The withdrawal of former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and China Charles W. “Chas” Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, which prepares those sometimes controversial, often-politicized National Intelligence Estimates, has raised anew questions about the possible power in Washington of what we might call the Israeli Lobby. I don’t know Freeman, but by most accounts he is very bright and rather opinionated. He’s one of the unusual denizens of Washington willing to criticize Israeli policy in public, as in a 2005 speech to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, referring to Israel’s “high-handed and self-defeating policies” its “occupation and settlement of Arab lands” which he called “inherently violent.”
More commentary from various sides later, but two things are especially interesting here. The first is that almost the entire controversy over Freeman took place in the blogosphere rather than in the newspapers or on TV. Neither the NYT nor the WaPo ran a story about the controversy, which was bubbling rather actively, until it was over. The second is that Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair (holder of the position created when the Bushies streamlined the “intelligence community” by adding another layer of bureaucracy) said he wanted Freeman precisely because he was outspoken and opinionated; he said he wanted a mix of independent thinkers working on intelligence. I would question whether you would want someone with such a long paper trail in charge of preparing intelligence estimates, as compared to contributing information and ideas, to be compiled by people with less skin in the game. But Blair isn’t stupid, and right up until Freeman withdrew his name he defended the choice.
It does seem that Freeman had other baggage. He served on the board of the China National Offshore Oil Corp., a past position his critics said could lead to conflicts of interest in the proposed new job. Critics also unearthed old e-mails that might seem to justify China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown, though Freeman said they were taken out of context, that he was describing the prevailing view in China, not expressing his own opinion.
As to where various players stood: The Zionist Organization of America jumped into the fray early and publicly. AIPAC, the American Israel Political Action Committee was more circumspect. Its former top official Steve Rosen (who resigned after being indicted for violating the Espionage Act for allegedly passing secrets to Israel, no trial yet), campaigned against Freeman on his own blog beginning three weeks ago. But AIPAC itself officially took no position, though spokesman Josh Block said he had given information to bloggers and reporters on background, which concealed his involvement.
Cranky semi-conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan was outraged at the campaign against Freeman, though he later recognized that Freeman would probably have been under attack after taking the job, which would have undermined his effectiveness. He also hypothesized that it was a clever ploy by the Obama people who wanted cover because they plan to change the pro-Israeli tilt of U.S. foreign policy, but if a critic like Freeman was proposed and then gone it couldn’t be hung on him. Seems unlikely.
Jonathan Chait at the New Republic fulminated against Freeman. At the WaPo venerable columnist David Broder regretted that he felt pushed to resign, but the paper’s editorial page said good riddance. Joe Klein at Time was dismayed.
As a not-uncritical fan of Israel, I’m not quite sure what to think of all this. I don’t know if Freeman is really the paragon his friends and supporters make him out to be (though it’s interesting that those who know him well seem most impressed). I also don’t think the U.S. has tied its foreign policy slavishly to Israel over the years (though Dubya did seem to) so it seems aparent that while the Israel Lobby is powerful, it is not all-powerful. So I don’t know whether the incident is tragic or not. But it sure is interesting.