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Battling Over Freeman's Legacy

I wrote yesterday about Chas Freeman, who was set to oversee the production of national intelligence estimates until coming under attack primarily for having expressed criticism of Israel.

I continue to believe that Freeman would have been perfect for that job, which had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with keeping everyone honest. As an iconoclast, gadfly and consummate asker of questions, he was exactly what the intelligence community – and the nation -- needed in that position to prevent another incident of the kind of “conventional wisdom” gone amuck that took us into a misbegotten war.

The groupthink of Washington’s national-security elite remains, to my mind, a source of great danger to this country.

After burbling mostly under the mainstream media's radar for three weeks, the story burst onto The Washington Post's front page today. Walter Pincus writes: "The withdrawal of a senior intelligence adviser after an online campaign to prevent him from taking office has ignited a debate over whether powerful pro-Israel lobbying interests are exercising outsize influence over who serves in the Obama administration.

"When Charles W. Freeman Jr. stepped away Tuesday from an appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council -- which oversees the production of reports that represent the view of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies -- he decried in an e-mail 'the barrage of libelous distortions of my record [that] would not cease upon my entry into office,' and he was blunt about whom he considers responsible....

"[A]ttention focused on Freeman's work for the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that is funded in part by Saudi money, and his past critical statements about Israel....

"Only a few Jewish organizations came out publicly against Freeman's appointment, but a handful of pro-Israeli bloggers and employees of other organizations worked behind the scenes to raise concerns with members of Congress, their staffs and the media."

Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times that national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair's decision to hire Freeman "surprised some in the White House who worried that the selection could be controversial and an unnecessary distraction, according to administration officials."

And they write: "Because President Obama himself has been viewed with suspicion among many pro-Israel groups, the attacks on Mr. Freeman had the potential to touch a nerve."

Freeman explained his decision to NPR's Robert Siegel last night: "When it became apparent that anything I was associated with would be subject to fairly unscrupulous attack and criticism, I decided that in fact it was best for country, for me, to withdraw."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that its initial suspicions about Freeman were more than validated by his parting e-mail, "in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister 'Lobby' whose 'tactics plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency' and which is 'intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government.' Yes, Mr. Freeman was referring to Americans who support Israel -- and his statement was a grotesque libel....

"Crackpot tirades such as his have always had an eager audience here and around the world. The real question is why an administration that says it aims to depoliticize U.S. intelligence estimates would have chosen such a man to oversee them."

Washington Post editorial board member Charles Lane also weighed in online, writing that "Freeman’s strong suit is supposed to be original, contrarian thinking on foreign affairs. Actually, it’s more like a competing brand of conventional wisdom."

But Washington Post opinion columnist David S. Broder writes in Freeman's defense: "The Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in their place, and their friends on Capitol Hill. The country has lost an able public servant in an area where President Obama has few personal credentials of his own -- the handling of national intelligence."

Broder scolds "the lawmakers -- mostly Republicans but also some key Democrats -- who joined the lobbyists in running him off."

Some of Freeman's rhetoric might have been inflammatory, Broder writes, "but Freeman in person is low-key, thoughtful and obviously smart as hell. His great strength, Blair said, is his ability to think through how situations look to the people on the other side. Had our intelligence system been cued to do that, Freeman told me, we never would have assumed we'd be greeted as liberators in Iraq."

And fellow opinion columnist David Ignatius says, in a video: "This illustrates a disturbing fact about Washington, which is that in foreign policy discussion, the range of permissible debate often stretches from A to B. Beyond B, people get nervous....There is a correct line, which is enforced by lobbies of various descriptions, and administrations jump that line at their risk."

As for Freeman, Ignatius says:"If I was running an intelligence agency... he's the kind of person that I would very much want to sit on a panel like this, precisely because I could count on him to say what he thought regardless of political consequences."

James Fallows blogs for the Atlantic: "I have received enough pro-Freeman letters from his working associates in the last two days to make we wonder: is there anyone who actually dealt with the man who considered him a crackpot, an anti-Semite, a menace -- terms thrown around by his critics?"

And Stephen M. Walt, co-author of a highly critical book about the Israel Lobby, blogs for Foreign Policy that "the worst aspect of the Freeman affair is the likelihood of a chilling effect on discourse in Washington, at precisely the time when we badly need a more open and wide-ranging discussion of our Middle East policy...[T]his was one of the main reasons why the lobby went after Freeman so vehemently; in an era where more and more people are questioning Israel's behavior and questioning the merits of unconditional U.S. support, its hardline defenders felt they simply had to reinforce the de facto ban on honest discourse inside the Beltway."

By Dan Froomkin  |  March 12, 2009; 11:47 AM ET
 
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Comments

Any President is going to have some appointees in his administration that some people and groups won't like.

If he thinks they don't like an appointee for good reasons, or thinks the controversy over a potential appointment would be too much to handle, he shouldn't make the appointment in the first place. Once an appointment is made, the appointee becomes part of his team, and the President needs to stick up for him.

Doing otherwise makes him look weak; groups all over Washington will think that a President who can be pushed around over a personnel matter -- in this case, a fairly small one -- might not stand up to pressure on higher-profile issues. Any new President faces this challenge, will actually face it more than once. President Obama failed the test with respect to the Freeman appointment.

This isn't really about the Israel lobby that generated most of the pressure on Freeman. The lobby exists, it is influential, it won a kind of victory in this case -- but it couldn't have if Obama had let it be known that his guy (DNI Blair) had made the Freeman appointment, and that therefore Freeman wasn't going anywhere. He didn't do any such thing; his team instead did what it did during the campaign, keeping their man as far away from controversy over policy advisers as possible. That's one big difference between Campaign World and Government World; in Campaign World, losing the news cycle to a staff controversy is worse than losing almost any policy adviser, while in Government World a President doesn't get anything done without appointees to his administration. In Campaign World, the staff's job is to put themselves and their reputations on the line for their candidate; in Government World, the President has to return the favor, whether all his political supporters are comfortable with this or not.

One fear I have about Obama is that he is still too much in Campaign World. The prominence in his White House of pure campaign operatives, led by David Axelrod, and converted campaign operatives like Rahm Emanuel makes me wonder how completely Obama grasps the truth that he is now President, and must leave the campaign and its rules behind if he is to succeed. The role his White House played in the Freeman controversy is not encouraging.

Posted by: jbritt3 | March 12, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Useful comments, jbritt 3...

Much appreciated.

Posted by: Spectator | March 12, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

This anti-American effort by AIPAC is digusting. They just prevent an honest American from serving his government when we need him the most.

BTW, the Israeli-lobby does not represent all of Israel. It is just a front for the right wing of Israel and pushing American polices that are pro right-wing Israeli and not necessary the best for Israel!

Disgusting.

Posted by: ThePatriotOne | March 12, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

It's really sad that our country's foreign policy is made in Tel Aviv. Just look our new White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, he served in the Israeli Army (not in the US Army, as I did for eight years).

The U.S. State Department & U.S. policy on Israel and Middle East has increasingly become the purview of officials well known for tilting toward Israel, and then the neocons & AIPAC tell us the reason we are hated in the Middle East: "is because the we love freedom". What a B.S.

Now we know why the neocons convinced the US Gov to go to war in Iraq, because Sadam Hussein was the only Arab leader who launched scud missiles to Israel in 1991. Now they are trying to convince us to go to war in Iran.

God help the USA from MOSSAD.

Posted by: Moses57 | March 12, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

It has been obvious since President Obama's appointment of Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State that Israel is still dictating foreign policy to the President of the United States.

Our nation will continue to lose standing among the community of nations under Obama, just as we did under Bush. How low can we go?

Posted by: frazeysburger | March 12, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

"...coming under attack primarily for having expressed criticism of Israel."

As Freeman's own parting shot made clear, this statement isn't even close to being accurate. There's a big difference between criticizing Israel (which American politicians do all the time) and suggesting that Israeli agents run US foreign policy (the Mearsheimer/Walt belief that Freeman has endorsed).

The media coverage also has barely touched upon Freeman's statements arguing that the Chinese Government should have shut down the Tiananmen protestors faster, or his statements that Gen. MacArthur was right to disobey orders and fire upon WWI veterans protesting in Washington.

Note too the NYT's aggressive spin: "the attacks on Mr. Freeman had the potential to touch a nerve." Not that Freeman's extreme views might cause problems, just that the attacks on him would.

Finally, after all of the protests from the left about the Bush administration's ties to Saudi Arabia, the idea that Freeman's service on the Saudi-funded MEPC should be given a pass just strikes me as inexplicable.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 12, 2009 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freeman's views are far from being extremist. Rather, they are realistic when taken in context, rather than being presented as soundbite snippets by the radical right.

Posted by: lowercaselarry | March 12, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

Is there really a ban on honest discourse inside the Beltway? A year or so ago Candidate Obama told an audience of Jewish people that he wanted discussion about Israel and the Middle East to be as broad in Washington as he found it to be in the Israeli press, in which there is constant debate over settlements, use of force, etc., etc.

If President Obama sticks to that principle, the imbroglio over Ambassador Freeman will rapidly fade from memory.

As for the Ambassador, the inflammatory rhetoric he used in commenting on his departure--a decision that he himself made--betrays a mindset and an agenda that do not appear to be free of bias, and a temperament that is less diplomatic than volatile.

Posted by: bfieldk | March 12, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Another victory for the zionists and Israel-Firsters. Thanks to AIPAC, Steve Rosen, Schmuck Chumer, and scumbag Joe Lieberman....

Posted by: TomKK | March 12, 2009 8:30 PM | Report abuse

"And fellow opinion columnist David Ignatius says, in a video: "This illustrates a disturbing fact about Washington, which is that in foreign policy discussion, the range of permissible debate often stretches from A to B. Beyond B, people get nervous....There is a correct line, which is enforced by lobbies of various descriptions, and administrations jump that line at their risk.""

Noam Chomsky started making this point about permissible debate 40 years.
David is just now seeing that.

Posted by: edlharris | March 12, 2009 11:19 PM | Report abuse

@tomtildrum: "There's a big difference between criticizing Israel (which American politicians do all the time).."

Is that so? Name one American politician that has publicly criticized Israel in the last year.

Just one.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | March 13, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Re the WP's editorial board dismissal of a powerful lobby "intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government."

Would the WP editorial writers please address what it is, if not pressures from AIPAC et al., that accounts for the fact that Israeli nuclear weapons (and their impact upon efforts by the U.S. and other nations to keep Iran from acquiring them) are virtually ignored by the mainstream media?

Posted by: myers131 | March 13, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

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