Thursday, February 26th, 2009
James Besser in Washington
An interesting conversation yesterday with a pro-Israel friend who called to talk about the appointment of Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and controversial foreign policy thinker, to head the National Intelligence Council.
In newspaper columns and on the Web, opponents express outrage because of Freeman’s long record of outspoken opposition to Israeli policy, his association with the Saudis and numerous controversial statements he’s made about the Middle East. (But so far, only the Zionist Organization of America has publicly lashed out against the appointment; other groups are trying to figure out the best response to an appointment that is reportedly a done deal, and which does not require Senate confirmation.)
Some on the left argue that this is just Jewish McCarthyism – that pro-Israel activists are setting up a litmus test that demands every appointee for every government position swear fealty to the pro-Israel cause, as defined by AIPAC and other groups.
The truth in this case is elusive; both sides make reasonable points; both ignore the rational arguments of their opponents. The fact that this is a very different kind of president who wants to draw on a range of viewpoints when making critical decisions complicates the issue enormously.
First, what we know: Freeman is expected to head the Council, a panel whose most visible job is compiling the National Intelligence Estimate – a wide-ranging annual report bringing together and interpreting intelligence data from around the world.
Secondly, no analyst in his right mind would consider Freeman a fan of Israel. In criticizing Israeli policy, he has used harsh language that some pro-Israel activists say reveals hostility to the Jewish state. He seems oblivious to the things that drive Israeli policy, starting with terrorism. He believes U.S. policy is enabling a destructive Israeli occupation. He has been a lobbyist for the Saudis and is widely seen as an apologist for that government. If this post was one requiring Senate confirmation, that fact alone would disqualify him.
Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC official who’s a defendant in a long-running government secrets case, wrote that Freeman is a “strident critic of Israel, and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism,” an assessment that’s probably accurate.
But he is also a diplomatic veteran with wide-ranging experience in different parts of the world. He’s smart and articulate, colleagues say. He has creative ideas. He has been praised by the likes of Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is well respected in pro-Israel circles; Lewis told JTA that Freeman is “one of the more able who returned from the foreign service.”
So is he an appropriate choice for the intelligence council job?
Some Jewish activists on the left say yes. While not agreeing with all his views, they argue that this is an administration that values diverse opinions – unlike the Bush administration, which critics say committed major foreign policy blunders in part because it demanded complete ideological conformity of all the people who had input to the policy making process.
In a strongly pro-Israel administration, with a hawkishly pro-Israel secretary of state, what’s to fear from a dissenter who takes a dim view of Israeli policy? Shouldn’t an administration that wants to make sounder foreign policy decisions listen to a range of opinions? And if that’s your goal, how can you carve out a special exception on the issue of Israel?
On the other side, some pro-Israel activists are pointing out that this isn’t just some low-level advisory panel that nobody will listen to, anyway. The yearly National Intelligence Estimate is an important document; while not shaping U.S. policy, it clearly has an impact both on policy and on public perception. (Remember how the 2007 report, which concluded that Iran was not actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program, undercut the Iran policy of the Bush administration?)
Shouldn’t the head of that panel be someone without strong axes to grind on major international conflicts? Few objective observers would say that about Freeman.
Jewish supporters of the appointment – and they seem to be a small minority, to be sure – ignore the vital question of why the administration would even consider someone for the intelligence sifting and interpretation job who carries such strong personal views on one of the critical issues the panel will examine.
Those same lefties were quick to criticize the appointment of hawkish, highly ideological right-wingers to the Bush administration because they believed they couldn’t be objective on Mideast questions; apparently the standards are different when it’s someone who agrees with you.
Critics of the appointment say it’s the special significance of the intelligence job that is giving them fits, and their expectation that his presence will lead to reports and analyses that are biased against Israel.
But many of the critics object to every potential appointee for every job who fails to pass their stringent pro-Israel litmus tests. It’s likely even someone who was neutral on questions centering on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict would anger them; neutrality, to that segment, is just as bad as outright hostility.
Must every office in the executive branch be staffed only by those who agree with a narrow, hardline segment of pro-Israel leaders?
And many of the critics have an unseemly partisan eagerness to use the appointment as proof that the new administration has it in for Israel, a position that’s not borne out by the facts. You could hear the gleeful “I told you sos” as soon as word of the likely Freeman appointment leaked.
I don’t have answers, but I know this : the issue is going to come up over and over again in the Obama administration – not because there is some kind of secret cabal trying to infiltrate anti-Israel ideologues into high government positions, but because this is an administration that, unlike its predecessor, values differing opinions.
In concept, that’s a perspective most Jews will probably agree with; when it comes to the Israel issue, all bets are off.