Rabbi Lerner is Wrong on Rahm

Recently Religion Dispatches published a piece by Rabbi Michael Lerner, a prominent voice in the religious left, concerning the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as President-elect Obama’s Chief of Staff.

I can sympathize with Rabbi Lerner’s concern that Rep. Emanuel played to a politics of division in choosing challengers in Republican districts. While I do understand some of Rep. Emanuel’s strategic concerns, I agree with Rabbi Lerner that playing someone else’s game is eventually a plan for failure. The President-elect saw this and managed to transcend it.

However, I am concerned that Rabbi Lerner seems to be playing the same game of guilt-by-association that so many of President-elect Obama’s rivals used. Rahm Emanuel may not be a good long-term strategist—that’s not his role as Chief of Staff—but his father’s politics have nothing to do with his role in the White House.

Sepoy at Chapati Mystery does not directly cast the same aspersions, but he does do something similar for both Rep. Emanuel and Sonal Shah, a member of Obama’s transition team. Amardeep at Sepia Mutiny—with an assist from Ennis—tackles the issue of Shah and her association with a militant Hindu group. They focus on the smear. While it does appear that Shah should have known more about what she was doing, she should not be guilty by association with her father. Her record should speak for itself.

In a similar vein, Juan Cole points out that Rep. Emanuel’s record indicates that he is a realist when it comes to peace in the Middle East. While I may not agree with all his policies, he does not appear to be a hyper-partisan regarding Israel. Just as important, Dr. Cole highlights the fact that Rep. Emanuel is not in a policy-making position: he’s an enforcer. He may have the President’s ear, but Middle East policy will be driven by other people.

MJ Rosenberg at TPM Café gives more detailed background on Rep. Emanuel, and also mentions Jeffrey Goldberg’s analysis. Thurman’s critique here on RD covers some of the same points, but adds the important note that the Democratic Party is not all liberals; it is ostensibly a big tent party. Which means that while the Chief of Staff may not share “our worldview, but that does not mean that the administration is denying us access.”

More troubling is the observation made over at Abu Aardvark as to how the announcement is being greeted in the Arab world. It seems to be with the same alarmism that Rabbi Lerner displays. Unfortunately, while we can discuss our disagreements with Rabbi Lerner, the damage to President-elect Obama’s reputation could be severe. Rep. Emmanuel’s appointment is a public diplomacy mistake, not in his appointment, but in the preparation of the announcement. I believe that there needs to be more consideration to changing the perception of the US in reality, which includes anticipating these sorts of issues. As Dr. Lynch says:

This has been one of the most common recommendations made by the countless task-forces dedicated to improving American public diplomacy—instead of designing policies and then assigning ‘public diplomacy’ to sell them to relevant publics, give those charged with understanding and engaging with foreign publics a seat at the decision-making table so that their reactions can be anticipated and pre-emptively addressed. Someone should be there to explain to policy-makers how a new policy on, say, missile defense or the peace process or Emmanuel or whatever will likely play with relevant foreign publics and then incorporate a communications strategy before the outrage is generated.

In this instance I believe Rabbi Lerner is correct in believing there is a problem with Rep. Emanuel’s selection. However, I do not believe he understands what the problem is. The problem is not the man, and it is most definitely not his father; it’s the way in which the announcement was managed. In fact, I believe that if Rabbi Lerner’s criticisms were to be picked up by people with anti-Israel perspectives, it would seriously hamper the ability of the incoming administration to broker a peace. We should be able to criticize, but we should do it in a way that is grounded in the reality of what is happening and what has happened, not what may happen based on the actions of a third party.