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Robert Dreyfuss: Killing a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys

March 16, 2009

Robert Dreyfuss

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 February 19th, Laura Rozen reported at ForeignPolicy.com that Freeman had been selected by Admiral 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 resumĂ©: 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 Reagan administration.

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 on 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 website 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 story.

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 emails 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 websites of neocons 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 Schoenfeld called 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 Representative Steve Israel and Senator 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, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who engaged in a sharp exchange with Admiral 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 10th, 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 its views.”

Freeman put 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…

Read more at Tomdispatch.com

Robert Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist in Alexandria, Virginia. 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

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