I’d been meaning for several days to write about the Obama administration’s appointment of Charles (Chas) Freeman to the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council. It was a praiseworthy choice that promised new perspectives on foreign intelligence and international relations… and therefore, unsurprisingly, it was controversial in certain corners. But I hadn’t gotten to it yet when the news broke this past Wednesday that, in the face of a barrage of criticism from those corners, Freeman had withdrawn his name from consideration for the position.mild
This is a huge disappointment. It’s also a harbinger of policy battles to come. So I’m still going to write about it. Settle in, this is going to be a long one…
Charles Freeman was the hand-picked choice of Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair for the NIC position, as announced in late February, and President Obama backed him on this. Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the story: NIC chief is not a position that requires Senate confirmation, nor one that ordinarily attracts much public attention. That’s not to say it’s an unimportant position, however: the NIC is the entity that compiles incoming information from 16 otherwise unconnected intelligence agencies, and compiles it into periodic National Intelligence Estimates, which can be very important drivers of policy.
The position calls for a realist, not an ideologue, and that’s exactly what Freeman is. He’s the opposite of the neoconservatives who’ve been running the show in recent years. The right used to complain bitterly (remember the Carter years?) that the left’s foreign policy was too preoccupied with abstract idealistic notions like “human rights” and “international law”… until the rise of the neocons, who discovered the rhetorical effectiveness of such abstractions when turned to their own purposes. Neocons love to preach about their “idealistic” goals (spreading freedom, democracy, etc.), but they go after them with the same old means (typically military) that the right has always loved, and the results don’t ever seem to support their idealistic goals the way they (claim to) expect.
The “realist” school of thought, on the contrary, tends to take a more pragmatic approach to foreign relations, prioritizing national interest, international stability, and achievable goals. This doesn’t mean realists necessarily avoid getting caught up in different kinds of amoral means/ends problems (Henry Kissinger springs to mind as a worst-case example), but they do at least tend to be more cautious. My personal ideal of a foreign intelligence overseer would take an approach to both ends and means that’s both principled and pragmatic… but short of the ideal, after years of neocon dominance, a smart realist like Freeman is just what the times call for.
He certainly has an impeccable résumé for the job. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission in both Bangkok and Beijing, Director of Chinese Affairs at the State Department, and Distinguished Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Institute for National Security Studies. And that’s on top of a JD from Harvard. Freeman has earned a rep as an independent thinker who’s not afraid to criticize wrong moves by enemies, allies, or the U.S. itself.
As noted above, this is not a high-profile position, and it’s highly unusual to second-guess both the DNI and the president on something like this. However, this is not a usual case.
Why? Because he hasn’t been afraid to criticize Israel.
And so the firestorm began. The first fusillades were fired by Steve Rosen, a former AIPAC official currently under indictment for espionage on behalf of Israel.
Rosen, whose blog is entitled “Obama Mideast Monitor,” is published by the Middle East Forum, a rabid, right-wing Zionist outlet led by Daniel Pipes, whose Middle East Quarterly is edited by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. [Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation]
It was soon followed up by the usual suspects one hears from about such issues, neocons and extreme Zionist hawks including not only Pipes and Rubin but Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, who Fox News tapped to discuss the appointment…
Gaffney called Freeman’s perceived lack of concern for the Iranian threat to the U.S. and Israel “profoundly troubling.”
… to Gabriel Schoenfeld (formerly of Commentary, he who thinks the New York Times should be prosecuted for breaking the story of Bush’s illegal wiretapping) in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard, Victor Davis Hanson in The National Review, Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, and, of course, the New Republic’s Marty Peretz and Jonathan Chait.
The focus quickly shifted, however, from Israel itself to matters more calculated for public consumption. Goldberg took aim at Freeman’s allegedly suspicious ties with Saudi Arabia, for instance (because he was “a recipient, as head of the Middle East Policy Council, of funds from the Saudi royal family”), and Schoenfeld directed attention to remarks from Freeman about the 1989 Tianenmen Square uprising (leaked from “a confidential Internet discussion group”):
“The truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud… I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be.”
On Saudi Arabia, the gist of the charge seems to be that the Saudi government has provided some funding over the years to the Middle East Policy Council, which Freeman headed at one point. That hardly makes him a Saudi stooge, however; he’s certainly never been on the Saudi payroll, as some have sloppily charged; and at any rate since when does being a friend of Saudi Arabia (as long-time an ally of the U.S. as Israel) disqualify one from government service? (It certainly didn’t seem to matter with regard to the Bush family.)
As for China, Freeman’s remarks about Tiananmen do indeed seem somewhat disquieting, but they should not be construed to say (as Goldberg headlines another Atlantic item) that he thinks the “Tianenmen massacre was justified.” It should be understood in context: consider the analysis of China blogger “Peking Duck”, or the words of Daniel Lubin and Jim Lobe at at Antiwar.com:
[Dennis] Blair and others countered that the e-mail was taken out of context, and that Freeman was not describing his own views but what he referred to as “the dominant view in China.”
One member of the listserv who did not wish to be identified said that Freeman’s e-mail came in the context of an extended conversation about what lessons the Chinese leadership took from the Tiananmen Square events, and that Freeman himself has always regarded the events as a “tragedy.” …
China scholar Sidney Rittenberg told James Fallows of The Atlantic that Freeman was “a stalwart supporter of human rights who helped many individuals in need” during his diplomatic career in Beijing. Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law, told Fallows that the allegations that Freeman endorsed the Tiananmen Square repression were “ludicrous.”
One should not mistake any of this criticism for a suggestion that neocons are themselves actually concerned about the state of civil liberties in either Saudi Arabia or China; those are just convenient bits of ammunition for his critics. Really, what these examples underscore (once again) is that Freeman is first and foremost not an ideologue, but a pragmatist. The corollary of that conclusion informs his positions on the middle east in general and Israel in particular, with which his critics are concerned. It’s realism there that really drives them crazy. For instance, statements like this, in a Nation article about Afghanistan (all emphases mine)…
“What we conveniently have been labeling ‘the Taliban’ is a phenomenon that includes a lot of people simply on the Islamic right,” says Freeman.
“What began as a punitive raid aimed at beheading Al Qaeda and chastising its Afghan household staff has somehow morphed—with no real discussion or debate—into a prolonged effort to pacify Afghanistan and transform its society,” says Freeman. “This moving of the goal posts gratified neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike. Our new purpose became giving Afghanistan a centrally directed state—something it had never had. We now fight to exclude reactionary Muslims from a role in governing the new Afghanistan.” Freeman suggests that this is an untenable goal, and that it is time to co-opt local authorities and enlist regional allies in search of a settlement.
“What the insurgents do seem to agree about is that foreigners shouldn’t run their country, and that the country should be run according to the principles of Islam,” says Chas Freeman. “We need to recall the reason we went to Afghanistan in the first place,” he says. “Our purpose was…to deny the use of Afghan territory to terrorists with global reach. That was and is an attainable objective. It is a limited objective that can be achieved at reasonable cost. We must return to a ruthless focus on this objective. We cannot afford to pursue goals, however worthy, that contradict or undermine it. The reform of Afghan politics, society and mores must wait.”
“For almost forty years, Israel has had land beyond its previously established borders to trade for peace. It has been unable to make this exchange except when a deal was crafted for it by the United States, imposed on it by American pressure, and sustained at American taxpayer expense. For the past half decade Israel has enjoyed carte blanche from the United States to experiment with any policy it favored to stabilize its relations with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors, including most recently its efforts to bomb Lebanon into peaceful coexistence with it and to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle.
“The suspension of the independent exercise of American judgment about what best serves our interests as well as those of Israelis and Arabs has caused the Arabs to lose confidence in the United States as a peace partner. To their credit, they have therefore stepped forward with their own plan for a comprehensive peace. By sad contrast, the American decision to let Israel call the shots in the Middle East has revealed how frightened Israelis now are of their Arab neighbors and how reluctant this fear has made them to risk respectful coexistence with the other peoples of their region. The results of the experiment are in: left to its own devices, the Israeli establishment will make decisions that harm Israelis, threaten all associated with them, and enrage those who are not.”
“As long as the United States continues unconditionally to provide the subsidies and political protection that make the Israeli occupation and the high-handed and self-defeating policies it engenders possible, there is little, if any, reason to hope that anything resembling the former peace process can be resurrected. Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab lands is inherently violent … And as long as such Israeli violence against Palestinians continues, it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance and retaliation against Israelis.”
…and this, summing up his thoughts on the region:
“The obvious need to change our approaches to both Iraq and Afghanistan is a case in point as is our contempt for the constraints of international law. These have become major force multipliers for our extremist enemies and inhibitions on cooperation from allies. They need radical adjustment. We must also subject our reflexive support of Israel’s policies to critical examination. The default on the independent exercise of American judgment on this and other issues has not worked to the advantage of either the United States or Israel. The Holy Land is not advancing toward peace but sinking into an ever more bitter struggle for land and identity. Israel is not more secure or accepted in its region, but less. Options for a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict are narrowing, not widening. Once a menace only to Israel and its immediate Arab neighbors, the blowback from the Arab-Israeli conflict has emerged as a major threat to our security and that of our allies. It is the principal factor radicalizing the Islamic world.
“We have much in common with Israel and many human ties to it, but Israel is not an extension of the United States or our values and does not see itself as such. Israel is a foreign country, inhabited by foreigners, with many interests that are foreign to our own. Contemporary Israeli values increasingly diverge both from ours and, in the opinion of many, from the humane ethics of the religion the Jewish state was established to safeguard. In our own interest, as well as in the interest of securing Israel’s long-term existence from the brilliantly short-sighted policies its government sometimes follows, we must recover the ability to exercise our own judgment. We must be able to discuss Israel’s policies and our relationship to them in the robust democratic manner with which these matters are debated in Israel itself. Serious strategic questions that are vigorously disputed among Israelis do not become instances of anti-Semitism when Americans also seek to debate them. It is particularly anomalous that Jewish Americans who feel free to speak out when in Israel are intimidated from doing so in their own country by self-appointed thought-police.
“Watchdog politics and media censorship imposed by political action groups through the moral blackmail of promiscuous charges of anti-Semitism or lack of patriotism on the part of those who raise controversial matters for public discussion should have no place in our democracy. Such defamatory agitprop has become a blight on our civil society. Calumny is not an acceptable response to issues that are central to protecting the domestic tranquility, managing the common defense, and securing the general welfare of all Americans. Our inability to carry out an honest and objective discussion of issues of great moment endangers us. We can no longer afford the narrow intolerance of political correctness. The thought control it attempts to impose imperils the very interests it purports to defend.
“Al Qaeda draws its strength and its recruits from the grievances of Arabs and other Muslims. Whether or not these grievances are justified, denial will not cure them. It is in our interest both to analyze them and to reduce them to the lowest possible level. This cannot be done without honest examination of how our actions appear to those they affect, unimpeded by prejudice, stereotypes, or the enforcement of political taboos. We need to understand what we are up against as it is, not as it is politically expedient to explain it. Only then can we hope to develop policies that reduce tensions and end the conflicts in the Holy Land, Iraq, and Afghanistan, not aggravate or perpetuate them.”
He’s absolutely right about all of this, of course. It’s the kind of truth the White House needs to hear, but it’s the kind that the neocons can’t stand.
Indeed, as Foreign Policy reported:
…two former AIPAC officials said that Freeman’s views were at least perceived to fall outside of what has become the traditional pro-Israel tilt in Washington. “The term ‘even-handed’ has become a pejorative,” said one former AIPAC official, on condition of anonymity. “It does not mean fair-minded in all things, but that the U.S. should take a neutral view towards the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is not going to happen.”
Goldberg maligned Freeman’s mild criticisms as “hostility toward Israel.” And Marty Peretz couldn’t avoid going even further, callign him “bigoted” and voicing the heart of the criticism with this screed:
Freeman’s real offense… is that he has questioned the loyalty and patriotism of not only Zionists and other friends of Israel, the great swath of American Jews and their Christian countrymen, who believed that the protection of Zion is at the core of our religious and secular history, from the Pilgrim fathers through Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. And how has he offended this tradition? By publishing and peddling the unabridged John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, with panegyric and hysteria. If Freeman believes that this book is the truth he can’t be trusted by anyone, least of all Barack Obama.
Freeman was, indeed, involved in publishing the book version of said article by Harvard’s Walt and the University of Chicago’s Mearsheimer (both staunch realists, and the latter one of my own undergraduate professors, as well as an early critic of the Iraq invasion). In Peretz’s world, if open-minded debate about Israel-related policy is a sin, then pointing out the lack of that debate (as Walt and Mearsheimer did) is an even more unpardonable sin. Ironically, though, the very reaction to Freeman’s appointment is itself a spectacular demonstration of the truth of Walt and Mearsheimer’s thesis.
Freeman has not been without his defenders. When a man makes enemies like the above, after all, he must be doing something right. James Fallows has already been mentioned, and Stephen Walt has spoken up as well. Robert Dreyfuss has addressed the attacks in his Nation blog. The abovementioned Foreign Policy article included the following…
“Chas is a highly experienced, perceptive, and well-regarded U.S. diplomat,” said former senior NIC official Paul Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown. “I think he brings excellent understanding on a wealth of topics in world affairs to the job of the chairman of the council.
“I would trust that Mr. Freeman would exhibit integrity in addressing issues on the Middle East as they may pertain to Israel or any other Middle Eastern country,” Pillar continued. “The kind of ‘anti-Israeli’ perspective getting criticized is of course not new criticism or by no means unique to this particular target.”
“I think what is being missed” by the commentariat, Pillar added, “Is the whole concept that a public servant … and foreign affairs professional with a long career under different administrations … can do his job in the best and most objective way he thinks is possible and isn’t necessarily going to be working one policy slant vs. another policy slant.”
…and FP‘s own David Rothkopf wrote…
The head of the NIC is, in some respect, the analyst-in-chief of the U.S. government. He or she must have a great mind, must reject cant, must have a nose for political agendas (and the willingness to filter them out… including first and foremost his own biases), and must be genuinely intellectually daring, willing to explore unpopular or unlikely ideas to consider their implications. He or she must understand how the U.S. national security community works from top to bottom. The head of the NIC oversees production of the President’s Daily Brief and thus must have an eye for what is really important and the ability to cut away the fatty, bland, self-serving analysis that often filters up from the Directorate of Intelligence.
Few people would be better for these tasks than Chas Freeman. Part of the reason he is so controversial is that he has zero fear of speaking what he perceives to be truth to power. You can’t cow him and you can’t find someone with a more relentlessly questioning worldview.
Perhaps most notably, Dennis Blair himself testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last Tuesday on behalf of Freeman, answering questions from the neocons’ favorite Democrat, Joe Lieberman, and defending the qualifications of his appointee.
But that was too late: that same evening, before the vetting process was finished, Freeman decided to withdraw his name. One might fear that he was quietly nudged toward the door by Blair or Obama himself, but in an interview on All Things Considered on Wednesday afternoon, Freeman emphasized that the decision was his (an impression underscored on Marc Ambinder’s Atlantic blog). Freeman elaborated on his reasons in a public statement published in the WSJ:
I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office. The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country. I agreed to chair the NIC to strengthen it and protect it against politicization, not to introduce it to efforts by a special interest group to assert control over it through a protracted political campaign.
As those who know me are well aware, I have greatly enjoyed life since retiring from government. Nothing was further from my mind than a return to public service. When Admiral Blair asked me to chair the NIC I responded that I understood he was “asking me to give my freedom of speech, my leisure, the greater part of my income, subject myself to the mental colonoscopy of a polygraph, and resume a daily commute to a job with long working hours and a daily ration of political abuse.” I added that I wondered “whether there wasn’t some sort of downside to this offer.” …
I am not so immodest as to believe that this controversy was about me rather than issues of public policy. These issues had little to do with the NIC and were not at the heart of what I hoped to contribute to the quality of analysis available to President Obama and his administration. Still, I am saddened by what the controversy and the manner in which the public vitriol of those who devoted themselves to sustaining it have revealed about the state of our civil society. It is apparent that we Americans cannot any longer conduct a serious public discussion or exercise independent judgment about matters of great importance to our country as well as to our allies and friends.
…The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.
There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government– in this case, the government of Israel. …
The outrageous agitation that followed the leak of my pending appointment will be seen by many to raise serious questions about whether the Obama administration will be able to make its own decisions about the Middle East and related issues. I regret that my willingness to serve the new administration has ended by casting doubt on its ability to consider, let alone decide what policies might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government.
The pronounced majority of this dispute had taken place outside the “mainstream media,” in the blogosphere and other venues frequented by policy wonks. Once Freeman withdrew, however, the mainstream finally seemed to take notice of what had been happening. To the media’s credit, at least, most outlets ignored the diversions and exposed the heart of the matter: as the New York Times headlined it, “Israel Stance Was Undoing of Nominee for Intelligence Post.” The consensus seems to be that his withdrawal, and the implicit victory for his critics, was a loss for the nation. David Broder wrote admiringly of him in the WaPo.
Even so, the real hubbub remained online, which is more than ever where any attempts to follow current events must start and end these days. It is there that Glenn Greenwald turned his usual penetrating analysis to the whole situation, tracing AIPAC’s involvement despite its claims that it officially “took no position,” and observing with cutting sarcasm,
In the U.S., you can advocate torture, illegal spying, and completely optional though murderous wars and be appointed to the highest positions. But you can’t, apparently, criticize Israeli actions too much or question whether America’s blind support for Israel should be re-examined.
And it is there that Freeman’s own son, despite broad and numerous political disagreements, came to his father’s defense:
Let me say that I have had my disagreements with my father over the years.
I am a lifelong Republican. … We have argued over China policy, Middle East policy and every other conceivable policy: my Dad’s a born arguer and a born contrarian. He likes to challenge established viewpoints and conventional wisdom. I’m more likely to guard my flank against political attack.
His appointment is being challenged these days by a small cabal of folks that believe first and foremost in the importance of allegiance to Israel as a core U.S. priority. Putting aside my natural instinct as a son to want to punch some of these guys in the face for some of the things they are saying about my father, for heaven’s sake, I’m more deeply angry about the lack of guile some of these people have. …
I do think it’s perfectly acceptable to be more loyal to Israel, even as an American citizen. But I also think that should disqualify you from any serious discussion about American interests in the Middle East. …
My Dad is a royal pain in the butt, but I love him. Why this pack of arfing lapdogs have chosen him as a target is clear: he’s been a longtime thorn in the butt of the Israel first-ers. Never mind that he’d be a killer NIC chair for genuine American interests.
What, though, will be the ultimate upshot for American intelligence gathering, and the Obama administration’s handling thereof? Many commentators seem to expect a chilling effect on the range of policy discussion considered acceptable by the administration. On the cynical side, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative argues that it changes nothing except unrealistic expectations, since
…Obama has no intention of challenging the status quo, [so] he doesn’t really see the defenders of the status quo as his enemies, even though they just dealt his administration a politically damaging blow.
On the other hand, things may not be that bleak. As Walt notes,
The level of attention this case has now received stands in sharp contrast to several other examples where valuable public servants were denied key posts due to opposition from groups or individuals in the lobby… What is different about the Freeman case is that the campaign against him got waged out in the open, and many people figured out quickly what was going on and were willing to say so, mostly in the blogosphere.
And Andrew Sullivan offers up a possible silver lining:
…if you know Obama, you know he always gives away the shop-window to his opponents, while retaining the store for his own counsel. I believe he has the national interest at heart and genuinely wants to assess intelligence with as much open-mindedness as possible. He will be denied a true contrarian to challenge the old way of thinking, but I have faith that he will not be bamboozled by groupthink the way Bush was.
Dennis Blair has also been humiliated — publicly, by both the Israel lobby and by the White House. He may react to that humiliation by surrendering independent judgment, or by being even more skeptical of the forces that demanded Freeman’s smearing and removal from government. I suspect the latter.
Let’s hope that Walt and Sullivan are reading the tea leaves correctly on this one. Because as Fallows points out, in times like these what the president needs more than ever are advisors willing to raise provocative questions, not to sweep them under the rug.Tags: Afghanistan, Charles Freeman, Dennis Blair, diplomacy, international, Iraq, Israel, Obama, Palestine