Until quite recently only a few Americans, those with a special interest in Middle East politics, were aware of the existence of Charles W. ("Chas") Freeman Jr., the former U. S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. But this week he popped up on the front pages of major newspapers as the latest of Barack Obama's failed appointees, his candidacy typically brief.
On Feb. 19, someone anonymously revealed that Freeman was to chair the National Intelligence Council, which coordinates reports from espionage agencies. Immediately, he became a subject of furious controversy among bloggers. Their views reached politicians, who began expressing doubts about him. The White House decided not to spend political capital defending him, so this week he withdrew his name. Then he issued a bitter denunciation of "the Israel lobby" for libelling him.
He's now only a footnote in Washington political history but the Freeman incident raises interesting issues.
It casts more doubt on the Obama White House's hiring practices and reveals that Israel has some notable enemies within the U. S. government. As a drama performed mainly in the blogosphere, it demonstrates blogging's influence on national politics. And in displaying Freeman's connections, it reminds us never to underestimate Arab influence in Washington.
Freeman served in Riyadh from 1989 to 1992, the period of the Gulf War. Like many representatives of the United States, he seems to have fallen prey to the Arabic equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome (a phenomenon not unknown among Canadian diplomats). He was particularly taken with Abdullah, King of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Freeman once said, "I believe King Abdullah is very rapidly becoming Abdullah the Great."
Back in the United States, as a private citizen, Freeman became president of the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington think-tank and lobby with Saudi funding. Other connections led to questions about his independence from foreign influence. He served on the advisory board of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and made a point of depicting the Chinese government as moderate in its treatment of minorities and dissidents. At one point he called a battle between pro-independence Tibetans and Chinese police "a race riot." But most of the criticism focused on his opinions about the Middle East.
While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) didn't make a public issue of his appointment, bloggers sympathetic to Israel passed around Freeman's most indiscreet opinions. In 2005, in a speech to the National Council on U. S.-Arab Relations, he described Israel's "high-handed and self-defeating policies." He accused Israel of trying "to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle." He seemed to think that American aid to Israel had caused the Twin Towers attack. In 2006, speaking to Middle East policy analysts in Washington, he said that the Americans had for many years paid heavily in cash to support Israel's approach to the Arabs: "Five years ago we began to pay with the blood of our citizens."
When he announced he was withdrawing from the intelligence job he wrote an open letter arguing that Israel's supporters were trying to prevent any view other than their own from being aired. "The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonour 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."
He didn't mention any specific lies, which was perhaps one reason why The Washington Post editorial page called his letter a "crackpot tirade." Elsewhere in The Washington Post, David S. Broder depicted the anti-Freeman campaign as regrettable and mourned the loss of an able public servant. Joe Klein of Time magazine said the campaign against Freeman was the work of a mob of Jewish neo-conservatives. The Los Angeles Times argued that Washington needs more anti-Israel views. That will sound strange in Jerusalem, where the government feels pressured to fall in line with U. S. policy, perhaps above all on Iran.
What impressed me about the blogging on this occasion was that much of it, pro-Freeman or anti-Freeman, came from long-established publications, including weeklies like The New Republic, Time and The Weekly Standard, all of which publish blogs by their various writers. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, for instance, had plenty of time to criticize Freeman, get criticized in return for that, then respond to his withdrawal. From 1857 until recent times, The Atlantic Monthly came out once a month. Now, responding to news every morning, it should properly be called The Atlantic Daily, or maybe, during hectic news periods, The Atlantic Hourly.