Stephen M. Walt

Freeman wasn’t the first

The mainstream media caught up with the Charles Freeman saga today. It gets page 1 treatment in the New York Times and more detailed and extensive coverage in the Washington Post, with some solid reportage by Walter Pincus, a column supporting Freeman by David Broder, and an overwrought editorial attacking Freeman’s defenders for advancing a ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

The mainstream media caught up with the Charles Freeman saga today. It gets page 1 treatment in the New York Times and more detailed and extensive coverage in the Washington Post, with some solid reportage by Walter Pincus, a column supporting Freeman by David Broder, and an overwrought editorial attacking Freeman's defenders for advancing a "conspiracy theory." The ever-alert Glenn Greenwald dissects the latter's contradictions here.

This level of attention is probably not what Freeman's attackers wanted, because these stories demolish the claim that the fracas was about his views on Tibet and Tianenmen Square or even the fact that the think tank he headed had received a small portion of its funding from Saudis. It is now clear that Freeman's "sin" was the fact that he had publicly said some critical things about Israeli policy, though his views were in fact no more critical than comments frequently made by more moderate Israelis. Indeed, if Freeman were Israeli, he could write a regular column in Ha'retz and nobody would bat an eye.

The level of attention this case has now received stands in sharp contrast to several other examples where valuable public servants were denied key posts due to opposition from groups or individuals in the lobby. Jimmy Carter reportedly wanted to make George W. Ball his secretary of state in 1976, but he knew that groups in the lobby would oppose the appointment and so he went with Cyrus Vance instead. The late Richard Marius, a long-time Harvard lecturer, recounted that he was offered a job as a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and then fired before he began work, after Martin Peretz falsely charged him with anti-Semitism, based on a book review Marius had written for Harvard Magazine. And in 2001, when Bruce Riedel was leaving his post handling Middle East issues at the NSC, Peretz's New Republic reported that the Pentagon had "held up the appointment of Riedel's designated successor, Alina Romanowski, whom Pentagon officials suspect of being insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state." Who got the job instead? Elliott Abrams.

The mainstream media caught up with the Charles Freeman saga today. It gets page 1 treatment in the New York Times and more detailed and extensive coverage in the Washington Post, with some solid reportage by Walter Pincus, a column supporting Freeman by David Broder, and an overwrought editorial attacking Freeman’s defenders for advancing a "conspiracy theory." The ever-alert Glenn Greenwald dissects the latter’s contradictions here.

This level of attention is probably not what Freeman’s attackers wanted, because these stories demolish the claim that the fracas was about his views on Tibet and Tianenmen Square or even the fact that the think tank he headed had received a small portion of its funding from Saudis. It is now clear that Freeman’s "sin" was the fact that he had publicly said some critical things about Israeli policy, though his views were in fact no more critical than comments frequently made by more moderate Israelis. Indeed, if Freeman were Israeli, he could write a regular column in Ha’retz and nobody would bat an eye.

The level of attention this case has now received stands in sharp contrast to several other examples where valuable public servants were denied key posts due to opposition from groups or individuals in the lobby. Jimmy Carter reportedly wanted to make George W. Ball his secretary of state in 1976, but he knew that groups in the lobby would oppose the appointment and so he went with Cyrus Vance instead. The late Richard Marius, a long-time Harvard lecturer, recounted that he was offered a job as a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and then fired before he began work, after Martin Peretz falsely charged him with anti-Semitism, based on a book review Marius had written for Harvard Magazine. And in 2001, when Bruce Riedel was leaving his post handling Middle East issues at the NSC, Peretz’s New Republic reported that the Pentagon had "held up the appointment of Riedel’s designated successor, Alina Romanowski, whom Pentagon officials suspect of being insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state." Who got the job instead? Elliott Abrams.

The same litmus test operates on the Hill, of course. As influential Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) told an online chat group during the 2006 election: "there will be some Democratic congressman who may not share all my views or have as clear a perspective on Israel as I do, but they will not be chairing committees dealing with Israel and the Middle East."

What is different about the Freeman case is that the campaign against him got waged out in the open, and many people figured out quickly what was going on and were willing to say so, mostly in the blogosphere. At that point, even the mainstream media started paying attention.

It bears repeating the real issue here is whether U.S. interests are best served by making uncritical support for the "special relationship" a de facto criterion for public service in important foreign policy positions. How about people who think the United States and Israel should have a normal relationship, one similar to our relations with other democracies, and who believe that this would be better for the United States and Israel alike? Is that really such a heretical view?

One more thing: this case shows that discourse on this issue is changing and that is all to the good. It didn’t move fast enough to save Freeman, but maybe it can move fast enough to rescue the United States from some of its past mistakes, and prevent it from making more.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

More from Foreign Policy

Volker Perthes, U.N. special representative for Sudan, addresses the media in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 10.

Sudan’s Future Hangs in the Balance

Demonstrators find themselves at odds with key U.N. and U.S. mediators.

In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm.

Traffic Jams Are a Very American Disaster

The I-95 backup shows how easily highways can become traps.

Relatives and neighbors gather around a burned vehicle targeted and hit by an American drone strike in Kabul.

The Human Rights vs. National Security Dilemma Is a Fallacy

Advocacy organizations can’t protect human rights without challenging U.S. military support for tyrants and the corrupt influence of the defense industry and foreign governments.

un-sanctions-inspectors-china-foreign-policy-illustration

The Problem With Sanctions

From the White House to Turtle Bay, sanctions have never been more popular. But why are they so hard to make work?