As readers of this blog know, I have the highest regard for Amb. Chas Freeman (ret.) not only as one of this country’s most accomplished diplomats, but also as a extraordinarily insightful analyst of current global developments and their impact on U.S. foreign policy. This is undoubtedly why former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) chief, Adm. Dennis Blair, asked him in 2009 to head the National Intelligence Council (NIC). The NIC recruits the best analysts from the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as independent consultants, to, among other things, produce reports on mid- and long-term global trends — it just released the latest in its quadrennial “Global Trends” series earlier this month — and its more famous “National Intelligence Estimates,” or NIEs, the most controversial of which was the 2007 NIE that found that Iran had halted key aspects of its alleged nuclear- weapons work in 2003.
As LobeLog readers also know, neo-conservatives and the Israel lobby launched a furious campaign against Freeman’s appointment, deeply worried, no doubt, that he might initiate NIEs on a range of topics — such as a cost-benefit analysis of the virtually unconditional support U.S. has provided Israel, or the implications of continued settlement activity on the West Bank for any two-state solution or even for the long-term survival of Israel as a Jewish state itself — that could begin to shift thinking in Washington, perhaps even on Capitol Hill, about the assumption that the two countries share the same interests and values. In the face of this campaign and absent a clear sign of support from the Obama White House, Freeman withdrew from consideration. The whole tawdry episode set a number of unfortunate precedents which still haunt us today: a high-octane smear campaign deprived the country of the talents and expertise of an extraordinarily well-qualified and dedicated — if outspoken and courageous — public servant; neo-conservatives and the Israel lobby showed they could exercise veto power over high-level appointments (and thus probably policy initiatives, as well) by the new administration; and Obama himself apparently preferred to float above the fray, unwilling to speak out for a key appointee, let alone push back against the clearly defamatory and underhanded attempts to destroy him. Ring any bells?
In any event, Freeman was generous enough to grant me an interview after his withdrawal, and we’ve remained in touch since. Now, he has graciously given permission for me to publish some of his own thoughts about the Hagel nomination and its similarities and differences with his own experience. It follows:
History is indeed repeating itself with Sen. Hagel; this time, as Marx predicted, as farce. All of the elements I noted in my statement of withdrawal in 2009 are there: “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. 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, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.” None of this has changed, including the effort to make the campaign appear to be about something other than obeisance to Israel. (China in my case; so far gay rights — with more likely to come — in Sen. Hagel’s.)
There are some differences, however. I had been appointed. Hagel has not yet been nominated. Unlike Secretary of Defense, the head of the National Intelligence Council is not subject to Senate confirmation. If nominated, Sen. Hagel faces hearings in which he has the opportunity to clear his name and a process of voting in which politicians must take a stand rather than hide behind the Lobby. Neither were available to me. The campaign against Hagel is also more open than the internet and corridor whispering campaign against me.
The Secretary of Defense is a policy official, the head of the NIC is responsible for analytical input but not for policy decisions. The NIC is a subcabinet position, with a supervisor who reports to the president. The Secretary of Defense has no superior other than the president, who cannot disclaim responsibility or leave the decision whether to stand or fight to a subordinate. Finally, Sen. Hagel appears actively to want to return to government service. I agreed only reluctantly to do so. Sen. Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense would cap an honorable political career by elevating him to higher office. My return to government at the same level as my last position in it would have been an invisible afterward to thirty years of dignified but obscure public service.
The stakes seem at first glance to be surprisingly similar. In 2009, I noted that “the outrageous agitation … [over my appointment casts] doubt on [the president’s] ability to consider, let alone decide what policies might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government.” As I and others foresaw, my defeat was the first of many setbacks to Obama’s declared objective of righting U.S. policies in the Middle East and repairing our relations with the Muslim world.
The controversy over my appointment also politicized appointments to the intelligence community. But that over Hagel is far more important and potentially far-reaching in its effects. It threatens to extend the process of “borking” from the Supreme Court to the Cabinet appointment process and, if it appears to deter the president from nominating Hagel, it will confirm the domestic and international impression of President Obama as someone who confuses following from the front with leadership and who habitually yields rather than stands his ground. Given the domestic political gridlock and constant retreat before AIPAC that characterized his first term, President Obama and the United States currently have very little credibility in the Middle East. Even without the impact of a fall off the “fiscal cliff,” starting a second term with yet another humiliation by the Israel Lobby would devalue Obama and American prestige for at least the next four years, leaving us at the mercy of decisions by others that we cannot influence.
Sen. Hagel is drawing on conservative political colleagues to defend himself. Much as I sympathize with what he’s going through, it seems best not to taint his case by appearing to wish to reopen my own. Those opposing him are making arguments that demonstrate their obsession with Israel at the expense of all other American interests. In the process, they are isolating themselves by offending a widening circle of thoughtful American patriots. Their effective abetment of self-destructive impulses in Israel has helped to create an ever more potent existential threat to that country. Their hubris now threatens their credibility here. Napoleon wisely said that one should never interrupt the enemy when he is making a mistake. These people are enemies of Israel as well as all that is decent in this country. Enough said.