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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Divided loyalties

Two days ago President-elect Obama appointed Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff, a position less prestigious than Cabinet Secretary, but arguably more powerful. The Chief of Staff dictates access to the President, which certainly gives him far more influence over national policy than, say, Secretary of the Interior.

Emanuel was born with dual American and Israeli citizenship; at age eighteen he gave up his Israeli citizenship. But when the Gulf War broke out in 1991, rather than enlisting in the American military, Emanuel chose to become a civilian volunteer for the Israeli Defense Force, repairing truck brakes on one of Israel's northern bases. Rather than help his own country, he chose to work for a foreign government. There's nothing illegal about this, but it shows that his loyalties are, at best, divided.

If someone has a powerful position in the U.S. government, shouldn't their loyalties be strictly American?

This is not just a Democratic problem. I've heard about several powerful figures in the Bush administration who are supposed to have dual citizenship with Israel, though I haven't been able to confirm it. If so, it's certainly not a stretch to think that they might have had more than U.S interests in mind when they help mold Mideast policy.

Imagine for a moment that the U.S. government were filled with people who had dual citizenship with, say, Uganda. And then we just happened to invade Rwanda. Might there be a hue and cry about this? Of course. But anybody who questions the current situation is accused of anti-Semitism. When I first heard the term years ago, I associated it with the old line WASPy we-don't-want-those-obnoxious-people-in-our-country-club Caddyshack sort of snobbery. I've never belonged to a country club, I've enjoyed the company of Jewish people all my life, and I certainly have no brief for this sort of pettiness. But now the term encompasses anyone who wonders aloud how we came to our present Mideast policy. For this reason -- and because those on the lookout for anti-Semitism are ever vigilant -- the issue has become the Lord Voldemort of American politics: it must not be mentioned. (Only naive bumpkins like me tend to blurt it out.)

Obama said earlier that there would be no place for lobbyists in his administration; this shows good judgment as well as an admirable idealism. Anyone who has ever lobbied the U.S. government on behalf of another country or even a corporation has essentially shown that his true loyalties lie elsewhere -- whether that be with the other country, with a corporation, or just with his own pocketbook. Any sort of loyalty "test" is the type of thing which could easily be abused, and its primary effect would probably be to force a lot of people into dishonesty. But people who have clearly demonstrated divided loyalties -- whether through maintaining a dual citizenship or by putting some corporation's interests ahead of the U.S. -- should not be in our government.

Right now the law prevents a naturalized U.S. citizen from becoming President. But someone who wants to come to this country, who gives up his previous citizenship, is surely more patriotic than a native born citizen who then chooses to volunteer for another country's military, or who maintains dual citizenship.

Apart from the issue of his loyalty, Rahm Emanuel has demonstrated his character through his actions. Two examples. As a fundraiser for Clinton, he would get donors on the phone, tell them how much he thought they could afford to give, and if they balked, he would tell them how embarrassed he was by how little they were offering and hang up on them. They would usually phone back a little while later and agree to give whatever he had asked for. After Clinton was elected in 1992, Emanuel gave a little speech to a group where he named each of Clinton's enemies and would scream "Dead!" after each name. With each name he took a knife and stuck it into the table in front of him; by the end of his rant the table was thoroughly pockmarked.

Emanuel is also a hawk on the Iraq war.

Barack Obama has made a number of statesmanlike moves in the period since his election. Publicly thanking George and Laura Bush for inviting him to the White House was gracious. Proclaiming that there was only one administration in power at a time (the lame duck Bush administration) when asked about his plans was diplomatic. Phoning Nancy Reagan to apologize for his offhand crack about her seances was the right thing to do. Referring to himself as a mutt was a self-deprecatory touch.

But appointing Rahm Emanuel was a declaration of war against his domestic political enemies, and also a hint that the war in the Middle East may continue longer than some of us had hoped.

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