There was a lot I didn't like about the Chas Freeman debacle, but the thing I did not like most was the degree to which it offered apparent support to the "theories" of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
Freeman's own response to his lynching-by-blog cited the Israel lobby in language so full of anger that you can easily tell it was written in the heat of the moment. For those who would argue this proves he was too intemperate for the job, please. He was publicly pilloried, his exceptional career negated by arguments that were for the most part lies and distortions. He had been unable to respond publicly to them for weeks. Frustration built up. And frankly it is easy to see how and why he may have concluded that his downfall was proof of the existence of the Israel lobby. Personally, I have really been struggling with that issue for the past few days myself, wondering whether it was time to acknowledge that perhaps Walt was right.
Walt, needless to say, did a little
victory dance as well, offering
commentary that was supposedly focused on the injustice done to Freeman but
which really was a smug "I told you so" laden with a list of
co-conspirators with names so Jewish that I could hardly read it without
cringing. He added his obligatory "some of my best friends are
Jewish" sentence listing some Jewish supporters of Freeman and threw in
his tired old "I am the one who is a real friend of Israel" trope
saying, as he always does, "I really have the best interests of that country at
heart and if they would only listen to me they would be much better off."
Freeman, I can forgive. He had every reason to be angry. Walt, not now, not ever, because whatever the pale intellectual merits of his hackneyed argument may be, he and Mearsheimer know full well that their prominence on this issue has come not because they have had a single new insight but rather because they were willing and one can only believe inclined to play to a crowd whose "views" were fueled by prejudice and worse. They may not be anti-Semites themselves but they made a cynical decision to cash in on anti-Semitism by offering to dress up old hatreds in the dowdy Brooks Brothers suits of the Kennedy School and the University of Chicago. They did what the most desperate members of academia do, they signed up to be rent-a-validators, akin to expert witnesses who support the defense of felons with specious theories served up on fancy diplomas. They would argue that they were daring to speak truth to power. In reality they were giving one crowd in particular precisely what it wanted to hear.
Believe me I don't lightly come to the ultimate conclusion that this incident should not change my view of their work. I was appalled by the mob mentality generated by the blog debate on the Freeman nomination. It produced some serious misgivings on my part regarding even being involved in the blogosphere because so much of what passes for discourse in this world is undistilled opinion and emotion designed to bind and stir up like-minded audiences. The rest is more like grafitti than thoughtful commentary, designed to leave a wannabe commentator's mark on the side of a passing issue.
There is no doubt that a small group of virulent supporters of Israel were at the heart of the movement to undo Freeman. This group was very effective in getting its message out and in mobilizing some in the government such as Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer to become their advocates. That in this instance, this small group acted to lobby on behalf of what they viewed as the interests of both Israel and the United States cannot be denied. But here is where the Walt argument starts to break down for me. The implication is that because these people had an interest in Israel, they put that interest before that of the United States, and I know for a fact that many of the people listed by Walt as Freeman's attackers certainly do not. Walt self-servingly implies that because some argue for strong U.S. support for Israel that means they are not putting America's interests first -- whereas it is also possible (and I think for the most part true) that these people feel that it is precisely because they put U.S. interests first that they end up advocating a close relationship with our most dependable ally in the Middle East.
You want to debate whether Israel is a good ally? Fine. I'm ok with that. It even seems like a reasonable thing to do on an on-going basis as far as I am concerned.
My problem comes with the implication that those who support Israel are necessarily twisted by dual loyalties into positions that undermine the interests of the United States whereas those whose position is essentially to step back from America's historically strong support for Israel are "realists" who somehow have the best interests of the U.S. at heart...that somehow Walt & Co. are better Americans.
That's the insidious heart of this. (Although there is almost something comical about arguing that it is "realist" to bank on the benefits that will accrue from better relations with Arab regimes that are notoriously willing to say one thing publicly today and do something entirely different later on and which are, in a number of case, at serious risk of being toppled. This is precisely the brand of "realism" that led to our successful support of the Shah, Pinochet, Marcos, Suharto, and a host of other leaders who have permanently tarnished America's reputation in the world. )
Furthermore, of course, there are several other problems with the Walt argument that remain even after the events surrounding Freeman's appointment. First, is related to an earlier point: The implication that when the U.S. government supports Israel it's because of the actions of this lobby and not because it is actually in the interests of the United States to support Israel. There is the notion that support for Israel comes from a monolithic group rather than one that is not only ethnically, geographically, economically, and otherwise diverse but one that holds a variety of nuanced views on a host of issues regarding Israel and the Middle East.
There is also the idea that somehow this group is so powerful that it is dictating policy rather than trying to influence it like every other lobbying group in Washington, that somehow it is privileged or more successful among interest groups. More successful than the farm lobby in winning government appropriations? Hardly. And our farm subsidies because they are so hugely distortionary to trade are a source of tensions in a host of relations worldwide. More effective than a Cuba lobby that has gotten the United States to support a ridiculous, failed policy for 50 years? Not. (We allow more open exchange with North Korea than we do with Cuba, an impoverished, literally crumbling nation with no strategic significance whatsoever.) More inclined to put cultural considerations first than any of this country's national or ethnic special interest groups? Come on. Why, why, why, you have to ask yourself would you want to single out this lobby for special criticism? And why, if your purpose was to argue for a different U.S. policy in the Middle East, would you choose to focus your efforts on attacking the people who support an opposing view rather than on the merits of the policy you advocated? What makes the idea of this particular lobby more sinister than all those farmers or Cubans or African-Americans or gays or union members or Arabs or Taiwanese or Christians?
No, there is only one reason to argue that the Israel lobby is somehow special or of special significance. It is to suggest that American policy in the Middle East is being driven by the interests of an especially unsavory group of ultra-powerful people who are masters at manipulating Washington. And we know who they are right? Well, actually, we do...it's the oil companies. But therein lies my point. The "Israel Lobby" is a distraction, a distortion and a vessel in which to carry and by which to explain and even excuse the hatreds and prejudices of a small group. It distorts reality, implies coordination where there is none, implies consensus across a group of people with widely divergent views, misinterprets the actions of a few as a plan of the many, overstates the influence of those it argues are involved, indicts the motives associated with a whole class of ideas enabling them to be dismissed before they are fairly considered, and seeks to argue that normal behavior in a democracy is somehow sinister for one group when it is healthy for others. Further, it tars opponents as members of a lowly lobby while reserving the intellectual and moral high ground for the views of Walt & Co. -- "you lobby, we are patriots."
Did a small group of misinformed, intellectually intolerant individuals stir up a wave of criticism of Chas Freeman that distorted his record to the point that it was impossible for him to assume the role for which he was nominated? Yes. Are many associated with historical support for Israel? Yes. In so doing did they lead to a great disservice being done to Freeman and to the U.S. government? Also yes. But is it fair to say that they represented the views of the broad spectrum of people who support a strong U.S. relationship with Israel? No. Is it fair to say that all were part of an orchestrated attack? No. Further, while I hate what happened, as Americans we must defend the right of the Freeman opponents to lay out their views...and many of those concerns, the ones based on facts, were perfectly legitimate to raise. The problem is when political leaders cave to the sentiments of the electronic mob. In so doing, it is they and not the critics of the choice who debase the process and rob the government of the diversity of perspectives it needs. The actions and arguments of some members the anti-Freeman crowd disgusted me. But it was in the capitulation to them that the greatest disservice was done.
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So Chas Freeman withdrew his nomination to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. The people who fed the debate that led to his withdrawal have cost the United States intelligence and policy communities the benefit of a truly unique mind and set of perspectives. They have also contributed to what can only be characterized as a leadership crisis in the U.S. government.
The genesis of that crisis is that we have lost perspective on what the criteria for selecting and approving government officials ought to be. Financial trivia, minutiae from people's personal lives and political litmus tests have grown in importance while character, experience, intelligence, creativity and wisdom have fallen by the wayside. Ridiculous threshold obstacles stand alongside obscene ones and when taken with the relentless personal attacks associated with high level jobs in Washington -- the low pay, and the extreme difficulty of getting anything done -- we are seeing even those selected for senior jobs turn away in droves. We are at a moment of not one but an extraordinary array of great crises and challenges for America and we are effectively keeping the people we need most out of the positions we most need filled.
The United States will get along fine without Freeman and without each and every one of the casualties of this latest hiring cycle. But we will ultimately suffer irreparable damage if we do not reverse this pernicious trend. Further, those who celebrate keeping out Freeman or any others whose views do not align with theirs or who feared his associations would do well to remember that the same kind of criteria can be applied by other groups. The result is not a government of people without conflicts of interest or troubling ties, rather it is a government full of people whose conflicts and ties are with groups powerful enough to protect them. This among other reasons is why I, as a Jew with a memory, was so opposed to the attacks on Freeman. But for the record, the most compelling reason I found for believing Chas Freeman would have been a superb Chairman of the National Intelligence Council was one that seldom came up in all the articles I read. I actually know him.
The debate over the Chas Freeman appointment continues and it is worth briefly re-engaging because it frames several important points. The notion, argued by some critics of the potential appointment, that there is no room in the U.S. government for people who are skeptical of Israeli policies or for people who are not in lockstep with one view of say, Saudi Arabia, is both absurd and dangerous.
First, this is the U.S. government we are talking about, folks. Our interests very often align with those of Israel, but sometimes they do not. It would be helpful to have people in the government who know the difference. Indeed, as someone who has studied the policy making process of the U.S. government pretty closely, it is my sense that it always functions better -- which is to say the president is always served best -- when he has at his disposal a full range of views, when he is presented by informed choices. Groupthink is, as we all have seen fairly recently, one of the great dangers within any administration. So, too is bland think and policy made by people without the intellectual strengths, creativity, experience, and candor that Chas Freeman inarguably would bring to the NIC job.
Further, however, a number of the "offending" quotes attributed to Freeman are taken out of context (as is the China quote in the WSJ op-ed yesterday) or are simply not representative of the full range of views offered by Freeman. His greatest strength is that he is not a reflexive thinker like so many in Washington, that despite all these efforts to the contrary he is not someone a fair-minded observer can easily pigeonhole in terms of his positions. This is due in part to the fact that he is not someone who is limited by having had experience in just one area of the world. In short, again, he is someone with precisely the background and temperament called for by the job.
But there is a bigger issue here. Let's leave the Freeman question aside. Instead, let's ask whether it is good for U.S. national interests to have a government comprised solely of people who share a set of views on key geopolitical issues? On this point, it's probably instructive to begin with a look at the most recent Israeli election or any recent Israeli election for that matter. There is hardly unity among the Israelis on the core issues confronting their country. We're somehow expecting American policymakers to offer more intellectual consistency on these questions than the Israelis themselves? But of course, our interests extend across the region.
Understanding and even effectively articulating the views of all the players in the Middle East will be essential to the formulation of sound U.S. policies. There is no lasting peace in the Middle East that will be achieved by cleaving to the views of just one side or the other.
When, during the key moments of formulating U.S. policy on any international issue, has the U.S. government contained within its senior ranks an absolutely monolithic view? Debates over ideological and policy differences have been the crucible in which many of our biggest and best decisions have been forged. Indeed, smart presidents have used the differences to shape nuanced policies, to stress-test ideas and to build consensus.
Perhaps the best example is the Solarium Project, conceived by President Eisenhower to address the deep divisions within his own party as to whether the U.S. should aggressively confront the Soviets or whether we should take a different approach to containing and offsetting the threat they posed. He brought representatives of different viewpoints together and got them to exchange their views and together to shape policy options on which he could act. To be sure, he was in part helping to defuse pressures from some of the most extreme members of his party, but the conclusions helped form the foundation for policies that ultimately influenced in important ways how the U.S. won the Cold War.
Throughout modern U.S. foreign policy history we have seen great divisions on all the big issues we have faced. General George Marshall walked out on a meeting with Harry Truman when considering statehood for Israel. Should the view that led him to do this have disqualified him -- arguably America's most revered 20th century secretary of state -- from his government service? Today there are two very different schools of thought on the intentions and way to handle the government of Russia. There are similar divisions about how to handle China...as an invaluable strategic partner or as our greatest strategic threat. Similar differences also exist with regard to Pakistan. In each of these cases is there only to be one viewpoint allowed inside the U.S. government?
Not only is it dangerous and contrary to our interests to employ such litmus tests, it is not practical. Senior officials hold diverse views. Which Nixon or Kissinger do you allow into the U.S. government, the men who launched the secret war on Cambodia or the ones who sought détente with Russia and opening to China? Which Begin or Sadat, the warriors or the peacemakers? You get the idea. If we set a standard of ideological purity and consistency for senior officials that is as unyielding as some of Freeman's critics seem to desire, then what will we end up with? Who will meet that standard? What kind of internal debate will we have in the government? What is the next step, to root out government officials whose views also deviate from what is desirable on key issues? Do we build a government in which no one has any sympathy or understanding for the views of Arabs or the Chinese?
Clearly such approaches would only damage the interests of the one group of people our government is supposed to serve...Americans.
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.