15 March 2009

Got him!

The Obama Administration’s capitulation to the online campaign to derail the appointment of former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman to the post of Chairman, National Intelligence Council, simply confirms what was already obvious from the behaviour of the Secretary of State on her first visit to the Middle East (see previous post No way to do business in the Middle East) – that the Administration has neither the intention nor the “ticker” to bring anything new to the search for a solution to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, or to peacemaking in the Middle East generally.

Much of the noisy response to Freeman’s withdrawal of his nomination fails to identify the key issues. The questions being debated are:

(1) Whether he was the right person, subsets of which are questions about whether he had some sort of bias towards Israel, or whether his commercial advisory links to China and the Middle East would create a conflict of interest, and

(2) Did he jump or was he pushed, and if he was pushed, who got him?

I would frame the issues somewhat differently:

(1) I have no way of knowing whether or not Freeman was the “right” person; what we do know is that Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair thought he was the right person, and wrote to the relevant Congressional Representatives strongly supporting his nomination (full text of Admiral Blair’s letter here).

(2) Whether he jumped or was pushed, his departure was due to the reaction to his proposed appointment by Israel’s partisans within the United States, and he is not happy (text of Freeman’s statement about his withdrawal here).

(3) Having been nominated, he became the Administration’s “man”, and it should have supported his candidature with determination, but there is no sign that the White House did anything to seek to dissuade Freeman from withdrawal. They should have been imploring him to stay just to demonstrate that they are in control, but they rolled over very quickly.

(4) The episode could easily be read by people within the U.S. intelligence community as meaning that there are “no-go” areas in the National Intelligence Estimates process, a perception which no government should allow to establish itself.

(5) The message will be clear to the Israeli Government and to Israel’s partisans in the United States – it is business as usual. An Administration that did not have the stomach to win this domestic fight will not impose any unwelcome conditions on Israel in the quest for a Middle East peace settlement.

(6) Nor will this message be lost on the Arab world or in Tehran.

(7) The drama will have a chilling effect on debate within the United States about where the U.S. national interest lies in relation to Middle East issues. Any aspirant to high public office would evidently be well advised to ensure that there is nothing on the public record which is critical of Israeli actions or policy. This is an interesting phenomenon: almost every aspect of Israeli policy is vigorously debated within the mainstream Israeli media and elsewhere in Israeli public discourse, but it is not possible to have such debates amongst the highest in the land in the U.S. For Americans, it is much safer to castigate their own government than the Israeli one.

(8) It will also have a chilling effect within U.S. Government agencies at large – within all bureaucratic cultures there is high alertness to signs of how quickly people will be thrown overboard if things begin to get sticky.

For those who are interested to go to another level of detail, the comments to which Israel’s partisans most took exception are the following paragraph from Freeman’s remarks in Washington on 12 September 2005 to the 14th US-Arab Policymakers’ Conference, at the National Council on US-Arab Relations:

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. Originally intended to provide a basis for trading land for peace, the occupation has itself become the problem. As long as it continues, neither Palestinians nor Israelis will have personal security. As long as it continues, Israel will not find the acceptance by its Arab neighbors that was offered at Beirut in 2002. Moreover, the violent confrontation could at any moment, as it did in the past, spread its murder and mayhem well beyond the region. The most immediate victims of the continuing savagery and injustice in the Holy Land are, of course, Palestinians and Israelis. But their agony disturbs the peace of the world and wounds the hearts of billions beyond their borders.

The language is forthright, but the content is unexceptionable, particularly in the context of the immediately preceding paragraph, which Israel’s partisans might actually have found more problematic but been less willing to publicise:

The fact is, of course, that Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab lands is inherently violent. Occupations are acts of violence. The dispossession of people from their land is an act of violence. Preventing people from coming to and going from their own country is an act of violence. And as long as such Israeli violence against Palestinians continues, it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance and retaliation against Israelis. Mr. Sharon is far from a stupid man; he understands this. So, when he sets the complete absence of Palestinian violence as a precondition for implementing the road map or any other negotiating process, he is deliberately setting a precondition he knows can never be met.

The full text of Freeman’s address may be found here.

There has of course been a welter of commentary on websites and blogs in the United States. Examples include what Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com had to say about it here, and what Max Blumenthal of the Daily Beast had to say about it here. There is plenty more.

To get the flavour of the context within which all this takes place, it is worth reading the full texts of the speeches by Presidential Candidates Obama and Clinton to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) during at its National Convention on 4 June 2008. Obama’s speech is here and Clinton’s speech is here.

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