Charles Freeman, Roger Cohen and the Changing Israel Debate

Anyone who doubts that there has been a substantial -- and very
positive -- change in the rules for discussing American policy towards
Israel should consider two recent episodes: (1) the last three New York Times
columns by Roger Cohen; and (2) the very strong pushback from a diverse
range of sources against the neoconservative lynch mob trying, in
typical fashion, to smear and destroy Charles Freeman due to his
critical (in all senses of the word) views of American policy towards
Israel.

Anyone who doubts that there has been a substantial -- and very
positive -- change in the rules for discussing American policy towards
Israel should consider two recent episodes: (1) the last three New York Times
columns by Roger Cohen; and (2) the very strong pushback from a diverse
range of sources against the neoconservative lynch mob trying, in
typical fashion, to smear and destroy Charles Freeman due to his
critical (in all senses of the word) views of American policy towards
Israel. One positive aspect of the wreckage left by the Bush
presidency is that many of the most sacred Beltway pieties stand
exposed as intolerable failures, prominently including our
self-destructively blind enabling of virtually all Israeli actions.

First, the Cohen columns: Two weeks ago, Cohen -- writing from Iran -- mocked the war-seeking cartoon caricature
of that nation as The New Nazi Germany craving a Second Holocaust. To
do so, Cohen reported on the relatively free and content Iranian Jewish
community (25,000 strong). When that column prompted all sorts of
predictable attacks on Cohen from the standard cast of Israel-centric
thought enforcers (Jeffrey Goldberg, National Review, right-wing blogs, etc. etc.), Cohen wrote a second column
breezily dismissing those smears and then bolstering his arguments
further by pointing out that "significant margins of liberty, even
democracy, exist" in Iran; that "Iran has not waged an expansionary war
in more than two centuries"; and that "hateful, ultranationalist
rhetoric is no Iranian preserve" given the ascension of Avigdor
Lieberman in Benjamin Netanyahu's new Israeli government.

Today, Cohen returns with his most audacious column yet.
Noting the trend in Britain and elsewhere to begin treating Hezbollah
and Hamas as what they are -- namely, "organizations [that are] now
entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement
regional peace is impossible," rather than pure "Terrorist
organizations" that must be shunned -- Cohen urges the Obama
administration to follow this trend: the U.S. should "should initiate
diplomatic contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah" and
even "look carefully at how to reach moderate Hamas elements." As for
the objection that those two groups have used violence in the
past, Cohen offers the obvious response, though does so quite
eloquently:

Speaking of violence, it's worth
recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas
rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and
children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; and destroyed
thousands of Gaza homes. It continues a radicalizing blockade on 1.5
million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land.

At this
vast human, material and moral price, Israel achieved almost nothing
beyond damage to its image throughout the world. Israel has the right
to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and
governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I
have never previously felt so shamed by Israel's actions.

No wonder Hamas and Hezbollah are seen throughout the Arab world as legitimate resistance movements.

So absolute has the Israel-centric stranglehold on American policy been that the U.S. Government has made it illegal to broadcast Hezbollah television stations and has even devoted its resources to criminally prosecuting and imprisoning satellite providers merely for including Hezbollah's Al Manar channel
in their cable package. Not even our Constitution's First Amendment
has been a match for the endless exploitation of American policy, law
and resources to target and punish Israel's enemies. But this trilogy
of Cohen columns reflects the growing awareness of just how
self-destructive is that mentality and, more importantly, the growing
refusal to refrain from saying so.

* * * * *

The
still-expanding battle over the appointment of Charles Freeman by
Obama's DNI, Adm. Dennis Blair, provides even more compelling evidence.
I'm not going to detail all of the facts surrounding this controversy
because so many others have done such an excellent job of arguing the
case -- particularly Andrew Sullivan (all week) and Stephen Walt -- and the crux of the matter was summarized perfectly last night by Josh Marshall:

The real rub, the basis of the whole controversy, however, is that [Freeman] has been far more critical of Israeli policy than is generally allowed within acceptable debate in Washington. . .

The whole effort strikes me as little more than a thuggish effort to keep the already too-constricted terms of debate over the Middle East and Israel/Palestine locked down and largely one-sided.
. . . But the gist is that campaigns like this are ugly and should be
resisted. Not just on general principles, but because the country needs
more diversity of viewpoints on this issue right now.

Precisely. The Atlantic's James Fallows and Daniel Larison
both compellingly document that the real issue here is whether the
suffocating prohibition on government officials' questioning U.S.
policy toward Israel will continue, or whether the range of permissive
debate on this vital question will finally be expanded. The Freeman
appointment is so important precisely because it signals that rejecting
the long-standing orthodoxy on Israel is no longer disqualifying when
it comes to high level government positions [and, perhaps as
importantly, that it's now even permissible to raise the previously verboten point
that perhaps one of the reasons why many Muslims want to attack
the U.S. is because the U.S. (both on its own and through Israel) has
spent decades continuously attacking, bombing, invading, occupying and otherwise interfering in Muslim countries].

Ezra Klein argues, persuasively, that even if Freeman ends up being appointed, the lynch-mob smear campaign will still have achieved its purpose:

But
for Freeman's detractors, a loss might still be a win. As Sullivan and
others have documented, the controversy over Freeman is fundamentally a
question of his views on Israel. Barring a bad report from the
inspector general, Chas Freeman will survive and serve. But only
because his appointment doesn't require Senate confirmation. Few, however, will want to follow where he led. Freeman's career will likely top out at Director of the NIC. That's not a bad summit by any means. But
for ambitious foreign policy thinkers who might one day aspire to serve
in a confirmed capacity, the lesson is clear: Israel is off-limits.

And so, paradoxically, the freethinking Freeman's appointment might do
quite a bit to silence foreign policy dissenters who want to succeed in
Washington.

There is, by design, definitely a
chilling effect to these smear campaigns. Freeman is being dragged
through the mud by the standard cast of accusatory Israel-centric
neocons (Marty Peretz, Jon Chait, Jeffrey Goldberg, Commentary, The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, etc. etc., etc.), subjected to every standard, baseless smear,
as a warning to others who think about challenging U.S. policy towards
Israel in a similar way. Ultimately, though, I think that each time
one of these swarming, hate-campaigns is swatted away, they
incrementally lose their efficacy, emboldening others to risk their
weakening wrath.

Ultimately, the greatest weapon to defeat these
campaigns is to highlight the identity and behavior of their
perpetrators. Just consider who is behind the attack on Freeman; how
ugly and discredited are their tactics and ideology; and, most
importantly, how absurd it is, given their disgraceful history, that
they -- of all people -- would parade around as arbiters of
"ideological extremism" and, more audaciously still, as credible judges
of intelligence assessment. Sullivan compiled a comprehensive time line
demonstrating that the attacks on Freeman originated and were amplified
by the very same people for whom American devotion to Israel is the
overriding if not exclusive priority and who have been so glaringly
wrong about so much. Though they have since tried, with characteristic
deceit and cowardice, to disguise their agenda by pretending to oppose
Freeman on other, non-Israel grounds (such as their oh-so-authentic concern for Chinese human rights), that masquerading effort -- as Matt Yglesias notes here -- is so transparently dishonest as to be laughable.

Indeed,
some of them, early on, were perfectly honest about the fact that
Freeman's views on Israel is what has motivated their opposition,
including the Israel-based "concerns" over the appointment voiced by Sen. Chuck Schumer to Rahm Emanuel. And -- demonstrating that these taboos are still formidible -- Schumer's sentiments have since been echoed by unnamed "Democratic leaders." Chuck Schumer, along with Dianne Feinstein, single-handedly enabled the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as Attorney General despite Mukaseky's refusal to say that waterboarding was torture (and Schumer even voted to confirm
Michael Hayden as CIA Director despite his overseeing Bush's illegal
NSA program). Yet Obama appoints someone who is critical of Israel and
who questions American policy towards Israel, and Schumer springs into
action by calling Rahm Emanuel to express "concern" over the
appointment.

It's not a mystery what is behind this attack on Freeman. As Spencer Ackerman wrote last week:

Basically,
Freeman's major sin is that he doesn't take a simplistic or blinkered
view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a number of
mostly-right-wing Jewish writers at Commentary, the Weekly Standard,
the Atlantic and The New Republic have been arguing that he's not fit
to serve.

That's really the crux of the issue
here: are we going to continue to allow these actual extremists to
define "extremism" and dictate the acceptable range of views when it
comes to Middle East policy?

As Ackerman noted the other day, one of the leading anti-Freeman generals is AIPAC's Steve Rosen, who has been indicted for passing American secrets onto the Israeli Government.
That's almost satire: an AIPAC official accused of spying for a
foreign country purporting to lead the charge against Freeman based on Freeman's "extremism" and excessive ties to another Middle Eastern country.

Or consider the Washington Post Op-Ed by The New Republic's Jonathan Chait railing that Freeman -- who opposed the attack on Iraq -- is an "ideological fanatic." That's the very same Jonathan Chait who spent 2002 and 2003 running around
demanding that we invade Iraq and who even went on national television
to declare: "I don't think you can argue that a regime change in Iraq
won't demonstrably and almost immediately improve the living conditions of the Iraqi people." That's
someone who -- after spending years working for Marty Peretz -- thinks
he's in a position to demonize others as being "ideological extremists"
and unfit to assess intelligence reports and to define the legitimate
parameters of the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East. To
describe Chait's view of himself is to illustrate its absurdity.

Or review the rank propaganda and/or glaring ignorance spread by anti-Freeman crusade leader Jeffrey Goldberg before the Iraq War. Or just read this painfully deceitful, humiliatingly error-plagued 2003 column from Freeman critic Michael Moynihan of Reason. And that's to say nothing of the rest of the Weekly Standard and National Review
propagandists purporting to sit in judgment of what constitutes
mainstream views towards Israel. Just looking at the opponents of
Freeman and their reckless history powerfully conveys how disastrous it
would be to continue to allow this extremist clique, of all people, to
continue to dictate the scope of legitimate debate over Israel,
the Middle East and our intelligence policies generally. It's like
allowing Dick Cheney and John Yoo to dictate what constitutes
mainstream legal opinion and to reject prospective judges as being
"extremists" on Constitutional questions.

Summing up the attacks on Freeman, Andrew Sullivan wrote
that he finds "the hysterical bullying of this man to be
repulsive." There's no question about that. Hysterical bullying --
rank character smearing -- is what they've been doing for many years in
an attempt to intimidate people out of dissenting from their
so-called "pro-Israel" orthodoxies. But last night, Sullivan made the more important observation about this controversy:

The idea that Obama should
not have advisers who challenge some of the core assumptions of the
Bush years, especially with respect to Israel-Palestine, seems nuts to
me.
And the impulse to blackball and smear someone as a bigot is reprehensible.

It's
destructive enough to artificially limit debate on a matter as
consequential as U.S. policy towards Israel. We've been doing that for
many years now. But it's so much worse that the people who have been
defining and dictating those limits are themselves extremists in every
sense of that word when it comes to Israel and U.S. policy towards that
country. Their demands that no distinctions be recognized
between Israeli and Americans interests have been uniquely destructive
for the U.S. Few things are more urgent than an expansion of the
debate over U.S. policy in this area, which is exactly why this radical
lynch mob is swarming with such intensity to destroy Freeman's
reputation and fortify the limitations on our debates which, for so
long, they have thuggishly enforced. If someone like Freeman can
occupy a position like Chair of the National Intelligence Council --
handpicked by Obama's DNI, an Admiral -- the taboos they are so
desperate to maintain will erode just that much further.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent reports
that six of the most right-wing GOP Senators have now joined Chuck
Schumer and other "Democratic leaders" by objecting to Freeman's
appointment, thus forming the perfectly bipartisan attack in the U.S.
that always emerges towards any critics of Israel. There are
legitimate concerns about Freeman which have been raised -- including
whether, as Reason's Matt Welch suggests, his long-standing, elaborate ties to Saudi Arabia impede his objectivity (though all anyone has to do is look at people like Elliot Abrams, Dennis Ross, Richard Perle and Doug Feith (or even Rahm Emanuel) to
know that extensive ties to foreign Middle Eastern countries aren't
considered disqualifying for high government posts).
And long-time China resident James Fallows -- here and here -- demonstrates how pretextual are the objections to Freeman based on his positions towards China.

Credit, at least, to the 6 anti-Freeman GOP Senators who (unlike Jon Chait)
are at least honest enough to admit that Freeman's views on Israel are
a central cause for their opposition. At least with that sort of
candor, it becomes apparent that the real question posed by the Freeman
appointment is: "must one pledge allegiance to the right-wing,
'pro-Israel' agenda in order to serve in a high position in the
American Government, or may one question and even oppose that agenda?"

UPDATE II: Three related items:

(1) The answer to the question posed by Andrew Sullivan here is "no."

(2)In one short post,
former McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb manages to demonstrate that he
(a) doesn't understand and/or believe in the First Amendment and
(b) doesn't understand and/or recognize the difference between Al Qaeda
and Hezbollah. None of those deficiencies is remotely unusual for The Weekly Standard.

(3) Greg Sargent notes and documents the surge in defense of Freeman by a wide range of commentators.

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