and Familars of Kings which includes this 11th century definition of a courtier:

The courtier should be essentially honourable and of excellent character, of cheerful disposition and irreproachable in respect of his religion, discreet and a clean liver. He should be able to tell a story and repeat a narrative either humorous or grave, and he should remember news.
He should also be consistently a carrier of pleasant tidings and the announcer of felicitous happenings. He should also have acquaintance of backgammon and chess, and if he can play a musical instrument and can handle a weapon, it is all the better.

Courtiers, the President has in abundance. They are the usual suspects, veterans of previous Middle East negotiations, competing with one another to sell their version of how to end the conflict. And all are members of the pro-Israel Washington courtier team.

When the signal sets off the alarm that a “vizier” is slipping into the White House, the intruder is removed. The courtiers know how to protect their turf.

For an example of the protective instincts of the Obama White House courtiers, see L’Affaire Freeman, an essay I wrote for Link magazine’s July-August 2009 issue.

The essay describes the successful fight to prevent Charles W. (Chas) Freeman from joining the Obama team. The fight began February 19, 2009. and ended March 11, 2009. when Freeman, as I wrote

gave up his appointment to chair President Barack Obama’s National Intelligence Council (N.I.C)—the same Council that provided President George W. Bush with the flawed intelligence he used to rationalize a decision he had already made to invade Iraq. . .

The work of the N.I.C. is very important to American foreign policy, but because of the nature of its intelligence gathering assignment, it is not a high profile position. It is, rather, one of those groups in government that works behind the scenes to provide guidance to the president and his foreign policy team. The Council serves as a clearing station for intelligence collected by 16 U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies.

By winning that 2009 battle over the appointment of Freeman, the President’s courtiers cut him off from a potential vizier who threatened to undermine Israel’s power base in the White House.

As the White House restarts its peace efforts with a reshaped White House team. Who they gonna call? Who do you think? The Ghost Busters, of course.

Laura Rozen wrote, January 13, in her Politico blog:

With U.S. Middle East peace efforts at an impasse, the Obama administration has sought new ideas from outside experts on how to advance the peace process.

One task force has been convened by Stephen Hadley and  Sandy Berger (pictured here), former national security advisers to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively, to offer recommendations on the Middle East peace process to the National Security Council.

A second effort, led by Martin Indyk, vice president of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, held meetings this week with senior NSC Middle East/Iran adviser Dennis Ross, Palestinian negotiator Maen Erekat and Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, among others.

Take a closer look. One task force has been convened by Sandy Berger and Stephen Hadley, veterans of the Clinton and Bush White House administrations, which means they are drawn from 16 years of negotiations run by two administrations which were strongly pro-Israel.

The second task force is led by Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel. He is meeting with Obama’s current Middle East/Iran adviser Dennis Ross. Both Indyk and Ross are well-known old Washington hands with strong affection for Israel.  Indyk has also met with Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, who has taught in the US, and, oh yes, Palestinian negotiator Maen Erekat, someone who is not expected to advise.

Nathan Guttman wrote in the US-based Jewish publication, Forward:

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process may be near collapse, but the Washington turf wars surrounding it are still going strong, according to sources involved in the negotiations.

The administration’s top Middle East hands — special envoy George Mitchell and White House adviser Dennis Ross — are increasingly at loggerheads, these sources say.

Mitchell has worked, unsuccessfully, for two years to resolve the conflict as Obama’s point man in the region.  Dennis Ross, is described by Guttman, as one of the administration’s “top Middle East hands”.

Whatever differences there may be in the turf wars within this group of courtiers, with the exception of Mitchell, they all share a vigorous partiality to Israel.

It is still not too late for Obama to ask Rashid Khalidi for recommendations for Palestinian and other Arab academics, who might bring a semblance of balance to the strong pro-Israel set of advisors that still battle for Obama’s favor at the negotiations table.

If Obama really wants to bring hope to the Palestinian people, he could start by including some Palestinian viziers in his future peace strategy. It would be a signal that change has finally come to the Obama White House.

The picture above of the mosque, is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea on the Gaza coast. It is from the Palestinian Ma’an News Service.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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7 Responses to Obama Needs His Own White House “Viziers With Moral Imaginations”

  1. Bill Gepford says:

    As long as the President’s administration continues to shut out the particular views they disagree with, there will never be a creative, transformational political community at the highest levels of government. As Scott Peck said in his seminal book, The Road Less Travelled, “There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; and there can be no peace (and ultimately life) without community.” Let’s bring in the Viziers. Bill Gepford

  2. Harris Fawell says:

    Jim: Thanks again for your up to date summary of affairs with the Obama administration relative to the question of his plans in regard to Israel. It appears to me that George Mitchell is the only hope that the President has to acquire an objective view of the Palestine – Israel situation. We can only hope that Mitchell’s voice will be heard. The question is will George Mitchell’s voice be heard. Thanks again for keeping us up to date on this matter. Harris

  3. Don Wolf says:

    Oboma is a politician first. As long as the Israel lobby feeds him the money for relection, there will be no peace with justice.

  4. Valerie Kockelman says:

    God bless you, Mr. Wall! Valerie from Palo Alto

  5. Patricia Pynchon says:

    It is hopeless to think that Obama will not suck up to those whom he thinks are rich and powerful. I personally think of him as a social climber. He has great words, but he does not seem to follow through on his principles, nor is he consistent in those “v alues” that he is always talking about, also, entirely unoriginal in his treatment of Israel.
    If he believed in justice he would be the first to deny Israel any funding until it came around and agreed to a solution with the Palestinians. He would go out of his way to criticise Israel’ criminal actions. He does not, nor ever will, because the power elite is pro-Israel (despite the criminal way it was founded) for reasons of power and money, I suppose. By any measurements of humane behavior, Obama is not interested in achieving peace and justice, he longs to be one of the elite, perhaps he imagines himself an Emperor.

  6. Bob Hannum says:

    Jim: Yes, yes, yes! You are so right! Can a Dennis Ross speak for the Palestinian point of view – or any of the others in the administration, who are “experts” on the Palestinian/Israeli issue?

    Of course not! I wrote to the president and Secretary Clinton, suggesting Rashid Khalidi as a balance to the viewpoints being provided for the president. Which Aid read the letter?? Did it get to the president? Perhaps if we all flooded him with the need to hear this balanced assessment, along with suggestions for moving forward, he might get the point.

    Sadly, it looks like more of the same: More settlements, more Palestinian home demolitions, more military checkposts, more talking.

  7. Wilma Jones says:

    I have just listened to the recorded conversation ” After the Elections: U.S. Policy, Israel,and Gaza”,between Congressman Brian Baird (Washington) and Rabbi Brant Rosen and Rabbi Brian Walt on http://www.FastforGaza.net, how refreshing to hear such a clear discussion!!! This should be required reading for every Representative and Senator in Washington,DC!!

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