The Israel lobby and Republican neocons have scored their first triumph of the Obama administration by derailing the appointment of Chas. Freeman as director of the National Intelligence Council. The next time anyone qvells about how moderate a Republican Olympia Snowe is just remember that it was probably her signature on a letter from every minority member of the senate committee that oversees the intelligence agencies which sealed his fate. So much for moderation. She caved to rightist pressure at the drop of a hat.
To his credit, the feisty Freeman went down swinging. He landed heavy blows on his detractors and smearmeisters:
I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office. The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country. I agreed to chair the NIC to strengthen it and protect it against politicization, not to introduce it to efforts by a special interest group to assert control over it through a protracted political campaign.
…I am saddened by what the controversy and the manner in which the public vitriol of those who devoted themselves to sustaining it have revealed about the state of our civil society. It is apparent that we Americans cannot any longer conduct a serious public discussion or exercise independent judgment about matters of great importance to our country as well as to our allies and friends.
The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East. The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.
There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government – in this case, the government of Israel. I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US 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. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. 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.
The outrageous agitation that followed the leak of my pending appointment will be seen by many to raise serious questions about whether the Obama administration will be able to make its own decisions about the Middle East and related issues. I regret that my willingness to serve the new administration has ended by casting doubt on its ability to consider, let alone decide what policies might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government.
While it is clear that Freeman is right in attacking the Likudist Israel lobby for the “hit” against him. I’m rather uncomfortable with blaming them solely. It is clear that there are domestic political considerations that enabled the Republican right and “liberal” Democrats like Chuck Schumer to ally with the lobby in accomplishing this demolition job. Certainly, Aipac, the Wall Street Journal (Jonathan Chait), Middle East Forum (Steve Rosen), the Weekly Standard (Michael Goldfarb), Commentary (Gabriel Schonfeld), The New Republic (Marty Peretz-James Kirchik), The Atlantic (Jeffrey Goldberg), and other aiders and abettors of the lobby deserve a large measure of the shame. But without Schumer, Snowe and other elected officials who fed the dogs, this couldn’t have happened.
I also believe that progressive Democrats, bloggers, Middle East analysts, and the Obama administration itself didn’t mobilize itself in time to wage a counter-attack against this smear. I hope they won’t be caught as flat-footed next time (and there WILL BE a next time).
Speaking of Schumer, I have always had a sort of grudging admiration for him as a liberal Democrat. Big mouth. Big ego. But got the job done. But no more. He’s done a “Hillary” on me:
“Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against Israel were way over the top and went beyond anything I have seen from any administration official,” he said in a statement. “I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.”
Schumer is now the enemy of any decent, reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As far as I’m concerned he’s poison to every issue he touches. Chuck ought to be careful. This is one of the ways Hillary wore out her welcome as a presidential candidate: one too many sycophantic comments favoring the lobby, security hawks, and the war party.
Which raises another important and obvious point: Democrats are not automatically friends of Israeli-Palestinian peace. A Democrat can be just as much an enemy of peace as a Republican. “Liberal” and “conservative” in their normal domestic context have little or no meaning as far as the conflict. There are liberal bloggers like Markos Moulitsas who haven’t learned that lesson yet and may never because I-P peace is a secondary issue (if it’s even an issue at all) to the primary goal of attaining and preserving Democratic political power.
Now that we’ve attacked a “liberal” Democrat, let’s sing the praises a liberal Democrat who understands what the issues are and isn’t afraid to express compassion for Palestinian suffering. Of course, he has a small Jewish constituency in the state he represents, Vermont. But nevertheless, Patrick Leahy is a true peace patriot. He attacked Jon Kyl’s amendment to a senate bill which would’ve prohibited any U.S. funding be directed to resettle Hamas members in the U.S. This was his profile in courage:
The senator then compared the Palestinian experience to his own ancestors in Ireland. They too were called terrorists once, because they were “fighting to keep their land,” fighting for their votes and freedom, religion and language. And “hunted” for doing so– “hunted because they had fought to practice their own religion… hunted because they wanted to keep their land…
“Thank goodness the United States had open arms for them.” The amendment, Leahy says, “goes against everything we stand for.”
Now, that is courage I can believe in.
Returning to the Freeman withdrawal: this was a Lexington and Concord for the Israel lobby, the first skirmish in what they know will be a long war against any constructive Obama impulse to address the real issues in the conflict and resolve them. It is the lobby saying: “Take what we tell you very, very seriously or you will know our wrath. And if you do you won’t forget it.”
I am sorry that Obama and Blair withdrew from the field with hardly a fight. It doesn’t augur well for the trench warfare that will be necessary in future if there is ever to be a U.S. role in midwiving peace in the Middle East. In this one, Obama faced the lobby eyeball to eyeball and flinched.
You certainly can try to argue that this appointment was not the type that warranted a major expenditure of political capital. Chas. Freeman is a bridge toward the goal but not the goal itself. There will be significant battles and the administration needs to save its powder for those.
But what is lacking in this analysis is the symbolic importance of the Freeman appointment and its savaging. Politics, like football, is a game of inches. It is a game of momentum. The lobby has tripped up Obama’s momentum and grabbed the agenda, at least momentarily. And both Dennis Blair and Barack Obama have lost the benefit of an honest broker who would not be afraid to tell them when they were wearing no clothes. Seems to me we’ve just completed eight years of an administration which ran from the truth tellers as fast as their feet would carry them. Similarly, the lobby wants no truth tellers when it comes to devising U.S. policy toward Israel. It wants sycophants, yes-men, the pols who know how to line up in a straight line. We can see how well this policy worked for George Bush. And it won’t work for an administration that wants to act as a more honest broker, rather than a cheerleader or enabler of one side’s bad habits.
For all the reasons Freeman outlined above, this is a very sad day for anyone who really wishes for Israeli-Palestinian peace and a vigorous American role in achieving it.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.