Stephen M. Walt

On Chas Freeman’s withdrawal

On Chas Freeman’s withdrawal

As you might expect, I have a few thoughts on Charles Freeman’s decision to withdraw from consideration as chair of the National Intelligence Committee. (For Freeman’s own reaction, see FP‘s The Cable here; for other reactions, see Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Phil Weiss, and MJ Rosenberg.

First, for all of you out there who may have questioned whether there was a powerful “Israel lobby,” or who admitted that it existed but didn’t think it had much influence, or who thought that the real problem was some supposedly all-powerful “Saudi lobby,” think again.  

Second, this incident does not speak well for Barack Obama’s principles, or even his political instincts. It is one thing to pander to various special interest groups while you’re running for office — everyone expects that sort of thing — but it’s another thing to let a group of bullies push you around in the first fifty days of your administration. But as Ben Smith noted in Politico, it’s entirely consistent with most of Obama’s behavior on this issue.

The decision to toss Freeman over the side tells the lobby (and others) that it doesn’t have to worry about Barack getting tough with Netanyahu, or even that he’s willing to fight hard for his own people. Although AIPAC has issued a pro forma denial that it had anything to do with it, well-placed friends in Washington have told me that it leaned hard on some key senators behind-the-scenes and is now bragging that Obama is a “pushover.” Bottom line: Caving on Freeman was a blunder that could come back to haunt any subsequent effort to address the deteriorating situation in the region.

Third, and related to my second point, this incident reinforces my suspicion that the Democratic Party is in fact a party of wimps. I’m not talking about Congress, which has been in thrall to the lobby for decades, but about the new team in the Executive Branch. Don’t they understand that you have to start your term in office by making it clear that people will pay a price if they cross you? Barack Obama won an historic election and has a clear mandate for change — and that includes rethinking our failed Middle East policy — and yet he wouldn’t defend an appointment that didn’t even require Senate confirmation. Why? See point No.1 above.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m wrong here, and that Obama’s team was actually being clever. Freeman’s critics had to expend a lot of ammunition to kill a single appointment to what is ultimately not a direct policy-making position, and they undoubtedly ticked off a lot of people by doing so. When the real policy fights begin — over the actual content of the NIEs, over attacking Iran, and over the peace process itself — they aren’t likely to get much sympathy from DNI Blair and it is least conceivable that Obama will turn to them and say, “look, I gave you one early on, but now I’m going to do what’s right for America.” I don’t really believe that will happen, but I’ll be delighted if Obama proves me wrong.

Fourth, the worst aspect of the Freeman affair is the likelihood of a chilling effect on discourse in Washington, at precisely the time when we badly need a more open and wide-ranging discussion of our Middle East policy. As I noted earlier, this was one of the main reasons why the lobby went after Freeman so vehemently; in an era where more and more people are questioning Israel’s behavior and questioning the merits of unconditional U.S. support, its hardline defenders felt they simply had to reinforce the de facto ban on honest discourse inside the Beltway. After forty-plus years of occupation, two wars in Lebanon, and the latest pummeling of Gaza, (not to mention Ehud Olmert’s own comparison of Israel with South Africa), defenders of the “special relationship” can’t win on facts and logic anymore. So they have to rely on raw political muscle and the silencing or marginalization of those with whom they disagree. In the short term, Freeman’s fate is intended to send the message that if you want to move up in Washington, you had better make damn sure that nobody even suspects you might be an independent thinker on these issues. 

This outcome is bad for everyone, including Israel. It means that policy debates in the United States will continue to be narrower than in other countries (including Israel itself), public discourse will be equally biased, and a lot of self-censorship will go on. America’s Middle East policy will remain stuck in the same familiar rut, and even a well-intentioned individual like George Mitchell won’t be able to bring the full weight of our influence to bear. At a time when Israel badly needs honest advice, nobody in Washington is going to offer it, lest they face the wrath of the same foolish ideologues who targeted Freeman. The likely result is further erosion in America’s position in the Middle East, and more troubles for Israel as well.

Yet to those who defended Freeman’s appointment and challenged the lobby’s smear campaign, I offer a fifth observation: do not lose heart. The silver lining in this sorry episode is that it was abundantly clear to everyone what was going on and who was behind it. In the past, the lobby was able to derail appointments quietly — even pre-emptively — but this fight took place in broad daylight. And Steve Rosen, one of Freeman’s chief tormentors, once admitted: “a lobby is like a night flower. It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.” Slowly, the light is dawning and the lobby’s negative influence is becoming more and more apparent, even if relatively few people have the guts to say so out loud.  But history will not be kind to the likes of Charles Schumer, Jonathan Chait, Steve Rosen et al, whose hidebound views are unintentionally undermining both U.S. and Israeli security.

Last but not least, I cannot help but be struck by how little confidence Freeman’s critics seem to have in Israel itself. Apparently they believe that a country that recently celebrated its 60th birthday, whose per capita income ranks 29th in the world, that has several hundred nuclear weapons, and a military that is able to inflict more than 1,300 deaths on helpless Palestinians in a couple of weeks without much effort will nonetheless be at risk if someone who has criticized some Israeli policies (while defending its existence) were to chair the National Intelligence Council. The sad truth is that these individuals are deathly afraid of honest discourse here in the United States because deep down, they believe Israel cannot survive if it isn’t umbilically attached to the United States. The irony is that people like me have more confidence in Israel than they do: I think Israel can survive and prosper if it has a normal relationship with the United States instead of “special” one. Indeed, I think a more normal relationship would be better for both countries. It appears they aren’t so sure, and that is why they went after Charles Freeman.

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