A Victory for American Likud?
The Obama administration had another proposed appointee remove his name from consideration this past week. That in and of itself hardly qualifies as news, and the incident was a one-day story in the national print media. Its implications, however, are wider than that.
The appointee who withdrew his name was Charles W. Freeman Jr., and the post from which he withdrew his name was that of chairman of the National Intelligence Council, a position for which he had been nominated by Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The chief public job of the chairman of NIC is the production of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which forms the basis for the daily briefing given the president on the state of the world every day (the so-called daily intelligence brief).
Freeman’s nomination was criticized on two levels, both of which are troubling, if for different reasons. One reason was that Freeman had vested interests that might cause him to be prejudiced in forumlating the daily NIE. He has, for instance, ties to the regime in Beijing, both from his tenure as ambassador to China from 1989 to 1992 and for membership on the board of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Likewise, he has served as president of the Middle East Policy Council, a position he followed George McGovern in holding. The Council receives some of its funding from Saudi Arabia. He has also been an outspoken critic of the position of the Israeli government, adopting a stance quite similar to that taken in his space. More on that in a moment.
Freeman is both a very bright and controversial person. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, he entered the Foreign Service in 1965 and has had a distinguished career there, the kind of career that would commend it to an Obama administration that seems to prize bright people. On the other hand, the “no drama” Obama style suggests that someone like Freeman is an odd fit for the administration. It would appear to be another case of the puritanical vetting process of the new team breaking down; at least, however, he does appear to have paid his taxes.
It is the other aspect of Freeman’s rejection that is more troubling. Freeman himself once began an October 18, 2000 New York Times op-ed column (reproduced in the March 15, 2009 edition of the paper) with the comment, “No American politician ever lost an American election by speaking too fondly of Israel or too poorly of the Palestinians.” Freeman has broken with his own observation, making the anti-Likud argument that, among other things, the Israeli settlement policy is self-defeating and destroys the prospects of peace–especially the two-state solution that is official U.S. policy–and has even been so bold as to suggest that the failure to make progress is attributable both to Palestinian and–gasp!–Israeli actions. This position, of course, is in direct opposition to Likud policy in Israel, and thus to Likud supporters in the United States. Thus, Likud-on-the-Potomac went out to get Freeman, and they succeeded.
The political ambush has familiar roots. It is based in an observation made by Robert W. Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2001-2003) quoted in the March 12, 2009 Times story on th Freeman withdrawal, “The reality of Washington is that our political landscape finds it difficult to assimilate any criticism of any segment of the Israeli leadership.” Criticism came from Congressional Democrats like Charles Schumer of New York, who accused Freeman of an “irrational hatred of Israel” that Freeman would deny, and Representative Steve Israel, also of New York.
The most interesting criticism, however, came from a private source. It is interesting because, on the other side of the ledger, the accuser is easily as controversial and, in Schumer’s description of Freeman, “over the top” as the withdrawn nominee. That comment comes from Steven J. Rosen, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who was at one point under federal indictment for passing U.S. secrets to Israel. Rosen is also one of the charter neo-conservatives so popular in the Bush administration. He said of Freeman’s views that they are “what you would expect in the Saudi Foreign Ministry,” which means they were anti-Likud. Presumably had Freeman’s views echoed those of the Israeli Foreign Ministry–as Bush policy did–he and other American Likudniks would have found his ideas more acceptable.
The purpose of these comments is not to advocate Charles Freeman for the post he has been denied. Probably, his history of ties with the Saudis and Chinese raised enough concerns that he should not have been nominated, which is a question of how much dissonance the “no drama” team wants to broach. Rather, the real concern is whether American foreign policy appointments should be effectively subject to veto on the basis of conformance or divergence from the Likud Party line. Governments, of course, interfere in the operation of other governments all the time, but it is generally in subtler ways than this. Is it time to to rein in the power of Likud in American politics? At the same time, conformance to Likud implies acceptance of Likud policies. If the analysis presented in this space and by Freeman make any sense, then such compliance runs directly counter to the offocial American policy on Middle Eastern peace. Did anyone think this through?
Charles Freeman has argued consistently that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are misguided and counterproductive. That is close to the exact argument I have made in this space. Thus, I find it troubling that its opponents are able to hammer dissent based on this position into submission. The reader may feel differently about the issues, but what about the process? Is this victory for American Likud a victory or a defeat for American democracy?