Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Freeman and the Lobby

This article in the London Review of Books by John Mearsheimer (of Walt and Mearsheimer, authors of "The Israel Lobby") dissects what happened with the failed Chas Freeman appointment and what it means for the power of AIPAC specifically and "the lobby" generally.

Mearsheimer examines what was new in this round: that while the mainstream media took no notice of the battle until it was over, the pushback in the blogosphere was smart and intense: "a vigorous,
well-informed and highly regarded array of bloggers defended Freeman at
every turn and would probably have carried the day had Congress not
tipped the scales against them."

This is an important point, but i think it doesn't pick up on the obvious conclusion: bloggers alone, no matter how well-informed, rarely if ever have the power to convince Congress of anything.

For that what is needed is an organized, nimble,strategic, large constituency of people who could successfully counter-act AIPAC. We're not there (yet) but Mearsheimer suggests, by inference, that as space opens up in American discourse to talk about the "special relationship" with Israel, there could be.

--Rebecca Vilkomerson


The Lobby Falters

John Mearsheimer
London Review of Books, 26 March 2009

Many people in Washington were surprised when the Obama administration
tapped Charles Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, the
body that oversees the production of National Intelligence Estimates:
Freeman had a distinguished 30-year career as a diplomat and Defense
Department official, but he has publicly criticised Israeli policy and
America's special relationship with Israel, saying, for example, in a
speech in 2005, that 'as long as the United States continues
unconditionally to provide the subsidies and political protection that
make the Israeli occupation and the high-handed and self-defeating
policies it engenders possible, there is little, if any, reason to hope
that anything resembling the former peace process can be resurrected.'

Words like these are rarely spoken in public in Washington, and anyone
who does use them is almost certain not to get a high-level government
position. But Admiral Dennis Blair, the new director of national
intelligence, greatly admires Freeman: just the sort of person, he
thought, to revitalise the intelligence community, which had been very
politicised in the Bush years.

Predictably alarmed, the Israel lobby launched a smear campaign against
Freeman, hoping that he would either quit or be fired by Obama. The
opening salvo came in a blog posting by Steven Rosen, a former official
of Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, now under
indictment for passing secrets to Israel. Freeman's views of the Middle
East, he said, 'are what you would expect in the Saudi Foreign
Ministry, with which he maintains an extremely close relationship'.
Prominent pro-Israel journalists such as Jonathan Chait and Martin
Peretz of the New Republic, and Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic,
quickly joined the fray and Freeman was hammered in publications that
consistently defend Israel, such as the National Review, the Wall
Street Journal and the Weekly Standard.
The real heat, however, came from Congress, where Aipac (which
describes itself as 'America's Pro-Israel Lobby') wields enormous
power. All the Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee
came out against Freeman, as did key Senate Democrats such as Joseph
Lieberman and Charles Schumer. 'I repeatedly urged the White House to
reject him,' Schumer said, 'and I am glad they did the right thing.'

It was the same story in the House, where the charge was led by Republican
Mark Kirk and Democrat Steve Israel, who pushed Blair to initiate a
formal investigation of Freeman's finances. In the end, the Speaker of
the House, Nancy Pelosi, declared the Freeman appointment 'beyond the

Freeman might have survived this onslaught had the White House
stood by him. But Barack Obama's pandering to the Israel lobby during
the campaign and his silence during the Gaza War show that this is one
opponent he is not willing to challenge. True to form, he remained
silent and Freeman had little choice but to withdraw.

The lobby has since gone to great lengths to deny its role in Freeman's
resignation. The Aipac spokesman Josh Block said his organisation 'took
no position on this matter and did not lobby the Hill on it'. The
Washington Post, whose editorial page is run by Fred Hiatt, a man
staunchly committed to the special relationship, ran an editorial which
claimed that blaming the lobby for Freeman's resignation was something
dreamed up by 'Mr Freeman and like-minded conspiracy theorists'.

In fact, there is abundant evidence that Aipac and other hardline
supporters of Israel were deeply involved in the campaign. Block
admitted that he had spoken to reporters and bloggers about Freeman and
provided them with information, always on the understanding that his
comments would not be attributed to him or to Aipac. Jonathan Chait,
who denied that Israel was at the root of the controversy before
Freeman was toppled, wrote afterwards: 'Of course I recognise that the
Israel lobby is powerful and was a key element in the pushback against
Freeman, and that it is not always a force for good.' Daniel Pipes, who
runs the Middle East Forum, where Steven Rosen now works, quickly sent
out an email newsletter boasting about Rosen's role in bringing Freeman

On 12 March, the day the Washington Post ran its editorial railing
against anyone who suggested that the Israel lobby had helped topple
Freeman, the paper also published a front-page story describing the
central role that the lobby had played in the affair. There was also a
comment piece by the veteran journalist David Broder, which opened with
the words: 'The Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing
defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in
their place.'

Freeman's critics maintain that his views on Israel were not his only
problem. He is said to have especially close – maybe even improper –
ties to Saudi Arabia, where he previously served as American
ambassador. The charge hasn't stuck, however, because there is no
evidence for it. Israel's supporters also said that he had made
insensitive remarks about what happened to the Chinese protesters at
Tiananmen Square, but that charge, which his defenders contest, only
came up because Freeman's pro-Israel critics were looking for any
argument they could muster to damage his reputation.

Why does the lobby care so much about one appointment to an important,
but not top leadership position? Here's one reason: Freeman would have
been responsible for the production of National Intelligence Estimates.
Israel and its American supporters were outraged when the National
Intelligence Council concluded in November 2007 that Iran was not
building nuclear weapons, and they have worked assiduously to undermine
that report ever since. The lobby wants to make sure that the next
estimate of Iran's nuclear capabilities reaches the opposite
conclusion, and that would have been much less likely to happen with
Freeman in charge. Better to have someone vetted by Aipac running the

An even more important reason for the lobby to drive Freeman out of his
job is the weakness of the case for America's present policy towards
Israel, which makes it imperative to silence or marginalise anyone who
criticises the special relationship. If Freeman hadn't been punished,
others would see that one could talk critically about Israel and still
have a successful career in Washington. And once you get an open and
free-wheeling discussion about Israel, the special relationship will be
in serious trouble.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Freeman affair was that the
mainstream media paid it little attention – the New York Times, for
example, did not run a single story dealing with Freeman until the day
after he stepped down – while a fierce battle over the appointment took
place in the blogosphere. Freeman's opponents used the internet to
their advantage; that is where Rosen launched the campaign. But
something happened there that would never have happened in the
mainstream media: the lobby faced real opposition. Indeed, a vigorous,
well-informed and highly regarded array of bloggers defended Freeman at
every turn and would probably have carried the day had Congress not
tipped the scales against them. In short, the internet enabled a
serious debate in the United States about an issue involving Israel.

The lobby has never had much trouble keeping the New York Times and the
Washington Post in line, but it has few ways to silence critics on the

When pro-Israel forces clashed with a major political figure in the
past, that person usually backed off. Jimmy Carter, who was smeared by
the lobby after he published Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, was the
first prominent American to stand his ground and fight back. The lobby
has been unable to silence him, and it is not for lack of trying.
Freeman is following in Carter's footsteps, but with sharper elbows.

After stepping down, he issued a blistering denunciation of
'unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a
political faction in a foreign country' whose aim is 'to prevent any
view other than its own from being aired'. 'There is,' he continued, '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.'
Freeman's remarkable statement has shot all around the world and been
read by countless individuals. This isn't good for the lobby, which
would have preferred to kill Freeman's appointment without leaving any
fingerprints. But Freeman will continue to speak out about Israel and
the lobby, and maybe some of his natural allies inside the Beltway will
eventually join him. Slowly but steadily, space is being opened up in
the United States to talk honestly about Israel.

John Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service
Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News archive and blog: http://jewishpeacenews.blogspot.com
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