Perhaps unsurprising for a member of academia, Mr. Khalidi holds complex views. In an article published this year in the Nation magazine, he scathingly denounced Israeli practices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and U.S. Middle East policy but also condemned Palestinians for failing to embrace a nonviolent strategy. He said that the two-state solution favored by the Bush administration (and Mr. Obama) was “deeply flawed” but conceded there were also “flaws in the alternatives.” Listening to Mr. Khalidi can be challenging — as Mr. Obama put it in the dinner toast recorded on the 2003 tape and reported by the Times in a detailed account of the event last April, he “offers constant reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.”
It’s fair to question why Mr. Obama felt as comfortable as he apparently did during his Chicago days in the company of men whose views diverge sharply from what the presidential candidate espouses. Our sense is that Mr. Obama is a man of considerable intellectual curiosity who can hear out a smart, if militant, advocate for the Palestinians without compromising his own position. To suggest, as Mr. McCain has, that there is something reprehensible about associating with Mr. Khalidi is itself condemnable — especially during a campaign in which Arab ancestry has been the subject of insults. To further argue that the Times, which obtained the tape from a source in exchange for a promise not to publicly release it, is trying to hide something is simply ludicrous, as Mr. McCain surely knows.
The specifics of the Khalidi case and the sleazy racism of the whole affair aside, there’s something very disturbing to me about the broader implications of the sort of guilt by association tactics that the McCain campaign has used over and over again this year. I expect the merits of my political views to be judged based on my writing and other statements and my actions. Like anyone who’s interested in politics and interested in learning, I have cordial relationships with lots of people who have lots of opinions. And that’s how the world ought to work. It would be a disaster if someone everyone who wanted to operate in mainstream politics had to spend his entire life in a hermetically sealed bubble in which he never meets or talks to anyone with unpopular views on any subject.
For example, on the subject at hand, would it really make sense for a U.S. President to wade into the Israeli-Arab conflict without ever having spoken to an intelligent, articulate defender of the Palestinian side of the argument? Precisely because the United States tries to pull off the difficult trick of both being Israel’s friend and also being a mediator, it seems to me that it’s vitally important our that our leaders really understand different perspectives and be in the habit of listening to a wide range of smart people. Look back at American policies toward the whole region — and especially Iraq, obviously — during 2002-2004 and you see the wages of a policy elite that’s determined to cocoon itself off from any engagement with widely held views.