In the Arena

The Assault on Chas Freeman

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I’ve been loathe to join the argument about whether the veteran diplomat Chas Freeman should be hired to lead the National Intelligence Council. I don’t know the man, am only vaguely aware of his reputation–very smart but unothodox, a bit too close to the Saudis, a root canal ‘realist’ whose cold analysis of the Tiananmen uprising suggested that the Chinese government would have been better served to nip the student uprising ‘in the bud.’ At the same time, there was the rabid opposition of the professional Jewish community–some of them moderates like Jeff Goldberg, others full-fledged members of the Israel lobby, like former AIPAC honcho Steven Cohen Rosen, others from the neo-hysterical Commentary crowd…perpetrators of the OMG nutsiness about Obama on a range of issues, in this case: OH MY GOD, he’s selling out Israel!

In recent days, however, two very reliable sources–at least, I find them so–have made strong arguments in Freeman’s defense. The first was James Fallows, who made the absolutely essential argument that Freeman’s contrarian nature is precisely what you need at the National Intelligence Council. (One can only imagine the sort of rigor Freeman would have brought to the disgraceful October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq…or even to the 2007 NIE about Iran’s cessation of its nuclear program.)

The second argument comes from Andrew Sullivan, who reconstructs the history of the campaign against Freeman–and finds it launched primarily by neoconservatives, who don’t like Freeman’s position on Israel. Sullivan notes that Jeff Goldberg, who favors a two-state solution and has criticized the Israeli settler movement, bases his case against Freeman on a single speech. It’s a pretty tough speech, filled with the sort of, well, candor, that rarely is heard in Washington when it comes to Israel. Here’s a slice of it:

Demonstrably, Israel excels at war; sadly, it has shown no talent for peace. 

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. 

Except for the bit I’ve highlighted above, which I believe is quite unfair (I’d distinguish Israeli attitudes toward the Jordanians and Egyptians, and even the Saudis, recently, from their view of the Palestinians), I think Freeman’s been caught in the flagrant commission of a truth here.  Especially now, as Israel concocts a new government that will probably include an anti-Arab bigot (Avigdor Lieberman) in a key cabinet position, will probably allow the cancerous spread of Jewish settlements on Arab lands and will oppose a two-state solution, I think it’s absolutely necessary that the US government, finally, makes it clear when Israel is behaving badly (as Hillary Clinton did recently, when she chastised the Israelis for not allowing humanitarian supplies into Gaza).

So, in sum, a guarded vote for Chas Freeman–not that any votes will be necessary for this appointive position. It’s time we had some candor and intellectual noncomformity, some abrasiveness in the too-smooth collegiality of the intelligence bunker. It is also time to resume the relative balance that existed before George W. Bush gave veto power to Israel’s neoconservative supporters have over US government policy and appointees in the region.