Freeman Affair Puts Israel Lobby in Spotlight

Although the successful campaign to keep Amb. Charles "Chas" Freeman out of a top intelligence post marked a surface victory for the pro-Israel hardliners who opposed him, the long-term political implications of the Freeman affair appear far more ambiguous.

Freeman’s withdrawal has provoked growing – if belated – media scrutiny of the operations of the so-called "Israel Lobby," and aroused protests from a number of prominent mainstream political commentators who allege that he was the target of a dishonest and underhanded smear campaign that, among other things, accused him of shilling for the governments of Saudi Arabia and China.

For the neoconservatives who led the charge against Freeman’s appointment, his withdrawal may therefore prove to be both a tactical victory and a strategic defeat.

At the same time, the Freeman affair has highlighted the yawning disconnect between the career professionals in the intelligence and diplomatic communities, from whom Freeman enjoyed strong support, and political leaders in Congress and the White House, none of whom came to his defense publicly.

Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who has been a vocal critic of Israeli policies in the occupied territories, withdrew from consideration as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) on Tuesday. He did not go quietly into the night, however, releasing a statement in which he struck back at his critics.

"I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country," Freeman wrote.

"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."

The motives for the anti-Freeman campaign are themselves a matter of debate. Virtually all of his chief attackers were neoconservatives, whose views generally reflect those of the Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, and other reflexive defenders of Israeli government policies. Many observers viewed it as self-evident that their hostility to him was based on his often bluntly-spoken belief that U.S. and Israel’s interests in the Middle East were not necessarily convergent.

In the media, the campaign against Freeman was waged mainly by neoconservative organs, such as the Weekly Standard and the National Review, and by The New Republic, a generally liberal weekly that, however, routinely attacks Israel’s critics.

In Congress, it was led by politicians such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and Rep. Mark Kirk, all of whom have strong ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful lobby group whose members range from far-right supporters of the militant settlement movement in Israel to more moderate factions sympathetic to the relatively centrist Kadima and Labor Parties.

Freeman’s critics sought to portray their attacks on him as rooted not in his criticisms of Israel but in his allegedly compromising ties to Saudi Arabia and China, including his leadership of a think tank that was partially funded by a member of the Saudi royal family and his service on an advisory board of China’s largest oil company.

In the mainstream media, however, few seemed to buy into these claims. The most widely read U.S. newspapers, which had all but ignored the controversy as it raged in the "blogosphere," attributed his withdrawal to the unacceptability of his views on Israel policy – in the process going further than ever before in putting the Israel lobby in the national spotlight.

The New York Times headlined its story "Israel Stance Was Undoing of Nominee for Intelligence Post," while the Washington Post confirmed that AIPAC, which had insisted it had no position on Freeman’s appointment, had indeed quietly provided critical material about him to inquiring reporters.

A Los Angeles Times editorial explicitly referenced "the Israel lobby" as the force behind Freeman’s withdrawal, adding, "We do not believe that Israel should be immune from criticism or that there is room for only one point of view in our government."

And while the Post’s editorial page, like the neoconservative Wall Street Journal, had hosted anti-Freeman op-eds early in the campaign against him, its veteran political columnist, David Broder – long viewed as the embodiment of Washington centrism – praised the former ambassador as "an able public servant" and wrote that "[t]he Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in their place."

Broder was not the only prominent centrist to react harshly to the anti-Freeman campaign. Others included the Broder’s fellow Post columnist, David Ignatius, The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan (who called the campaign "repulsive"), Time’s Joe Klein ("assassination"), and Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf ("lynching-by-blog"). Freeman has also been invited as the guest of Fareed Zakaria, a regular columnist for Newsweek and the Post, on his regular Sunday CNN program on foreign policy, "GPS."

In the end, the attempts by Freeman’s critics to make the story about anything but Israel may have backfired. Instead, discussion of the role of the Israel lobby in forming U.S. foreign policy appears to have acquired more mainstream legitimacy than ever before.

The long-taboo subject became a matter of public debate in 2006, when two prominent political scientists, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard University’s Stephen Walt, published their article "The Israel Lobby," later expanded into a book. The two argued that a powerful lobby, centered on but not limited to AIPAC, exerts a "stranglehold" on U.S. foreign policy debates and stifles any criticism of Israeli policies, to the detriment of both the U.S. and Israel.

Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis was instantly controversial. Critics accused them of perpetuating age-old anti-Semitic tropes about the covert Jewish domination of politics. Mainstream critics of Israel have been reluctant to align themselves with the two, even when they have reached some of the same conclusions.

In the wake of the Freeman affair, however, Mearsheimer and Walt appear to be getting a new hearing. The Los Angeles Times went to far as to suggest that the attacks on them may have been overstated.

"[T]he battle over Freeman…seems to have exposed more sympathy for a Walt/Mearsheimer view of U.S.-Israel relations than one might have expected to be out there," wrote Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard, one of Freeman’s harshest critics. "People like Joe Klein and Andrew Sullivan are now fairly indistinguishable from Stephen Walt."

Goldfarb intended the comment as an insult, but it may nonetheless have contained a kernel of truth.

While the Freeman affair may have shifted the parameters of debate on Israel policy, it has also exposed fissures and resentments between the national security bureaucracy and the U.S. political leadership.

Some veteran observers, such as the "Nelson Report," an influential private newsletter, compared Freeman’s treatment to the McCarthy era when long-time government Asia experts were deemed responsible for "losing China" to the Communists and hounded out of the foreign service by the so-called "China Lobby."

Col. Pat Lang, the former top Middle East analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who signed a letter of support for Freeman, told IPS that the saga had caused a "tentative feeling of disappointment" about the new administration within the intelligence community.

"It’s very disheartening for people who viewed Freeman’s appointment as the return to some standard of intellectual excellence or integrity," he said, adding that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Adm. Dennis Blair, who went to the Senate and strongly defended his appointee, may be the next target for Freeman’s antagonists as they push for alarmist intelligence on Iran.

"I’m concerned about what these characters are going to do about Blair, because Blair really stood up to them, and their general reaction to that is to wage a war of annihilation against people who do that," Lang said.