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The controversy over Chas Freeman

The controversy over Chas Freeman

The Cable reported last week that former U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman was up for the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council. Since confirmed, the story has set off something of a media firestorm.

Reports from Politico and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, along with commentary and blog posts from The New Republic‘s Marty Peretz, the Witherspoon Institute’s Gabriel Schoenfeld (in the Wall Street Journal), and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen have conveyed the charge that, in the judgment of some pro-Israel activists in the United States, Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is too sympathetic to Riyadh’s worldview and has frequently spoken outside the traditional Washington discourse on Israel.

In conversations with The Cable, some Washington foreign-policy types have argued that the controversy may be more about the president than about Freeman himself.

A source close to Freeman said that among the critics taking shots at the would-be appointee, several "opposed Obama on the spurious ground that he wanted to do in Israel. He doesn’t." The source noted that some critics of Obama’s appointments had also targeted national security advisor James L. Jones, who previously served as a U.S. envoy charged with strengthening the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, as being too even-handed. "It seems to be the president these guys are after," the source said.

Freeman, like many up for administration jobs, is not in a position to publicly defend himself until an appointment, should it happen, is announced. Even then, he would have to operate under the restrictions that handcuff government officials. The Cable has confirmed that he is indeed Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair‘s hand-picked choice to get the job.

Some reports noted comments by Freeman seeming to indicate that the think tank of which he was until recently president, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), has accepted funding from the Saudi government, among other sources. MEPC receives funding from a number of sources, some of it Saudi, a person familiar with the group said, adding that it was "a fact … true before Ambassador Freeman became president of MEPC, even before he was appointed ambassador to Saudi Arabia."

A report by the Jewish Telegraph Agency said that the MEPC contributed to the financing of the publication of a textbook for U.S. classrooms on the Arab world that, according to the agency, contained text critical of the pro-Israel lobby and claimed Jerusalem was an Arab capital. An official familiar with the book told The Cable the offending quote was from the wrong answer of a multiple choice question taken out of context from the textbook.

Other writers and commentators — including the Israel Policy Forum’s M.J. Rosenberg, Nieman Watchdog’s Dan Froomkin, IPS’s Jim Lobe, The Nation‘s Robert Dreyfuss, Washington insider Chris Nelson, FP contributor David Rothkopf, the Center for American Progress’s blog ThinkProgress, and the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons — have leapt to Freeman’s defense. "Few people would be better for these tasks than Chas Freeman," Rothkopf wrote on ForeignPolicy.com. "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."

Some sources noted that among Freeman’s most outspoken critics, are those who have accused many other administration officials of being insufficiently pro-Israel or too even-handed, such as NSC senior director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power, U.S. Middle East peace special envoy Sen. George Mitchell, and indeed, during the election campaign, Obama himself.

Several former senior U.S. government officials familiar with Freeman’s work as a diplomat (he was from 1986-1989 principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Chet Crocker, and, previous to that, in 1972, a fluent Chinese speaker who translated for Nixon) and public intellectual spoke about his professionalism and high intellectual capacities. "I do think really, really highly of him," said one former senior State Department official. "The guy is incredibly smart and incredibly articulate on an amazingly deep and broad range of issues, not just the Middle East, but Africa and East Asia." When Freeman was working for the State Department on Africa in the 1980s, the former senior State Department official said, he was struck that "this is guy who is an extraordinarily impressive thinker and analyst. When I saw your article I thought, ‘My God, they made a great appointment.’"

"Chas is a highly experienced, perceptive, and well-regarded U.S. diplomat," said former senior NIC official Paul Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown. "I think he brings excellent understanding on a wealth of topics in world affairs to the job of the chairman of the council.

"I would trust that Mr. Freeman would exhibit integrity in addressing issues on the Middle East as they may pertain to Israel or any other Middle Eastern country," Pillar continued. "The kind of ‘anti-Israeli’ perspective getting criticized is of course not new criticism or by no means unique to this particular target."

"I think what is being missed" by the commentariat, Pillar added, "Is the whole concept that a public servant … and foreign affairs professional with a long career under different administrations … can do his job in the best and most objective way he thinks is possible and isn’t necessarily going to be working one policy slant vs. another policy slant."

The source close to Freeman said that the former ambassador was recruited for the post by Admiral Blair and had not been seeking a return to government service, which Freeman had retired from in 1994. In this person’s view, Freeman would be brought in "not to reverse the polarity of U.S. intelligence analysis but to de-gauss it." (The term apparently refers to removing magnetic interference in order to enhance clarity). He also disputed that Freeman’s views were anti-Israel, noting a 2000 New York Times op-ed by Freeman entitled, "A U.S. Role is Crucial for Peace."

But two former AIPAC officials said that Freeman’s views were at least perceived to fall outside of what has become the traditional pro-Israel tilt in Washington. "The term ‘even-handed’ has become a pejorative," said one former AIPAC official, on condition of anonymity. "It does not mean fair-minded in all things, but that the U.S. should take a neutral view towards the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is not going to happen."

Another former AIPAC official said that the mere fact that Freeman had been U.S. ambassador to Riyadh implies a too-close relationship with Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis want someone politically connected who will do their bidding."

What the United States and Saudi Arabia have in common, the second former AIPAC official added, "is [that] we don’t like the communists or the Iranians. What we don’t have in common is everything we have in common with the British, French, Germans and Israelis. If one is a tool of the French, British or Israelis, one is a tool of democracy, pluralism … liberal enlightenment."  

Previous criticism from right-leaning pro-Israel activists of former Obama Middle East advisors such as Rob Malley, who quit the campaign after it was reported he had attended a meeting with Hamas officials, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer "is all within the realm of people on the extreme right having a hard time with anybody who deviates only slightly," the second former AIPAC official said. "I would draw a line between people who don’t agree with the mainstream [like Malley] and someone like Freeman who worked as the head of an organization" that received funding from the Saudi government.

Former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller said he doesn’t know Freeman and didn’t have an opinion about Freeman’s views. But he said the idea that Washington Middle East policymakers are divided into pro-Israel or pro-Saudi axes is an outdated way of looking at the issue, one he said had become largely irrelevant since the 1970s.

Others noted the close relationship between the Saudis and both Bush administrations, the second of which was nonetheless judged by Israel and some of its U.S. supporters to be extremely sympathetic to Israel’s interests.

A former Hill source said that there is some congressional opposition to the Freeman appointment. But because the NIC chairmanship is not a congressionally confirmable post, it was not clear whether it would be enough to sway the administration against the appointment.

A White House official declined to comment, directing questions to the office of the DNI, which said it wouldn’t comment on possible appointments.