Neocons 1, Obama 0

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Foreign Policy In Focus

Neocons 1, Obama 0

The Obama administration's choice to head the National Intelligence Council (NIC) recently withdrew in face of a concerted right-wing attack. Veteran diplomat Chas Freeman would not have had to face Senate confirmation. Instead, he had to face attacks in the right-wing press and blogosphere. His withdrawal was a victory for Bush-era neoconservatives and their allies regarding intelligence and broader Middle East Policy.

The NIC chairmanship is structured to offer a skeptical view on U.S. intelligence. With his broad knowledge and experience in East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Latin America, Freeman would appear to be an ideal appointee. Fluent in both major dialects of Chinese, he accompanied President Richard Nixon on his historic 1972 trip to China. Later, he served as principal deputy assistant secretary of State for African affairs, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs, and as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War. After retiring from the State Department, Freeman succeeded former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern as head of the Middle East Policy Council, a centrist Washington think tank.

Those closest to Freeman have confirmed that his decision was indeed his own. Neither the president nor Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who had offered Freeman the position, asked him to withdraw his acceptance of the NIC post. At the same time, the White House's refusal to come to Freeman's defense in the face of misleading and defamatory attacks is reminiscent of the Clinton White House's abandonment of assistant attorney general nominee Lani Guinier in similar circumstances back in 1993.

The Sin of Being Right on Iraq

Freeman announced his withdrawal just hours after Blair praised Freeman before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his "wealth of knowledge and expertise in defense, diplomacy and intelligence." The seven Republican members of the committee didn't, however, welcome these attributes when they spoke out strongly against his appointment. Particularly upsetting to Freeman's right-wing opponents were his statements acknowledging the disastrous consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a decision backed not only by Republicans but by such key Senate Democrats as Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), an outspoken supporter of the invasion, kept pressing Blair on the Freeman appointment during the hearing, to which Blair replied that such criticism was based on a misunderstanding of the position. "I can do a better job if I'm getting strong analytical viewpoints to sort out and pass on to you and the president than if I'm getting precooked pablum judgments that don't really challenge," Blair said. Lieberman, clearly unsatisfied with Blair's response, promised he would continue to press the issue.

Freeman had raised the ire of war supporters in his articles and speeches exposing the errors of Bush policy in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. "Al-Qaeda has played us with the finesse of a matador exhausting a great bull by guiding it into unproductive lunges at the void behind his cape," Freeman said, noting how invading Iraq appeared to the world's Muslims as "a wider war against Islam." Freeman further observed: "We destroyed the Iraqi state and catalyzed anarchy, sectarian violence, terrorism, and civil war in that country."

Not surprisingly, the bipartisan group attacking the appointment was led by such staunch supporters of the invasion of Iraq as Representatives Mark Kirk (R-IL), Steve Israel (D-NY), John Boehner (R-OH), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), and Eric Cantor (R-VA). Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), another outspoken supporter of the invasion of Iraq, insisted that "Freeman was the wrong guy for this position." Schumer even tried to take credit for Freeman's withdrawal, claiming, "I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing."

By contrast, those supporting intelligence assessments based on the facts rather than ideology had praised the appointment as an example of a shift away from the Bush administration policy. Freeman has "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," Dan Froomkin of NiemanWatch observed. "For him to be put in charge of [the NIC]...is about the most emphatic statement the Obama administration could possibly make that it won't succumb to the kind of submissive intelligence-community groupthink that preceded the war in Iraq." 

James Fallows of The Atlantic noted how "anyone who has worked in an organization knows how hard it is, but how vital, to find intelligent people who genuinely are willing to say inconvenient things even when everyone around them is getting impatient or annoyed. The truth is, you don't like them when they do that. You may not like them much at all. But without them, you're cooked."

Smear Campaign

In the days following Blair's appointment of Freeman, the attacks grew more and more bizarre. For example, since the Middle East Policy Council had received some grants from some Saudi-based foundations, Freeman was accused of thereby being "on the Saudi payroll" and even being a "Saudi puppet." In The New Republic, Martin Peretz insisted that Freeman was "a bought man." But it's certainly not unprecedented for presidential appointees to have worked with nonprofit organizations that have received support from foreign governments. Indeed, Dennis Ross, appointed last month as Special Advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia, is still listed as the board chair of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, which is supported by the Israeli government.

To set the record straight, Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Freeman had "never lobbied for any government or business (domestic or foreign)" and that he had "never received any income directly from Saudi Arabia or any Saudi-controlled entity."

In another irony, the person identified as the principal orchestrator of the attacks against Freeman - including the charge that he was a Saudi agent - was Steven Rosen, former director of the right-wing American-Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Rosen currently faces espionage charges for transferring classified materials to the Israeli government. M.J. Rosenberg, a former colleague of Rosen who now serves as policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, said "you couldn't have picked anyone less credible to lead the charge" against Freeman. But Rosen's smear campaign was apparently credible enough to force Freeman to turn down the position.

Another line of attack was that Freeman, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, was a "China apologist." Critics cited quotes allegedly made by Freeman, many taken out of context, that appeared to justify repression by the Beijing regime, including the 1989 crackdown against pro-democracy activists. According to Blair, however, Freeman - who has spoken of the Tiananmen Square massacre as a "tragedy" - wasn't describing his own views but was simply observing what he considered to be "the dominant view in China." Similarly, a number of leading China experts came to Freeman's defense as well, with Jerome Cohen noting that claims of Freemen endorsing the 1989 repression were "ludicrous" and Sidney Rittenberg observing that as a U.S. diplomat in Beijing, Freeman was "a stalwart supporter of human rights who helped many individuals in need."

Yet Peretz falsely claimed that Freeman had "made himself a client of China" and was a man with "no humane or humanitarian scruples" who wanted the United States to "kow-tow to authoritarians and tyrants." Nor did it stop the National Review from claiming that Freeman's appointment proved "you can go directly from effectively working for the Saudis and Chinese to being the country's top intelligence analyst."

None of those attacking Blair's appointments on the grounds of supposedly supporting authoritarian regimes has ever raised concerns about Admiral Blair himself. Blair served as the head of the U.S. Pacific Command from February 1999 to May 2002, as East Timor was finally freeing itself from a quarter-century of brutal Indonesian occupation. As the highest-ranking U.S. military official in the region, he worked to undermine the Clinton administration's belated efforts to end the repression, promote human rights, and support the territory's right to self-determination. He also fought against congressional efforts to condition support for the Indonesian military on improving their poor human rights record. When human rights activists raised concerns about having a defender of death squads as the Director of National Intelligence, the Obama White House rushed to Blair's defense, something they were clearly not willing to do for Chas Freeman.

Criticizing Israeli Policies

Freeman's rightist critics also claimed that Freeman was "anti-Israel." For instance, Freeman rejected the Bush administration's policy of defending Israeli violence against Palestinians while insisting that the Palestinians had to unilaterally end their violence against Israelis. A number of Freeman's critics cited in horror Freeman's observation that until "Israeli violence against Palestinians" is halted, "it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance."

Freeman has been concerned for some time that U.S. policy is radicalizing the Palestinian population to the point of jeopardizing Israel's security interests. The United States had "abandoned the role of Middle East peacemaker to back Israel's efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoized Arab populations," he observed. "We wring our hands while sitting on them as the Jewish state continues to seize ever more Arab land for its colonists. This has convinced most Palestinians that Israel cannot be appeased and is persuading increasing numbers of them that a two-state solution is infeasible."

Ironically, a number of prominent Israeli academics, journalists, security analysts, military officers, and political leaders have made similar observations. Freeman's critics, however, believe that expressing such concerns makes Freeman - in the words of the Wall Street Journal - an "Israel basher." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a strident supporter of Israeli government policies, claimed that Freeman's views were "indefensible" and urged President Barack Obama to withdraw his appointment.

In his withdrawal statement, Freeman reiterated his concern that "the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for U.S. policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel." He went on to observe that this "is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States."

Obama's Silence

A number of diplomats and other State Department professionals who had known Freeman as a colleague spoke up in favor of his nomination, and challenged the defamatory and libelous attacks against him. For example, a letter signed by former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering, former ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis, former ambassador to Afghanistan Samuel Neumann, and more than a dozen other current and former ambassadors noted: "We know Chas [Freeman] to be a man of integrity and high intelligence who would never let his personal views shade or distort intelligence assessments."

Similarly, a group of prominent former intelligence officials called the attacks against Freeman "unprecedented in their vehemence, scope, and target," noting how they were perpetrated by "pundits and public figures...aghast at the appointment of a senior intelligence official able to take a more balanced view of the Arab-Israel issue."

Yet despite so many mainstream officials coming to his defense, the Obama White House chose to remain silent.

Most pundits, as well as Freeman himself, have blamed the so-called "Israel Lobby" for forcing him out. While AIPAC itself was apparently not involved in the smear campaign, many of Freeman's harshest critics were among the strongest supporters of the Israeli right. However, the battle over Freeman's appointment was about a lot more than simply his views on Israel - or Saudi Arabia or China; it was about the integrity of our nation's intelligence system. Those who most exploited the false claims about nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" in order to frighten the American public into supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq were the most eager to deny Freeman the chairmanship of the NIC.

And Freeman's willingness to ask the big questions frightened many on the right. For example, following 9/11, Freeman shared his disappointment that "instead of asking what might have caused the attack, or questioning the propriety of the national response to it, there is an ugly mood of chauvinism." His ability to look inward instead of simply attack "the other" is what apparently made him unworthy in the eyes of his critics.

Prior to Freeman's decision to withdraw, Chris Nelson of the influential Nelson Report, a daily private newsletter read by top Washington policymakers, wrote: "If Obama surrenders to the critics and orders [Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair] to rescind the Freeman appointment to chair the NIC, it is difficult to see how he can properly exercise leverage, when needed, in his conduct of policy in the Middle East. That, literally, is how the experts see the stakes of the fight now under way."

Obama apparently didn't order Freeman's appointment to be rescinded. But Obama's refusal to come to Freeman's defense will make it all the more difficult for the president to challenge future right-wing attacks on his administration's policies in the Middle East and beyond. Smelling victory, the right will only become bolder in challenging any progressive inclinations in Obama's foreign policy.

As Joe Klein so aptly put it in his Time blog, "Barack Obama should take note. The thugs have taken out Chas Freeman. They will not rest. Their real target is you, Mr. President."

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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