With Friends and Foes Like Freeman’s...

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 18, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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The blogosphere: When it’s good, it is very good; when it’s bad, which is often, it is quite horrid, a culture of grudge, a place for malcontents to broadcast their resentments and fleetingly fantasize potency. That is why what follows is not about the blogosphere. It is, rather, about the difficulty of conducting a reasonably calm and thoughtful conversation about the Middle East without opening the door to the rabble of resentment that apparently lurks in wait for every opportunity to demonstrate that evolution can reverse direction, that pounces into frenetic action whenever it finds an opportunity to fulminate.

Case in point: The flap over the merits of Ambassador Charles Freeman’s appointment as chair of the government’s National Intelligence Committee, the agency responsible for coordinating the judgments of the intelligence community regarding threats to America’s safety and the likely course of future events. The National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative written judgments provided to the director of national intelligence and, through the DNI, to the president. (The NIC has substantial additional responsibilities, focusing especially on mid-term and long-range strategic analysis.) Freeman withdrew his name from consideration on March 10, as the crescendo of debate regarding his suitability for the job became near-deafening.

The debate over Freeman’s qualifications was, in and of itself, fascinating. Freeman is universally described as uncommonly smart, and even a cursory examination of his writing easily confirms that assessment. He is also, at the very least, intemperate, very far from the conventional image of a super-sober spook dispassionately reviewing the materials provided by his colleagues in the 16 agencies that comprise America’s intelligence community.

Thus, for example, in a lecture last April 25, Freeman observed that “The majority of Chinese appear to believe, for example, that public reaction here [in America] to the recent race riots by Tibetans and to unrest among other Chinese minorities proves the existence of a plan by the United States and its Western allies to divide, dismember, weaken, and humiliate China.” Freeman may claim, as he has with regard to other damning citations of his remarks on China, Saudi Arabia and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that he has been quoted out of context, but it is exceedingly difficult to read his description of events in Tibet as “race riots” as anything other than an expression of his own belief. He did claim, more credibly, that as our government’s chief intelligence analyst, he would leave his opinions at home. So I suppose it comes down to how highly one can regard a man who dismisses Tibetan protests as “race riots.”

I have no strong opinion, one way or the other, about the Freeman appointment. That people, even gifted people, have flaws is not a shocking observation. Sometimes, their flaws outweigh their merits, as the John Bolton case so amply demonstrated. At the same time, we have long known that the militant pro-Israel community — what Freeman calls the “Likud lobby” — is remarkably aggressive in its judgments, as if itching for a fight with anyone who deviates at all from its orthodoxies, as Freeman plainly does. I am unable to say, as Freeman does in an ill-tempered e-mail explaining his withdrawal from the NIC job, that it is the “Israel Lobby” that did him in — though there’s no doubt that the lobby celebrated his departure and perhaps even more the reckless excesses of his e-mail.

Just this afternoon, I watched a softball interview of Freeman by Fareed Zakaria on CNN (oh, how I wished Jon Stewart were asking the questions), and while Freeman was indeed critical of Israel and now and then strayed somewhat overboard, he said almost nothing that struck me as particularly outrageous. Freeman’s assertion that “I have a lot of respect for Israel and I am sorry to see it so badly corrupted by the occupation and to see its values so badly damaged by the settlement process in the occupied territories” will be familiar to anyone who follows the ongoing debate within Israel itself.

In his exit e-mail, Freeman did say one thing with which I entirely concur, this when he lamented “the controversy and the manner in which the public vitriol of those who devoted themselves to sustaining it have revealed about the state of our civil society.” Thousands of blogs attest to that, rank antisemitism by many of Freeman’s supporters, less painful but not less ugly slashing by many of his opponents.

Now and again, more learned and more sober observers, whose tone is at least superficially reasonable, have at it. As might be expected, for example, professor Stephen Walt, he of Walt-Mearsheimer, has a long posting in foreignpolicy.com, wherein he opines that “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…. After forty-plus years of occupation, two wars in Lebanon, and the latest pummeling of Gaza… 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…. 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.”

Poppycock. I have not noticed that Walt’s views are ignored in Washington. Rejected, by and large, yes. But ignored? Hardly. Nor does it seem to me that Israel “badly needs honest advice,” of which it in fact has a surfeit, most of which it chooses to ignore. I fervently wish that were not so, but the fact that it is so is overwhelmingly the product of disarray within Israel rather than the stifling of independent thinking in Washington.


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