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Charles Freeman and His Curious Defenders

The controversy that has engulfed that now all-but-scuttled appointment of Charles Freeman to the post of National Intelligence Council leader is, I think, a bellwether moment for what today passes for “progressive” opinion.  The fashionable charge, leveled by many leftish … Read More

By / March 10, 2009

The controversy that has engulfed that now all-but-scuttled appointment of Charles Freeman to the post of National Intelligence Council leader is, I think, a bellwether moment for what today passes for “progressive” opinion.  The fashionable charge, leveled by many leftish commentators (mainly in cyberspace), that group of hawkish Jewish pundits have got Israel on the brain and will sacrifice every other question of U.S. foreign policy to this monomaniacal subject appears now to be an acute form of projection. When it was disclosed, for instance, that Freeman, president to the Middle East Policy Council and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was the recipient of $1 million of Saudi largesse, and has been a rather outspoken apologist for the kingdom – he referred at one point to its King Abdullah as “Abdullah the Great”– the expected liberal response to this would have been a raised eyebrow. Why would the Obama administration, foe of torture and the erasures of civil liberties at home, be amenable to an analyst who has clearly not done much analysis abroad? Saudi Arabia is founded on Wahhabist Islamic doctrine designed as a means of social control. Its media is state-run, its women are forced to take the veil, Jews from other countries are forbidden entry, and its homosexuals are executed in the capital in a place colloquially known as “Chop-Chop Square” (whose name tells you enough about the means of execution). The Saudi monarchy, despite its declared antipathy to Islamic fundamentalism, underwrites particularly toxic and anti-Semitic editions of the Koran, many of which find their way into American prisons and international madrasas that graduate Islamic terrorists. As it happens, Freeman himself has played a part in publishing propaganda about Islam and the Middle East. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Middle East Policy Council helped put out an “Arab World Studies Notebook” for use in U.S. schools:

“In the version examined [in 2005] by JTA staff, the "Notebook" described Jerusalem as unequivocally "Arab," deriding Jewish residence in the city as "settlement"; cast the "question of Jewish lobbying" against "the whole question of defining American interests and concerns"; and suggested that the Koran "synthesizes and perfects earlier revelations."

Leave aside the ethnographical and political dubiousness of that paragraph (Jerusalem has never been wholly “Arab,” even when it was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, and a Jewish lobby “defining” American interests is more categorical a judgment, you’ll agree, than its unduly influencing American interests). If one were to assess Freeman’s viability for the NIC chairmanship only from the standpoint of national security, how would one look on his endorsement of the very sort of religious chauvinism (“perfects earlier revelations”) that our soft and hard power apparatuses are now marshaled to combat? The equivalent would be hiring a Sovietologist during the Cold War who consented to the belief that Kapital was the final word on all matters pertaining to political economy. Yet here is how M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum reacted to news of Freeman’s Saudi affinity on Talking Points Memo:

So what if Freeman is close to the Saudis. Why should that disqualify him for the intelligence post? Unless he has done something unethical or illegal, these smears are more evidence (if any more is needed) that being deemed overly critical of the occupation is today’s equivalent of being called a Communist in 1953. It’s a career killer, used to ensure that policymakers adhere to the neocon line."

The “occupation” here refers to the one maintained by Israel over Palestine, and by “overly critical” Rosenberg means Freeman applauds the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis that the U.S. alliance with the Jewish state is undeviating and self-defeating and only driven by an obsessive lobby made up of Jewish and Christian Zionists. Mearsheimer and Walt’s careers have never been better since they published their notorious essay, which the Middle East Policy Council also ran in an unexpurgated version. Freeman found the authors "brave," and the fact that their scholarship was widely discredited across the political spectrum—including within the “realist”  establishment from which M-W claim discipleship—impinges not at all on their courage, of course. Freeman today thinks that because Israel is the bête noir of the Arab world, supporting it means “universalizing anti-Americanism” and incurring more terrorist attacks against the U.S., but this is a belief he did not always hold. In 1998, he was of the opinion that

Mr. bin Laden’s principal point, in pursuing this campaign of violence against the United States, has nothing to do with Israel. It has to do with the American military presence in Saudi Arabia, in connection with the Iran-Iraq issue. No doubt the question of American relations with Israel adds to the emotional heat of his opposition and adds to his appeal in the region. But this is not his main point.

Bin Laden would, by this assessment, have a serious grievance with enthusiasts for the Saudi regime, making Freeman and his ilk part of the problem, no?

Now, it would be easy to file Rosenberg’s emission as a one-off were it not so characteristic of a broader leftish response to Freeman’s appointment. The Center for American Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias also welcomed the addition of this lifelong Republican, classifying circulated concerns about Freeman’s fitness for the NIC chair as a “war” initiated by those who suffering from a blindingly pro-Israel bias. Citing the Jewish sources for the contra position (these include Marty Peretz and Jonathan Chait, both of the New Republic, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, and Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard), Yglesias wrote: “I’m not sure whether or not the Obama administration will ultimately stand behind Freeman. I hope they will. But whether or not they do, I think it’s very clear that the lesson here is that if you’re a veteran policy hand who hopes to return to government one day and you believe something that you think AIPAC wouldn’t approve of, that the smart thing to do is to keep those views to yourself.” AIPAC didn’t approve of Hillary Clinton’s public smooch of Suha Arafat in 1999, and it doesn’t much approve of her proposed aid package to Gaza now. But there she still is, a high-octane secretary of state. As for the official AIPAC comment on Freeman, as of this writing, it consists of no comment at all.  (Steve Rosen, a former AIPAC official who was charged with spying on behalf of Israel, and another former anonymous AIPAC member did speak out against Freeman. If their being voluble only as ex-officials testifies to anything, then it is to the restraining nature of that organization.) As for the appointee’s own disclosed statements on Israel, these have not been so terribly shocking to anyone who follows the debate closely, an admission the JTA (one of Yglesias’s bugbears of Zionist-orchestrated career destruction) explained in the article I quoted earlier.  His late-formed belief that reducing terror attacks against Americans is moored to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict — a prescription sometimes derided as the "Jerusalem Syndrome" — was the position maintained by James Baker and Lee Hamilton in their Iraq Study Group Report, a white paper commissioned by the Bush administration and thankfully unheeded over the ultimately successful "surge" strategy. That Freeman managed to retain the aura of bureaucratic respectability while holding such traditional realist positions attests more to the endurance of those positions than it does to his ability to pass himself off as something he is not. He believes himself to be a true Burkean conservative when in fact he is an “ideological fanatic,” as Chait rightly put it in the Washington Post. Sometimes – just sometimes – ideological fanatics don’t write for Commentary or the Weekly Standard. Do Rosenberg and Yglesias really believe that Freeman’s compromising “closeness” to Saudi Arabia is only a threat to Israel and that alarm over this proximity is the exclusive property of a dislodged cadre of policy intellectuals or an ethnic lobby?  That would mean that Craig Unger’s bestselling critique of the Bush family’s warm relationship to the House of Saud and Michael Moore’s darkly traced filiations between Riyadh and Halliburton have now metamorphosed into Mossad conspiracies. It would also mean that the amnesiac left is now intent on doing what no one would have thought it capable of eight years ago: retroactively rehabilitating the legacy of George H.W. Bush. If Rosenberg means to say that a tendency towards a foreign government does not necessarily impair one’s ability to think strategically on behalf of the United States then I wonder how dispassionately he would react if it were discovered that the NIC appointee regularly vacationed with Avigdor Lieberman, or was the head of a think tank that received a generous endowment from Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interesting, too, that those who have tossed around the “McCarthyite” label were quick to accuse Freeman’s opponents of harboring dual loyalties or engaging in "smear" campaigns. This was Stephen Walt’s tack in a Foreign Policy blog post wince-makingly titled “Have they not a shred of decency?,” in which he cited, without a whiff of irony, Jeffrey Goldberg’s former service in the IDF as a sign of his un-American motive for questioning the patriotism of one Charles Freeman. (Though in his sentimental comparison of Freeman to blacklisted Communists the supposedly hard-headed Walt does tacitly allow that Freeman’s political views are troublesome.) The Nation‘s Robert Dreyfuss, who also warned of a "coordinated" neoconservative assault, goes further in his defense of Freeman, stating that he "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." I had not known until now that The Nation esteems establishment pedigrees and believes oil-rich sheiks are latterday wretched of the earth.

Leftists who praise Freeman on the single issue of Israel-Palestine, ostensibly out of a concern for justice and human rights, say it’s beside the point to confront his endless euphemisms and evasions on other human rights abuses. An unintended consequence of this maneuver is that these same leftists appear even more obsessed with the Jewish state than do the “neocons" they purport to monitor. They also look especially stupid in this instance because they’re effectively arguing that what goes on in the West Bank is more crucial to U.S. national security than what goes on in the one country which produced fifteen out of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. How’s that for realism? As it happens, Saudi Arabia is not the only oligarchy toward which Freeman has a strong tropism. Here is what he had to say, on a 2006 listserv, about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and it’s worth keeping Dreyfuss’ "truth to power" encomium in mind:

I find the dominant view in China about this very plausible, i.e. that the truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than — as would have been both wise and efficacious — to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo’s response to the mob scene at "Tian’anmen" stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action. For myself, I side on this — if not on numerous other issues — with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be. Such folk, whether they represent a veterans’ "Bonus Army" or a "student uprising" on behalf of "the goddess of democracy" should expect to be displaced with despatch from the ground they occupy. I cannot conceive of any American government behaving with the ill-conceived restraint that the Zhao Ziyang administration did in China, allowing students to occupy zones that are the equivalent of the Washington National Mall and Times Square, combined. while shutting down much of the Chinese government’s normal operations. I thus share the hope of the majority in China that no Chinese government will repeat the mistakes of Zhao Ziyang’s dilatory tactics of appeasement in dealing with domestic protesters in China.

This is why Human Rights Watch – evidently the latest bastion of neoconservative dogmatism, as Reason’s left-libertarian editor Matt Welch mordantly observed – opposes Freeman’s appointment.  It’s also why 87 Chinese dissidents have written President Obama protesting it without so much as a winking allusion to Oslo or road-maps. As for Rosenberg and Yglesias, where they do concede Freeman’s ugly c.v. it is more out of cynical (and partisan) resignation than real horror. Yglesias helpfully admits that defending Freeman on principle is not a cause he wishes to stake his bloggerly reputation on. (That might hurt his career more than rebuking AIPAC.) But this grudging concession was then followed by another change of subject: back to the motives that impelled the discovery of Freeman’s China problem in the first place.

Andrew Sullivan, who himself has come around to legitimizing the Mearsheimer-Walt perspective on his popular blog, assembled a time-line of Freeman complaints, demonstrating to his own satisfaction that the chorus of criticism did indeed begin with Israel. Yet left out of Sullivan’s recapitulation of events is Eli Lake’s Washington Times coverage of Freeman’s unexamined foreign ties, a series of articles that provided the journalistic cui bono for vetting further a man tasked with compiling the nation’s annual intelligence estimates. (Lake’s biggest scoop, in fact, was showing that the White House had not even been privy to Freeman’s appointment; Director of Intelligence Dennis Blair undertook it autonomously, according to Blair’s spokesman Wendy Morigi.)

So it must be out of willful credulity that Rosenberg emailed Jeffrey Goldberg:

None of the bloggers in question had any interest in Freeman’s views on China until Steve Rosen (and some of his colleagues) decided to stir up the opposition to Freeman because of his alleged lack of fidelity to the occupation. In fact, I hear that the offending China quotes were only discovered in the context of a Google Nexis/Lexis search to find incriminating material to block Freeman’s appointment because of his Middle East views. China was not even an afterthought.

The Weekly Standard first uncovered the Tiananmen Square excerpt (not using Google or Nexis/Lexis, by the way), and that magazine has in the past run editorials calling for continued U.S. trade restrictions on China on the basis of its appalling human rights record. To my knowledge, this policy has no discernible link to Jerusalem, although it does tend to chivvy die-hard Nixonians who believe morality has no place in foreign policy calculations.

In Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin tells of how the search for Chaney, Goodman and Schwirner proceeded in Mississippi. The police had to drag the lake in which the bodies of these murdered civil rights activists were rumored to have been dumped. The police didn’t discover those bodies, but they did discover other corpses no one had been seeking. Does it not miss the point to focus on what motivated Freeman’s detractors from doing due diligence on him when he is provably an inveterate excuse-maker for totalitarianism?

By way of a more immediate example: I have no idea where the Armenian lobby stands on Tiananmen Square or Saudi Arabia, but I nonetheless credit it with tipping me off to the Anti-Defamation League’s denial of the Armenian genocide, an erasure of historical truth deriving from a callous geopolitical consideration–and one that benefited Israel, at least according to Abe Foxman. (James Fallows, who inveighed against a Congressional resolution acknowledging the first holocaust of the 20th century because he, too, didn’t want to upset Turkey, deserves no credit for standing up for Freeman now. If this is what Fallows considers a robust "contrarianism," I prefer the tired blood of conventional wisdom, thanks.)

At minimum, this strange affair that has seen liberals and not a few conservatives joined in martyring a true reactionary has indicated the level of political maturity of a certain breed of thinker, who, still reeling from the last administration, wishes to make his sole conviction for the next one doing whatever makes the dreaded "neocons" angry. A vice of electoral victory is said to be hubris, but this reeks of insecurity. It also signals just how short-lived the left’s hold on power may be.

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