Obama's Middle East Studies Mentors

When voters go to the polls on November 4th, they will choose not only a new presidential administration, but also the candidate's circles of influence. In the case of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, this includes Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said professor of Arab studies and director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Much of the scrutiny surrounding Obama's long list of objectionable and radical alliances has focused on Khalidi, and with good reason. Despite Khalidi's claims to the contrary, facts indicate that he was a spokesman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department. (Khalidi's wife Mona also worked for the PLO's press agency, Wikalat al-Anba al-Filastinija, or WAFA, during that time and like her husband, is now at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs).

Asaf Romirowsky and Jonathan Calt Harris, writing for Campus Watch in 2004, point to a June 9, 1982, Thomas L. Friedman column in the New York Times describing Khalidi as "a director of the Palestinian press agency." The salient section of the Friedman column can be viewed at Middle East studies scholar Martin Kramer's Sandbox weblog, along with information on Khalidi's involvement in the 1991 Madrid peace talks. According to Kramer, Khalidi "belonged to a six-person advisory panel which came to Madrid precisely to serve as a conduit between the official delegation and the PLO." Citing an October 23, 1991, New York Times article listing Khalidi as a member of this panel, Kramer notes that "the Israeli government was not all pleased with this addition." Finally, Kramer points to a February 19, 1978, New York Times article in which Khalidi is described as "an American-educated Palestinian who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut and also works for the P.L.O." It's unlikely that, as Khalidi contends, these were all errors of attribution.  

Khalidi certainly seems comfortable with the type of anti-Israel, anti-American propaganda the PLO and its allies peddle. In a January 27, 2003, article titled, "Attack Iraq?" in In These Times, he wrote the following:

...this war will be fought because these neoconservatives desire to make the Middle East safe not for democracy, but for Israeli hegemony. They are convinced that the Middle East is irremediably hostile to both the United States and Israel; and they firmly hold the racist view that Middle Easterners understand only force. For these American Likudniks and their Israeli counterparts, sad to say, the tragedy of September 11 was a godsend: It enabled them to draft the United States to help fight Israel's enemies.

Such rhetoric hardly inspires confidence in Khalidi's teaching abilities, but his academic career has not suffered for it. Before his current position at Columbia, Khalidi taught political studies at the American University of Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s and then went on to become a professor at the University of Chicago from 1987 to 2003. It was there that Khalidi befriended Obama and launched a series of mutually beneficial dealings.

The Arab American Action Network (AAAN), a Chicago nonprofit with decidedly anti-Israel leanings that was founded by Rashid and Mona Khalidi, sponsored a fundraiser for Obama's unsuccessful congressional bid in 2000. In turn, the Woods Fund, a nonprofit whose board included both Obama and Weatherman-terrorist-turned-education-professor Bill Ayers, provided grants totaling $75,000 to AAAN over 2001-2002. At a farewell bash thrown by AAAN to celebrate Khalidi's move to Columbia University in 2003, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, was one of his most vocal supporters. During Obama's speech, he recalled his many dinners at the Khalidi home, the "conversations that had challenged his thinking," and his hope "that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation."

Nonetheless, Obama has tried to downplay his relationship with Khalidi. But the facts speak for themselves: Khalidi and Obama have far more than just a passing acquaintance. Khalidi's cousin, Tarif Khalidi, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut, put it plainly: "Obama was a very good friend of Rashid."

The alliance between Obama and Khalidi makes perfect sense if seen in light of Obama's education at Columbia University during the 1980s. Although Obama refuses to release any information from that period, we know that he studied under the late Columbia professor and post-colonialist icon Edward Said. A 1998 photo of the Obamas and the Saids dining together at an event for the local Arab-American community at which Said gave the keynote address, suggests a continuing relationship. Not coincidentally, Khalidi was an intellectual follower of Said and now holds the chair at Columbia named for him. It's hard to imagine that Obama emerged from this triangular association without being influenced ideologically by these radical mentors.

Despite pandering to pro-Israel and pro-American sentiment-depending on the audience-Obama's tutelage under Middle East studies professors who view America and Israel as imperialist powers responsible for virtually every shortcoming and failure in the Muslim world, including radical Islam, demonstrates quite the opposite. It doesn't take a leap of imagination to deduce that Obama's foreign policies would do the same.

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at stillwell@meforum.org.
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