- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s infamous witch hunt against alleged communists in the U.S. government relied primarily on lies, innuendo, and intimidation. Then, at a particularly odious hearing, after McCarthy had falsely accused a young Army officer of being a communist agent, Army counsel Joseph Welch turned on the senator and shot back: "At long last, Senator McCarthy, have you not a shred of decency?"
I am reminded of that moment as I watch the all-too-predictable smear campaign against Charles Freeman’s appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. As soon as the appointment was announced, a bevy of allegedly “pro-Israel” pundits leapt to attack it, in what The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss called a “thunderous, coordinated assault.” Freeman’s critics were the usual suspects: Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, Gabriel Schoenfeld (writing on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal), Jonah Goldberg of National Review, Marty Peretz on his New Republic blog, and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen (yes, the same guy who is now on trial for passing classified U.S. government information to Israel).
What was their objection to Freeman? Did they think he’s unpatriotic, not smart enough, or that he lacks sufficient experience? Of course not. Just look at his resume:
Freeman has worked with more than 100 foreign governments in East and South Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and both Western and Eastern Europe. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires in Bangkok and Beijing, Director of Chinese Affairs at U.S. State Department, and Distinguished Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Institute of National Security Studies."
What unites this narrow band of critics is only one thing: Freeman has dared to utter some rather mild public criticisms of Israeli policy. That’s the litmus test that Chait, Goldberg, Goldfarb, Peretz, Schoenfeld et al want to apply to all public servants: thou shalt not criticize Israeli policy nor question America’s "special relationship" with Israel. Never mind that this policy of unconditional support has been bad for the United States and unintentionally harmful to Israel as well. If these pundits and lobbyists had their way, anyone who pointed that fact out would be automatically disqualified from public service.
There are three reasons why the response to Freeman has been so vociferous. First, these critics undoubtedly hoped they could raise a sufficient stink that Obama and his director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, might reconsider the appointment. Or perhaps Freeman might even decide to withdraw his name, because he couldn’t take the heat. Second, even if it was too late to stop Freeman from getting the job, they want to make Obama pay a price for his choice, so that he will think twice about appointing anyone else who might be willing to criticize Israeli policy or the special relationship.
Third, and perhaps most important, attacking Freeman is intended to deter other people in the foreign policy community from speaking out on these matters. Freeman might be too smart, too senior, and too well-qualified to stop, but there are plenty of younger people eager to rise in the foreign policy establishment and they need to be reminded that their careers could be jeopardized be if they followed in Freeman’s footsteps and said what they thought. Raising a stink about Freeman reminds others that it pays to back Israel to the hilt, or at least remain silent, even when it is pursuing policies — like building settlements on the West Bank — that are not in America’s national interest.
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.
Fortunately, the screeching of Freeman’s critics has not worked; Freeman will be the head of the National Intelligence Council. In fact, this heavy-handed behavior, with its McCarthy-like overtones, may even backfire, by showing just how obsessesed his critics are with their own narrow-minded vision of U.S. Middle East policy, a vision they expect all other Americans to share. I would not be surprised if President Obama and other key figures in his administration are angry about these malicious smears, and wisely decide to pay even less attention to these individuals in the future. And rest assured that the smearing will not end.
It’s also encouraging that some key members of the pro-Israel community, like M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, have come to Freeman’s defense, and influential bloggers like Robert Dreyfuss, Philip Weiss, Richard Silverstein and Matthew Yglesias have also defended Freeman and pointed out what is going on. The Likudnik wing of the Israel lobby is gradually losing influence, because more and more people understand that its policies are disastrous for both Israel and the United States, and because its repeated efforts to smear people and stifle debate are deeply damaging as well as un-American.