The Khalidi Connection

Posting over at her new Sprint to the Oval blog, my NEWSWEEK colleague Holly Bailey reports on the McCain campaign's outrage du jour--i.e., demanding that the Los Angeles Times release a video (mentioned in its own pages last April) that captures Obama's remarks at a 2003 banquet honoring Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University professor and Palestinian scholar who has been critical of Israel. I intended to weigh in on the Khalidi "controversy," but Holly beat me to the punch, so I'll just condense the crucial parts of her item into a handy italicized excerpt:

Five months after the story was published, talk of the videotape resurfaced in blogs and subsequently in a McCain campaign release yesterday calling on the paper to release the tape. McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb accused the paper of “intentionally suppressing information that provide a clearer link” between Obama and Khalidi. “The election is one week away, and it’s unfortunate that the press so obviously favors Barack Obama that this campaign must publicly request that the Los Angeles Times do its job—make information public.”

This morning, McCain took it a step further, telling a radio station in Miami ... that the Times was guilty of a double standard for not releasing the tape. “The Los Angeles Times refuses to make that videotape public,” McCain said. “I’m not in the business about talking about media bias but what if there was a tape with John McCain with a neo-Nazi outfit being held by some media outlet. I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different.”

Less than an hour later, Sarah Palin, at a rally in Ohio, echoed the talking points. “Maybe some politicians would love to have a pet newspaper of their very own,” she said. “In this case we have a newspaper willing to throw aside even the public’s right to know in order to protect a candidate that its own editorial board has endorsed. And if there’s a Pulitzer Prize category for excelling in kowtowing, then the LA Times, you’re winning.

I have a couple of problems with this approach.

The first is journalistic. As the Los Angeles Times revealed today, there's a reason--other than "kowtowing" to Obama--that it hasn't released the tape: "it was provided to us by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it. The Times keeps its promises to sources." In other words, the Times has no choice but to maintain the privacy of the video; to do otherwise would represent a major breach of journalistic ethics. This is simply how journalism works--as the McCain campaign, which has undoubtedly provided information to the Times "off the record or "on background, is well aware. McCain and Palin know that the Times can't release the tape, and they don't expect the paper to cave. They simply want to attach the words "Khalidi" and "Palestinian" to Obama in the press--and hopefully scare a few South Florida Jews (among others) in the process.

That's where my second problem comes in. While many Americans may disagree with Khalidi's views--which is bound to happen in any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--there's nothing approaching "neo-Nazi[sm]" in the professor's past. McCain apparently based that hyperbolic comparison on Khalidi's status as--his words--"a PLO spokesman." Unfortunately for the senator, the truth is far more mundane. It's accurate to say that Khalidi closely observed (and even sympathized with) Yasir Arafat's group during his years at the American University at Lebanon, and he occasionally spoke to the press--from a Palestinian perspective--about the ongoing conflicts. But the claim that Khalidi served as a "PLO spokesman"--which Khalidi strenuously denies--is based solely on an "erroneous column by the New York Times’s Tom Friedman [from] 1982." The fact is, he has never advocated violence. On the contrary, reports Harper's Scott Horton:

[Khalidi] is ... deeply committed to stemming violence in the Middle East, promoting a culture that embraces human rights as a fundamental notion, and building democratic societies. In a sense, Khalidi’s formula for solving the Middle East crisis has not been radically different from George W. Bush’s: both believe in American values and approaches ... [Khalidi] sees education and civic activism as the path to success, and he argues that pervasive military interventionism has historically undermined the Middle East and will continue to do so. Khalidi has also been one of the most articulate critics of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority—calling them repeatedly on their anti-democratic tendencies and their betrayals of their own principles.

Khalidi's views are so firmly within the bounds of mainstream debate, in fact, that McCain himself has supported the scholar's work, as ABC News and others reported today. In 1998 and 1999, the International Republican Institute--the GOP’s congressionally funded international-networking organization--gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Center for Palestine Research and Studies. McCain chaired the IRI at the time; Khalidi founded (and served on the board of) the Palestine Center. The center's goal, according to Horton: "the promotion of civic consciousness and engagement and the development of democratic values in the West Bank." Obama befriended Khalidi at the University of Chicago around the same time. So to claim Khalidi somehow taints Obama without tainting McCain is disingenuous. The truth is, he taints neither of them.

Strip away all the baseless innuendo--the PLO stuff, the "neo-Nazism," etc.--and you're left with a pretty unremarkable kernel of information: Obama once enjoyed discussing Middle Eastern issues with a professor whose pro-Palestine perspective often clashed with his more pro-Israel worldview. (As Obama told members of a Boca Raton synagogue in May, "one of the raps on me when I first ran for Congress in [Chicago's] African-American community was that 'he was too close to the Jewish community'.") Some people will see this as evidence of Obama's admirable open-mindedness; others will see it as the byproduct of a liberal academic culture that sometimes goes too far in accomodating controversial viewpoints. That's a reasonable disagreement. Still, McCain chose to link the term "neo-Nazi" to a Palestinian-American--in South Florida. So something tells me he's not really interested in critiquing academia.