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10:30 AM, Aug 7, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Did the White House know anything about Mary Robinson before she was selected for the nation's highest civilian honor -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom? There's no rule that says an administration can't choose a controversial figure to receive the honor, but it's hard to believe the administration intended to provoke this controversy. To what end?

The White House does claim that its current standoff with Israel over settlement construction is all part of some grand strategy, that the administration meant to pick a very public fight with a very close, democratic ally in order to advance the greater good of Middle East peace. And that claim is almost certainly true, even if things haven't gone quite according to plan. But why, in the midst of all that, pick a woman most Americans have never heard of for an award most Americans don't care about, i.e. make a decision with no possible political upside, when the pick had such obvious potential to inflame an already tense situation over the administration's Middle East policy?

So now comes the fallout as the mainstream press finally picks up the story. The New York Times runs with the complaints about Robinson's anti-Israel bias and notes concerns about the pick in Congress, pointing to statements from two Democratic reps (Eliot Engel and Shelley Berkley). How does it help the Obama administration to have the New York Times quoting Democrats taking shots at his administration for rewarding anti-Israel bias?

The Los Angeles Times also has Engel and Berkley knocking the pick, but adds a quote from Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and another from the late California Democrat Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor.

Newsweek runs the story under the headline "President Obama is offering the Presidential Medal of Freedom to someone widely considered a villain." This from the magazine edited by a man who just eight weeks ago compared Obama to God.

The story is a genuine distraction for an administration with so much else on its plate, but it's more than that. The Robinson story also has the effect of reinforcing a preexisting narrative about Obama that his campaign had at one point seemed to put to rest -- that Barack Obama is no friend of Israel.

The most obvious explanation for all of this is that the Robinson pick was never vetted. It seems unlikely that Richard Holbrooke or Dennis Ross wouldn't have raised a red flag if it was. Presumably Obama isn't playing the "long game" with his choice of Freedom Medal recipients and whichever of his lefty lieutenants that was charged with choosing the winners simply screwed up. The alternative -- that the president has decided to intentionally antagonize and inflame an already nervous constituency within his own party -- seems awfully unlikely. But that's what the Robinson pick has done. And by ignoring the criticism and defending the pick, the administration will end up owning every comment Mary Robinson makes on Israel from this day forward.

Robinson is set to head to the West Bank and Gaza with Jimmy Carter in just a few weeks. Does this administration really want to defend its decision to award her a Freedom Medal when she starts spouting off about the outrages of the Israeli occupation? Because that's where this is going.