A Free Man?

March 5, 2009 Topic: IdeologySociety Region: Americas Tags: DiplomacyThe Israel Lobby

A Free Man?

Is Chas Freeman an honest patriot or a Saudi stooge? Either way, he’s become a proxy for a wider battle over our Middle East policy.

In Washington, DC, it seems, some old feuds never disappear. Instead, like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, the combatants stalk each other, eternally vigilant for the most opportune moment to go on the attack. The Obama administration's selection of Charles W. "Chas" Freeman Jr. to head the National Intelligence Council is a case in point. Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and head of the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), has become a proxy for a larger debate over American policy towards Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

Freeman is a red flag to a number of liberal hawks and neoconservatives, many of whom depict him as a mouthpiece for Saudi Arabia. "A free man or a mole for the royal House of Saud?" asked Sammy Benoit in the March 4 Washington Times. A flurry of other critics, including the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, and the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, have questioned the appointment as well. Chait, who took aim at realist thinkers, stated that the "contretemps over Freeman's view of Israel misses the broader problem, which is that he's an ideological fanatic." Freeman's detractors also point to his alleged endorsement of the Chinese government's crushing of the Tiananmen Square uprising, ruing that it didn't act even more decisively. But they focus much of their fire on his tenure at the MEPC, which received lavish funding from Saudi Arabia. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the tenacious Gabriel Schoenfeld pointed to Freeman's endorsement of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's working paper "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" which formed the basis for their book, The Israel Lobby.

Freeman's defenders, by contrast, are made up of realists and liberals. They see a witch-hunt-one led by pro-Israeli forces out to squash anyone temerarious enough to dissent from what they see as a party line on Israel. Among progressives, it can, at times, become an intensely personal discussion. In Talking Points Memo, for instance, M. J. Rosenberg, who is director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, reproves Chait on the basis of his Jewish heritage and dismisses the notion that his criticism of Freeman was anchored in a broader critique of realist thought:

Jonathan Chait of the New Republic is an interesting case. He's liberal on every single issue but Israel (on which he is pure neocon), not only liberal but brilliant. But when it comes to Israel, he just can't get beyond the ethnic pull. Even worse, he does not understand that his ethnic blinders (and that is all they are) have led him to support an approach to Israel that, if it succeeds, will destroy it.

Then comes a warning in the form of career advice:

He [Chait] also seems not to be aware that his inability to stifle his views on the Middle East (about which he has no expertise) is leading people to question his judgment about the issues on which he does. That is because in 2009, in Obama's America, it is harder and harder to take seriously those who approach issues ethnically. It's antediluvian. And thank God.

But why should an opinion journalist such as Chait "stifle" himself? This smacks of its own party line. Is it an "inability" on Chait's part or a desire for intellectual engagement? Do you have to be an "expert" to write about the Middle East?

Then there are the realists. Though realists usually like to pride themselves on their cold, unemotional detachment, their observations about Israel and its American backers have been anything but. Thus, in his blog Sic Semper Tyrannis, W. Patrick Lang, an expert in military intelligence and fierce critic of the neocons during the Iraq War, observes, "Freeman's appointment has been under growing attack by people like Chait who attack anyone whom they think might hold balanced opinions with regard to the Arab/Israeli dispute. They seek to eliminate from public life all those whom they think are not completely in the control of `the lobby.'" Oh, the pain! Freeman's defenders, you could say, relish a fresh opportunity to trot out their tired asseverations about an Israel lobby that wields a stranglehold on American foreign policy. It just isn't so. The idea that American Jews can "eliminate," as Lang puts it, dissenting voices on Middle East policy is far-fetched. And why shouldn't Freeman's critics be free to voice their dismay?

Stephen Walt says on his blog in Foreign Policy,

If the issue didn't have such harmful consequences for the United States, the ironies of this situation would be funny. A group of amateur strategists who loudly supported the invasion of Iraq are now questioning the strategic judgment of a man who knew that war would be a catastrophic blunder. A long-time lobbyist for Israel who is now under indictment for espionage is trying to convince us that Freeman-a true patriot-is a bad appointment for an intelligence position. A journalist (Jeffrey Goldberg) whose idea of `public service' was to enlist in the Israeli army is challenging the credentials of a man who devoted decades of his life to service in the U.S. government. Now that's chutzpah.

No, it's not. Walt's attack on Jeffrey Goldberg for having enlisted in the Israeli army is unfortunate. Is this act of idealism really to be condemned? Is Walt suggesting that it was un-American or that it should prevent Goldberg from voicing an opinion on Freeman?

But if Freeman's supporters have gone too far, it's also hard to avoid the feeling that his critics have created an artificial controversy. The neocons and liberal hawks have gone way overboard in demonizing Freeman. There can be no doubting that Freeman seems to have a penchant for less than diplomatic talk. Freeman is what used to be called an "Arabist." Arabists used to have a dominant voice in the State Department and were never all that friendly to Israel. But their influence has shrunk.

Anyway, Freeman has hardly made a secret of his supportive view of the Saudi kingdom. But is this really such a terrible crime? Is Saudi Arabia America's enemy-or is it a desert kingdom combating a domestic terrorist threat and medieval clerics, a bulwark against Iranian ambitions and quietly friendly to Israel? Freeman has also come under fire for being anti-Israel. In 2007 he stated that Israel is not trying to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians but to "pacify" them. Once again, this hardly seems to rise to the level of precluding service in government.

At bottom, the level of personal vituperation triggered by the Freeman appointment has vastly exceeded Freeman's true significance. He is, after all, assuming a fairly minor post that does not involve policy recommendations to the president, but simply drafting strategic assessments. So debate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Syria. Condemn President Obama for doing too much or too little to deal with Iran. But by gum, don't turn Freeman into a hostage for a new war over Middle East policy.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.