Because one man, conceding defeat, didn't issue
the typical statement indicating that he preferred to spend more time with his
family, and instead launched a frontal attack on those who had attacked him,
the foreign policy equation in Washington might have changed in discernible
ways last week. On withdrawing from his nomination as director of the National
Intelligence Council, Charles Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and
a rare provocative thinker in Washington, let loose with a broadside
against his enemies. Of accusations from the generally right-wing groups and
individuals who claim to represent the Jewish community in official Washington,
"There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for
the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent
on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government – in this case,
the government of Israel. I believe that the inability of the American public
to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for U.S. policies in the
Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that
faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence
of the state of Israel. … This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their
neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security
of the United States."
Thus began a firestorm of commentary, debate, and argument in the mainstream
media about, among other things, the very existence of an "Israel lobby." Below,
Robert Dreyfuss, who writes the Nation's Dreyfuss
Report blog and is the author of Devil's
Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, offers
a powerful, needed assessment of what the Freeman affair may mean for the Obama
administration and American policy in the Middle East.
One thing I find odd in the debate about that lobby is this: both those who
believe it exists and those who deny its existence generally act as if such
a lobby was sui generis in American politics. No such thing. It's just
that few bring up the obvious – if, like all history, not exact – analogy.
An "island" nation in the Middle East, Israel today plays a role arguably similar
to that of an actual island that held formidable sway in American domestic politics
decades ago. Known then as Formosa, it became "the Republic of China" after
Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, defeated in a fierce civil war by
Mao Ze Dong's communist movement, moved what was left of his government there.
From the late 1940s deep into the 1950s, that island version of China had a
firm grip on what room for maneuver was available to any American government
when it came to China policy. With various Nationalist Chinese representatives
and their congressional and media allies, then known as the China Lobby, putting
key issues and realities beyond discussion, the results were disastrous. It's
a cautionary tale that shouldn't be ignored in the present debate. Tom
Is the Israeli Lobby Running Scared?
Or, killing a chicken to scare the monkeys
by Robert Dreyfuss
Is the Israel lobby in Washington an all-powerful
force? Or is it, perhaps, running scared?
Judging by the outcome of the Charles W. ("Chas") Freeman affair this week,
it might seem as if the Israeli lobby is fearsome indeed. Seen more broadly,
however, the controversy over Freeman could be the Israel lobby's Waterloo.
Let's recap. On Feb. 19, Laura Rozen reported
at ForeignPolicy.com that Freeman had been selected by Adm. Dennis Blair, the
director of national intelligence, to serve in a key post as chairman of the
National Intelligence Council (NIC). The NIC, the official in-house think-tank
of the intelligence community, takes input from 16 intelligence agencies and
produces what are called "National Intelligence Estimates" on crucial topics
of the day as guidance for Washington policymakers. For that job, Freeman boasted
a stellar résumé: fluent in Mandarin Chinese, widely experienced
in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia
during the first Gulf War, and an ex-assistant secretary of defense during the
A wry, outspoken iconoclast, Freeman had, however, crossed one of Washington's
red lines by virtue of his strong criticism of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Over the years, he had, in fact, honed a critique of Israel that was both eloquent
and powerful. Hours after the Foreign Policy story was posted, Steve
Rosen, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),
launched what would soon become a veritable barrage of criticism of Freeman
his right-wing blog.
Rosen himself has already been indicted by the Department of Justice in an
espionage scandal over the transfer of classified information to outside parties
involving a colleague at AIPAC, a former official in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon,
and an official at the Israeli embassy. His blog, Obama Mideast Monitor, is
hosted by the Middle East Forum Web site
run by Daniel Pipes, a hard-core, pro-Israeli rightist, whose Middle East
Quarterly is, in turn, edited by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise
Institute. Over approximately two weeks, Rosen would post 19 pieces on the Freeman
The essence of Rosen's criticism centered on the former ambassador's strongly
worded critique of Israel. (That was no secret. Freeman had repeatedly denounced
many of Israel's policies and Washington's too-close relationship with Jerusalem.
"The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no
sign of ending," said Freeman in 2007. "American identification with Israel
has become total.") But Rosen and those who followed his lead broadened their
attacks to make unfounded or exaggerated claims, taking quotes and e-mails out
of context, and accusing Freeman of being a pro-Arab "lobbyist," of being too
closely identified with Saudi Arabia, and of being cavalier about China's treatment
of dissidents. They tried to paint the sober, conservative former U.S. official
as a wild-eyed radical, an anti-Semite, and a pawn of the Saudi king.
From Rosen's blog, the anti-Freeman vitriol spread to other right-wing, Zionist,
and neoconservative blogs, then to the Web sites of neocon mouthpieces like
the New Republic, Commentary, National Review, and the
Weekly Standard, which referred
to Freeman as a "Saudi puppet." From there, it would spread to the Atlantic
and then to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, where Gabriel
Freeman a "China-coddling Israel basher," and the Washington Post,
where Jonathan Chait of the New Republic labeled
Freeman a "fanatic."
Before long, staunch partisans for Israel on Capitol Hill were getting into
the act. These would, in the end, include Rep. Steve Israel and Sen. Charles
Schumer, both New York Democrats; a group of Republican House members led by
John Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the
Republican whip; seven Republican members of the Senate Select Committee on
Intelligence; and, finally, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who engaged in
a sharp exchange with Adm. Blair about Freeman at a Senate hearing.
Though Blair strongly defended Freeman, the two men got no support from an
anxious White House, which took (politely put) a hands-off approach. Seeing
the writing on the wall – all over the wall, in fact – Freeman came to the conclusion
that, even if he could withstand the storm, his ability to do the job had, in
effect, already been torpedoed. Whatever output the National Intelligence Council
might produce under his leadership, as Freeman told
me in an interview, would instantly be attacked. "Anything that it produced
that was politically controversial would immediately be attributed to me as
some sort of political deviant, and be discredited," he said.
On March 10, Freeman bowed out, but not with a whimper. In a letter to friends
and colleagues, he launched a defiant, departing counterstrike that may, in
fact, have helped to change the very nature of Washington politics. "The tactics
of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character
assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record,
the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth," wrote
Freeman. "The aim of this lobby is control of the policy process through the
exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of
it more metaphorically to me: "It was a nice way of, as the Chinese say,
killing a chicken to scare the monkeys." By destroying his appointment, Freeman
claimed, the Israel lobby hoped to intimidate other critics of Israel and U.S.
Middle East policy who might seek jobs in the Obama administration.
On Triumphs, Hysterias, and Mobs
It remains to be seen just how many "monkeys" are trembling. Certainly, the
Israel lobby crowed in triumph. Daniel Pipes, for instance, quickly praised
Rosen's role in bringing down Freeman.
"What you may not know is that Steven J. Rosen of the Middle East Forum was
the person who first brought attention to the problematic nature of Freeman's
appointment," wrote Pipes. "Within hours, the word was out, and three weeks
later Freeman has conceded defeat. Only someone with Steve's stature and credibility
could have made this happen."
The Zionist Organization of America, a far-right advocacy group that supports
Israel, sent out follow-up Action Alerts to its membership, ringing further
alarm bells about Freeman as part of a campaign to mobilize public opinion and
Congress. Behind the scenes, AIPAC quietly used its considerable clout, especially
with friends and allies in the media. And Chuck Schumer, who had trotted over
to the White House to talk to Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's chief of staff,
later said bluntly:
"Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against
Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration.
I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the
Numerous reporters, including Max Blumenthal at the Daily
Beast Web site and Spencer Ackerman of FireDogLake,
have effectively documented the role of the Israel lobby, including AIPAC, in
sabotaging Freeman's appointment. From their accounts and others, it seems clear
that the lobby left its fingerprints all over Freeman's National Intelligence
Council corpse. (Indeed, Time's Joe Klein described
the attack on Freeman as an "assassination," adding that the term "lobby" doesn't
do justice to the methods of the various lobbying groups, individuals, and publications:
"He was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of
On the other hand, the Washington Post, in a near-hysterical
editorial, decided to pretend that the Israel lobby really doesn't exist,
accusing Freeman instead of sending out a "crackpot tirade." Huffed the Post,
"Mr. Freeman issued a two-page screed on Tuesday in which he described himself
as the victim of a shadowy and sinister 'Lobby'. … His statement was a grotesque
The Post's case might have been stronger had it not, just one day earlier,
an editorial in which it called on Attorney General Eric Holder to exonerate
Steve Rosen and drop the espionage case against him. Entitled "Time to Call
It Quits," the editorial said:
"The matter involves Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former officials
for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. … A trial has been
scheduled for June in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Mr. Holder should pull the plug on this prosecution long before then."
In his interview
with me, Freeman noted the propensity members of the Israel lobby have for
denying the lobby's existence, even while taking credit for having forced him
out and simultaneously claiming that they had nothing to do with it. "We're
now at the ludicrous stage where those who boasted of having done it and who
described how they did it are now denying that they did it," he said.
The Israel lobby has regularly denied its own existence even as it has long
carried on with its work, in stealth as in the bright sunlight. In retrospect,
however, l'affaire Freeman may prove a game changer. It has already sparked
a new, more intense mainstream focus on the lobby, one that far surpasses the
flap that began in March 2006, over the publication of an essay by John Mearsheimer
and Steven Walt in the London Review of Books that was, in 2007, expanded
into a book, The Israel Lobby. In fact, one of the sins committed by
Freeman, according to his critics, is that an organization he headed, the Middle
East Policy Council, published an early version of the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis
– which argued that a powerful, pro-Israel coalition exercises undue influence
over American policymakers – in its journal.
In his blog at Foreign Policy, Walt reacted
to Freeman's decision to withdraw by writing:
"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."
What the Freeman affair brought was unwanted, often front-page attention to
the lobby. Writers at countless blogs and Web sites – including yours truly,
at the Dreyfuss Report – dissected or reported on the lobby's assault on Freeman,
including Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe at Antiwar.com,
Glenn Greenwald in
his Salon.com column, M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel
Peace Forum, and Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss.
Far more striking, however, is that for the first time in memory, both the New
York Times and the Washington
Post ran page-one stories about the Freeman controversy that specifically
used the phrase "Israel lobby," while detailing the charges and countercharges
that followed upon Freeman's claim that the lobby did him in.
This new attention to the lobby's work comes at a critical moment, which is
why the toppling of Freeman might be its Waterloo.
As a start, right-wing partisans of Israel have grown increasingly anxious
about the direction that President Obama intends to take when it comes to U.S.
policy toward Israel, the Palestinians, Iran, and the Middle East generally.
Despite the way, in the middle of the presidential campaign last June, Obama
recited a pro-Israeli catechism in a speech at AIPAC's national conference in
Washington, they remain unconvinced that he will prove reliable on their policy
concerns. Among other things, they have long been suspicious of his reputed
openness to Palestinian points of view.
No less important, while the appointments of Hillary Clinton as his secretary
of state and Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff were reassuring, other appointments
were far less so. They were, for instance, concerned by several of Obama's campaign
advisers – and not only Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and
former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who were quietly eased
out of Obamaland early in 2008. An additional source of worry was Daniel Shapiro
and Daniel Kurtzer, both Jewish, who served as Obama's top Middle East aides
during the campaign and were seen as not sufficiently loyal to the causes favored
by hard-line, right-wing types.
Since the election, many lobby members have viewed a number of Obama's top
appointments, including Shapiro, who's taken the Middle East portfolio at the
National Security Council, and Kurtzer, who's in line for a top State Department
job, with great unease. Take retired Marine general and now National Security
Adviser James L. Jones, who, like Brzezinski, is seen as too sympathetic to
the Palestinian point of view and who reputedly wrote a report last year highly
critical of Israel's occupation policies; or consider George Mitchell, the U.S.
special envoy to the Middle East, who is regarded by many pro-Israeli hawks
as far too levelheaded and evenhanded to be a good mediator; or, to mention
one more appointment, Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell and
now a National Security Council official who has, in the past, made comments
sharply critical of Israel.
Of all of these figures, Freeman, because of his record of blunt statements,
was the most vulnerable. His appointment looked like low-hanging fruit when
it came to launching a concerted, preemptive attack on the administration. As
it happens, however, this may prove anything but a moment of strength for the
lobby. After all, the recent three-week Israeli assault on Gaza had already
generated a barrage of headlines and television images that made Israel look
like a bully nation with little regard for Palestinian lives, including those
of women and children. According to polls taken in the wake of Gaza, growing
numbers of Americans, including many in the Jewish community, have begun to
exhibit doubts about Israel's actions, a rare moment when public opinion has
begun to tilt against Israel.
Perhaps most important of all, Israel is about to be run by an extremist, ultra-right-wing
government led by Likud Party leader Bibi Netanyahu, and including the even
more extreme party of Avigdor Lieberman, as well as a host of radical-right
religious parties. It's an ugly coalition that is guaranteed to clash with the
priorities of the Obama White House.
As a result, the arrival of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is also guaranteed
to prove a crisis moment for the Israel lobby. It will present an enormous public-relations
problem, akin to the one that faced ad agency Hill & Knowlton during the
decades in which it had to defend Philip Morris, the hated cigarette company
that repeatedly denied the link between its products and cancer. The Israel
lobby knows that it will be difficult to sell cartons of menthol smooth Netanyahu-Lieberman
100s to American consumers.
Indeed, Freeman told me:
"The only thing I regret is that in my statement I embraced the term 'Israel
lobby.' This isn't really a lobby by, for, or about Israel. It's really, well,
I've decided I'm going to call it from now on the [Avigdor] Lieberman lobby.
It's the very right-wing Likud in Israel and its fanatic supporters here. And
Avigdor Lieberman is really the guy that they really agree with."
So here's the reality behind the Freeman debacle: Already worried over Team
Obama, suffering the after-effects of the Gaza debacle, and about to be burdened
with the Netanyahu-Lieberman problem, the Israel lobby is undoubtedly running
scared. They succeeded in knocking off Freeman, but the true test of their strength
is yet to come.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist in Alexandria,
Va. He is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, the Nation,
the American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Washington Monthly.
He is also the author of Devil's
Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry
Holt/Metropolitan). He writes the Dreyfuss
Report blog for the Nation magazine.
Copyright 2009 Robert Dreyfuss