Michael Oren’s Misuse of Psychology

By now Michael Oren’s holding Barack Obama personally responsible for ruining the American-Israeli relationship is well known. No reasonable person argues that Obama doesn’t share blame for complicating the relationship. But as a number of very good assessments of Oren’s arguments have noted (see, for example, here, here, and here), there is a much larger context that Oren thinks is irrelevant, but can’t be.

A number of common points run through these critiques.

  1. The idea that American presidents before Obama maintained “no daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem has no basis in fact.
  2. The stipulation that Washington would never surprise Israel has no basis in fact.
  3. Oren was not present for all discussions pertaining to either the Iran deal or American-Israeli relations, and so is speculating as much as describing events.
  4. Oren completely ignores Israel’s, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, own agency, which is morally problematic and strategically bad for Israel.
  5. The arm-chair psychoanalysis of Obama’s issues of male abandonment is made without any evidence.

It is this last point where I think Oren makes his biggest mistake. It hasn’t been a major point in his public writings and interviews, but it’s a telling one.

All politicians—all individuals—are influenced by their life experiences. But a major problem with Freudian psychoanalysis like this is that the same cognitive and emotional state can be used to explain opposite outcomes.

That is, there is plenty of evidence of individuals who have suffered from the same childhood experience—say, being beaten by a parent—yet who have taken very different paths later in life. Some have turned to a life of violence, others have not. Some become aggressive, some become meek. Clinical experiments in psychology demonstrate behavioral tendencies, but these are generalizations rather than explanations for every individual action. Plenty of other factors intervene, including levels of education, social circles, and so on. So the assumption (or rather the supposition, as Oren couched the accusation) was unnecessarily inflammatory without more development.

Oren’s comments on the topic would have been more effective if he had just argued—as he started to—that Obama’s interactions with Muslim activists and leaders early on helped shape his worldview, by teaching him certain ideas about Islam and about America’s policies toward the Islamic world. That is, that he developed impressions and came to believe they were important enough to translate into policy. (In fact, this is the argument Peter Beinart makes about Obama’s interactions with Jewish leaders in Chicago.)

It’s possible Oren sees himself as so embedded in history that he’s convinced this really is a crossroads moment for Israel, and so ringing the warning bells as loudly as possible is necessary; the end justifies the means. But as defenders of Oren’s claims have pointed out, he is a very smart man. Surely he should have known better than to rely on such a characterization devoid of proof and that touches on some of the worst accusations Republicans and conservatives made against Obama during his first run for presidency—about his identity, about his presumed negative feelings toward America, that he’s anti-Israel, and so on. Indeed, as a public figure, an intellectual, and an Israeli politician who wants to maintain a strong US-Israel connection, he must.

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