Sunday, March 08, 2009

Andrew Sullivan on the Charles Freeman squabble

Sunday London Times:
It’s not that big a position in Barack Obama’s administration but it has prompted an outcry more extreme and angry than any appointment so far. Obama’s new director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, selected a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
Freeman has a long diplomatic career behind him, and few doubt his professional credentials. He’s a product of Harvard and Yale and was Richard Nixon’s chief interpreter on the 1972 trip to China. He was ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf war and assistant secretary of defence under Bill Clinton. More critically, he is a somewhat brutal realist in the Henry Kissinger tradition: seeing foreign affairs as a matter of often amoral realpolitik.

In his years out of government he was not in any way shy of speaking his mind - privately criticising China’s government for not nipping the Tiananmen Square revolt in the bud. He also became a stringent critic of the foreign policy of George W Bush and Dick Cheney - especially in the Middle East. And he has censured what he calls the Israeli lobby’s influence in Washington as an impediment to progress in that region.

If these views were the only ones represented within the Obama administration, I could understand the outcry, but Hillary Clinton, for all her desperate kowtowing to the Chinese last week, is no Kissinger. Neither is Dennis Ross, a pro-Israel Iran hawk, who is her envoy to the region.

You’d think someone with more cold-blooded views would be a useful, even refreshing, voice for a president eager to reboot American foreign policy after Bush. He’s just one voice – and he also has a coherent view of what has gone wrong with US foreign policy in the past few years. In the autumn of 2007 he said: “In retrospect, Al-Qaeda has played us with the finesse of a matador exhausting a great bull by guiding it into unproductive lunges at the void behind his cape.

“By invading Iraq, we transformed an intervention in Afghanistan most Muslims had supported into what looks to them like a wider war against Islam. We destroyed the Iraqi state and catalysed anarchy, sectarian violence, terrorism and civil war in that country.

“Meanwhile, we embraced Israel’s enemies as our own; they responded by equating Americans with Israelis as their enemies. We abandoned the role of Middle East peacemaker to back Israel’s efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoised Arab populations.”

In Europe this view is hardly extreme. In America it is often regarded as self-evidently antisemitic. Freeman has been far from diplomatic in some of his statements, and some offence seems inevitable. But if the US is to reset its relations with the Muslim world and reframe a relationship with Israel in a grand bargain in the Middle East, this kind of approach should certainly be in the mix. The total conflation of the US and Israel in the Muslim mind – and in Washington’s psyche – has clearly restricted America’s freedom of action in the Middle East. How, for example, will there ever be a two-state solution without the removal of Israeli settlements on the West Bank? And yet no Israeli government will do it, and no American government since George HW Bush has even tried. Would Obama? As his frequent praise of the first Bush suggests, he has a realist bent.

That, of course, is precisely why the Freeman appointment has set off a firestorm. Does it mean a subtle change in relations with Israel – even to the extent of treating the country as a normal ally, with occasional disputes? Steve Rosen, a former power-broker at America’s Israel Public Affairs Committee, worries that it might be, calling the appointment “profoundly disturbing”. Last week National Review described Freeman as “savage”, “shameless” and a “rabid Israel-hater”. The Wall Street Journal, Commentary and The New Republic have all chimed in. He has been called “bigoted”, “extremist”, “reprehensible”, an ideologue and on and on.

One of the more revealing critiques came from Jon Chait in The Washington Post. He argued that US policy towards Israel “rests on shared values with a fellow imperfect democracy rather than on a cold analysis of America’s interests”. And so a realist has no role to play in forging foreign policy in the region.

The next wave of attacks was launched against Freeman’s associations with various groups that were funded, to a greater or lesser degree, by Saudi Arabia. And with unusual speed for a government official, the inspector general has launched a full inquiry into the funding of the foundation Freeman worked for. It may be that legitimate issues emerge from the vetting, but they would be the result, and not the cause, of the outcry. Why on earth would this matter? The reason, I suspect, is that Freeman’s appointment is the first skirmish in what could be an intense war for the soul of Obama’s foreign policy. The goal is not just to force one realist thinker to withdraw, but to ensure that policy towards Israel changes very, very little from the Bush years.

Sometimes the consensus on Israel in Washington is hard to explain to outsiders. The assault on Gaza, for example, was highly controversial around the world and prompted lively debates about just war, the limits of violence in controlling or deterring Hamas and the wisdom of Israel intensifying another bitter cycle of conflict with the Muslim world. In a poll last July, 71% of the American people wanted the US to be neutral in the conflict between Jews and Arabs. Polling about Gaza found Americans evenly divided about who was in the right. The Senate, however, did not even need to take a vote. A resolution backing Israel in Gaza was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, and in the House of Representatives only five out of 435 members voted against.

Freeman’s appointment would put a tiny crack in that consensus. It would imply that the US-Israel relationship might be balanced by other key relationships in the region, or that Israel might be asked – or even pressured – to take risks for a broader peace that would benefit the US. It would imply that while American and Israeli interests often overlap in the region, they are not always and everywhere identical and that a healthier understanding of this might emerge that could benefit both nations.
Well, we’ll see. I can’t say I am optimistic. Obama is being asked to transform America’s relations with the Muslim world while not moving an inch from Bush’s Israel policy. That’s basically impossible – and there is a price to be paid for pointing that out. Chas Freeman may well be forced to pay it.

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