The right choice to be analyst-in-chief

The right choice to be analyst-in-chief

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Gabe Schoenfeld, a smart guy who is a resident scholar at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, continues what has been a mounting wave of attacks on the supposed appointment of Amb. Charles "Chas" Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council.  This story was broken on Laura Rozen’s excellent blog, The Cable, here at FP (the one blog I make sure to read every day at this site). And the controversy is summarized well in a post by Joshua Keating on the Passport blog.  

There is something ugly to these attacks on Freeman. A number of critics of the possible appointment, led by Steve Rosen, have suggested that because Freeman is too sympathetic to the Saudis or worked with a Saudi-funded think tank for a while, that he should be disqualified from the NIC job. Schoenfeld goes further and asserts that Freeman is also too soft on the Chinese and attacks him for having "extreme views."  

So for me, here’s the problem: I think the Saudis have not been a good ally of the United States. I think the Chinese government’s handling of the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square was not defensible, as Freeman is quoted as having said it was. And Chas Freeman is quoted as having embraced the banal claptrap of Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby, about which my views are on the record. Further, one of the critics of the proposed appointment, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, is, I think, one of the smartest commentators and writers around.  But I can think of very, very few people who are better choices than Chas Freeman to head the NIC.

The head of the NIC is, in some respect, the analyst-in-chief of the U.S. government. He or she must have a great mind, must reject cant, must have a nose for political agendas (and the willingness to filter them out… including first and foremost his own biases), and must be genuinely intellectually daring, willing to explore unpopular or unlikely ideas to consider their implications. He or she must understand how the U.S. national security community works from top to bottom. The head of the NIC oversees production of the President’s Daily Brief and thus must have an eye for what is really important and the ability to cut away the fatty, bland, self-serving analysis that often filters up from the Directorate of Intelligence.  

Few people would be better for these tasks than Chas Freeman. Part of the reason he is so controversial is that he has zero fear of speaking what he perceives to be truth to power. You can’t cow him and you can’t find someone with a more relentlessly questioning worldview. His job will be to help present the president and top policymakers with informed analysis by which they can make their choices. His intellectual honesty and his appreciation for what is necessary in a functioning policy process is such that he will not stack the deck for any one position. He wouldn’t last five minutes in the job if he did. (And Denny Blair, the wise and canny Director of National Intelligence, wouldn’t tolerate it.) Further, the chairman of the NIC does not directly whisper into the president’s ear in a void. He helps prepare materials that will become the fodder for active debate among a national security team that is devoid of shrinking violets.  

If you want to dispute whether he should be secretary of state or president, fine, let’s have that discussion. But for the job in question, he is a supremely well-qualified professional who should not be subject to evaluation by simplistic litmus tests.