Chas Freeman for NIC: Lots at Stake
A thunderous, coordinated assault against one of President Obama's intelligence picks is now underway. It started in a few right-wing blogs, migrated to semi-official mouthpieces like the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and today it reached the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the form of the scurrilous piece by Gabriel Schoenfeld, a resident scholar at some outfit called "the Witherspoon Institute."
The target is Charles ("Chas") Freeman, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, former top Defense Department official during the Reagan administration, and president of the Middle East Policy Council, whose wide-ranging experience stretches from the Middle East to China. Freeman is slated to become chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the arm of Admiral Dennis Blair's Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The NIC is the body that includes a host of analysts called national intelligence officers who are responsible for culling intel from sixteen US agencies and compiling them into so-called National Intelligence Estimates. It's a critical job, since NIE's -- often released in public versions -- can have enormous political and policy impact. Cases in point: the infamous 2002 Iraq NIE on weapons of mass destruction and the 2007 NIE on Iran that revealed that Tehran had halted its work on nuclear weapons.
If the campaign by the neocons, friends of the Israeli far right, and their allies against Freeman succeeds, it will have enormous repercussions. If the White House caves in to their pressure, it will signal that President Obama's even-handedness in the Arab-Israeli dispute can't be trusted. Because if Obama can't defend his own appointee against criticism from a discredited, fringe movement like the neoconservatives, how can the Arabs expect Obama to be able to stand up to Israel's next prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu?
Freeman is a one-of-a-kind choice: with an impeccably establishment pedigree, Freeman has developed over the years a startling propensity to speak truth to power, which is precisely what one would want in a NIC chairman. Over the last decade, he's excoriated Israel for its stubborn refusal to compromise with the Palestinians, he's accused George W, Bush and the "neocons" of having pushed America over a cliff in Iraq, and he's ridiculed the military-industrial complex for trying to tout China as a bugaboo because, Freeman once told me, the Pentagon has suffered from "enemy deprivation syndrome" since the end of the Cold War.
Just last December, in a Nation cover story, "Obama's Afghan Dilemma," I quoted Freeman's incisive analysis on Afghanistan, and it's worth citing here again at length:
"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."
Schoenfeld, in the Wall Street Journal piece, says that Obama is placing a "China-coddling Israel-basher" in charge of writing intelligence estimates that, he says -- with no evidence whatsoever -- will reflect Freeman's own "outlandish" ideas.
But the firestorm directed at Freeman didn't start with Schoenfeld. It began with alarmist postings on a blog by Steve Rosen, the former official of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee who's been indicted for pro-Israeli espionage in a long-running AIPAC scandal. 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. Said Rosen, whose blog appears alongside the Pipes-Rubin axis:
Freeman is a strident critic of Israel, and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy at the time the state of Israel was born. His views of the region are what you would expect in the Saudi foreign ministry, with which he maintains an extremely close relationship, not the top CIA position for analytic products going to the President of the United States.
The Steve Rosen blast, which was followed up by Rosen here and here, richocheted around various AIPAC-linked blogs until it was picked up by (of course) Fox News on Monday. Fox settled on Frank Gaffney, an extremist, right-wing Zionist who leads the Center for Security Policy, to blast Freeman:
"This is a really serious error on the part of Dennis Blair and the Obama administration," said Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the think tank Center for Security Policy . "Both in government and certainly in the period since he left government, he has compromised the objectivity that one would want in the person whose job it is to oversee the production of National Intelligence Estimates."
Gaffney called Freeman's perceived lack of concern for the Iranian threat to the U.S. and Israel "profoundly troubling," saying it would be "irresponsible in the extreme in the person who runs the National Intelligence Council."
"Whether it's his association with organizations with close ties to Iranians or close ties to the Chinese, these are disqualifiers for the job," Gaffney said.
And today, the smearing of Freeman landed on page 15 of the Wall Street Journal.
Some defenders of Freeman have begun speaking up. Jim Lobe, at Antiwar.com, calls it "amazing" and "stunning" that Freeman was selected for the NIC chairmanship, and praised Freeman, writing: "He doesn't pull punches." Dan Froomkin, at Nieman Watchdog, called Freeman "a one-man destroyer of groupthink," and added:
The man is one of a rare breed: He is a Washington insider, and yet he is also a ferociously independent thinker, a super-realist, an iconoclast, a provocateur and a gadfly. He has, as I wrote in a Niemanwatchdog.org article about him in 2006, spent a goodly part of the last 10 years raising questions that otherwise might never get answered -- or even asked -- because they're too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult.
But Freeman needs more defenders. The campaign by AIPAC, AEI, Pipes, the Wall Street Journal and their ilk can only be expected to intensify, using lots of muscle behind the scenes to pressure the White House, and Admiral Blair, to capitulate.
© 2009 The Nation