Charles Freeman, Roger Cohen and the changing Israel debate

The right-wing, Israel-centric stranglehold over our political debates is clearly eroding.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II)

Anyone who doubts that there has been a substantial — and very positive — change in the rules for discussing American policy towards Israel should consider two recent episodes:  (1) the last three New York Times columns by Roger Cohen; and (2) the very strong pushback from a diverse range of sources against the neoconservative lynch mob trying, in typical fashion, to smear and destroy Charles Freeman due to his critical (in all senses of the word) views of American policy towards Israel.  One positive aspect of the wreckage left by the Bush presidency is that many of the most sacred Beltway pieties stand exposed as intolerable failures, prominently including our self-destructively blind enabling of virtually all Israeli actions.

First, the Cohen columns:  Two weeks ago, Cohen — writing from Iran — mocked the war-seeking cartoon caricature of that nation as The New Nazi Germany craving a Second Holocaust.  To do so, Cohen reported on the relatively free and content Iranian Jewish community (25,000 strong).  When that column prompted all sorts of predictable attacks on Cohen from the standard cast of Israel-centric thought enforcers (Jeffrey Goldberg, National Review, right-wing blogs, etc. etc.), Cohen wrote a second column breezily dismissing those smears and then bolstering his arguments further by pointing out that “significant margins of liberty, even democracy, exist” in Iran; that “Iran has not waged an expansionary war in more than two centuries”;  and that “hateful, ultranationalist rhetoric is no Iranian preserve” given the ascension of Avigdor Lieberman in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Israeli government.



Today, Cohen returns with his most audacious column yet.  Noting the trend in Britain and elsewhere to begin treating Hezbollah and Hamas as what they are — namely, “organizations [that are] now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible,” rather than pure “Terrorist organizations” that must be shunned — Cohen urges the Obama administration to follow this trend:  the U.S. should ”should initiate diplomatic contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah” and even ”look carefully at how to reach moderate Hamas elements.”  As for the objection that those two groups have used violence in the past, Cohen offers the obvious response, though does so quite eloquently:

Speaking of violence, it’s worth recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; and destroyed thousands of Gaza homes. It continues a radicalizing blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land.

At this vast human, material and moral price, Israel achieved almost nothing beyond damage to its image throughout the world. Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel’s actions.

No wonder Hamas and Hezbollah are seen throughout the Arab world as legitimate resistance movements.

So absolute has the Israel-centric stranglehold on American policy been that the U.S. Government has made it illegal to broadcast Hezbollah television stations and has even devoted its resources to criminally prosecuting and imprisoning satellite providers merely for including Hezbollah’s Al Manar channel in their cable package.  Not even our Constitution’s First Amendment has been a match for the endless exploitation of American policy, law and resources to target and punish Israel’s enemies.  But this trilogy of Cohen columns reflects the growing awareness of just how self-destructive is that mentality and, more importantly, the growing refusal to refrain from saying so.

* * * * *

The still-expanding battle over the appointment of Charles Freeman by Obama’s DNI, Adm. Dennis Blair, provides even more compelling evidence.  I’m not going to detail all of the facts surrounding this controversy because so many others have done such an excellent job of arguing the case — particularly Andrew Sullivan (all week) and Stephen Walt — and the crux of the matter was summarized perfectly last night by Josh Marshall:

The real rub, the basis of the whole controversy, however, is that [Freeman] has been far more critical of Israeli policy than is generally allowed within acceptable debate in Washington. . .

The whole effort strikes me as little more than a thuggish effort to keep the already too-constricted terms of debate over the Middle East and Israel/Palestine locked down and largely one-sided. . . . But the gist is that campaigns like this are ugly and should be resisted. Not just on general principles, but because the country needs more diversity of viewpoints on this issue right now.

Precisely.  The Atlantic‘s James Fallows and Daniel Larison both compellingly document that the real issue here is whether the suffocating prohibition on government officials’ questioning U.S. policy toward Israel will continue, or whether the range of permissive debate on this vital question will finally be expanded.  The Freeman appointment is so important precisely because it signals that rejecting the long-standing orthodoxy on Israel is no longer disqualifying when it comes to high level government positions [and, perhaps as importantly, that it's now even permissible to raise the previously verboten point that perhaps one of the reasons why many Muslims want to attack the U.S. is because the U.S. (both on its own and through Israel) has spent decades continuously attacking, bombing, invading, occupying and otherwise interfering in Muslim countries].   

Ezra Klein argues, persuasively, that even if Freeman ends up being appointed, the lynch-mob smear campaign will still have achieved its purpose:

But for Freeman’s detractors, a loss might still be a win. As Sullivan and others have documented, the controversy over Freeman is fundamentally a question of his views on Israel. Barring a bad report from the inspector general, Chas Freeman will survive and serve. But only because his appointment doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Few, however, will want to follow where he led. Freeman’s career will likely top out at Director of the NIC. That’s not a bad summit by any means. But for ambitious foreign policy thinkers who might one day aspire to serve in a confirmed capacity, the lesson is clear: Israel is off-limits. And so, paradoxically, the freethinking Freeman’s appointment might do quite a bit to silence foreign policy dissenters who want to succeed in Washington.

There is, by design, definitely a chilling effect to these smear campaigns.  Freeman is being dragged through the mud by the standard cast of accusatory Israel-centric neocons (Marty Peretz, Jon Chait, Jeffrey Goldberg, Commentary, The Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb, etc. etc., etc.), subjected to every standard, baseless smear, as a warning to others who think about challenging U.S. policy towards Israel in a similar way.  Ultimately, though, I think that each time one of these swarming, hate-campaigns is swatted away, they incrementally lose their efficacy, emboldening others to risk their weakening wrath. 

Ultimately, the greatest weapon to defeat these campaigns is to highlight the identity and behavior of their perpetrators.  Just consider who is behind the attack on Freeman; how ugly and discredited are their tactics and ideology; and, most importantly, how absurd it is, given their disgraceful history, that they — of all people — would parade around as arbiters of “ideological extremism” and, more audaciously still, as credible judges of intelligence assessment.  Sullivan compiled a comprehensive time line demonstrating that the attacks on Freeman originated and were amplified by the very same people for whom American devotion to Israel is the overriding if not exclusive priority and who have been so glaringly wrong about so much.  Though they have since tried, with characteristic deceit and cowardice, to disguise their agenda by pretending to oppose Freeman on other, non-Israel grounds (such as their oh-so-authentic concern for Chinese human rights), that masquerading effort — as Matt Yglesias notes here — is so transparently dishonest as to be laughable.

Indeed, some of them, early on, were perfectly honest about the fact that Freeman’s views on Israel is what has motivated their opposition, including the Israel-based “concerns” over the appointment voiced by Sen. Chuck Schumer to Rahm Emanuel.  And — demonstrating that these taboos are still formidible — Schumer’s sentiments have since been echoed by unnamed “Democratic leaders.”  Chuck Schumer, along with Dianne Feinstein, single-handedly enabled the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as Attorney General despite Mukaseky’s refusal to say that waterboarding was torture (and Schumer even voted to confirm Michael Hayden as CIA Director despite his overseeing Bush’s illegal NSA program).  Yet Obama appoints someone who is critical of Israel and who questions American policy towards Israel, and Schumer springs into action by calling Rahm Emanuel to express “concern” over the appointment.  

It’s not a mystery what is behind this attack on Freeman.  As Spencer Ackerman wrote last week:

Basically, Freeman’s major sin is that he doesn’t take a simplistic or blinkered view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a number of mostly-right-wing Jewish writers at Commentary, the Weekly Standard, the Atlantic and The New Republic have been arguing that he’s not fit to serve.

That’s really the crux of the issue here:  are we going to continue to allow these actual extremists to define “extremism” and dictate the acceptable range of views when it comes to Middle East policy?

As Ackerman noted the other day, one of the leading anti-Freeman generals is AIPAC’s Steve Rosen, who has been indicted for passing American secrets onto the Israeli Government.  That’s almost satire:  an AIPAC official accused of spying for a foreign country purporting to lead the charge against Freeman based on Freeman’s “extremism” and excessive ties to another Middle Eastern country.

Or consider the Washington Post Op-Ed by The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait railing that Freeman — who opposed the attack on Iraq –  is an “ideological fanatic.”  That’s the very same Jonathan Chait who spent 2002 and 2003 running around demanding that we invade Iraq and who even went on national television to declare: ”I don’t think you can argue that a regime change in Iraq won’t demonstrably and almost immediately improve the living conditions of the Iraqi people.”  That’s someone who — after spending years working for Marty Peretz — thinks he’s in a position to demonize others as being “ideological extremists” and unfit to assess intelligence reports and to define the legitimate parameters of the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East.  To describe Chait’s view of himself is to illustrate its absurdity.  

Or review the rank propaganda and/or glaring ignorance spread by anti-Freeman crusade leader Jeffrey Goldberg before the Iraq War.  Or just read this painfully deceitful, humiliatingly error-plagued 2003 column from Freeman critic Michael Moynihan of Reason.   And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the Weekly Standard and National Review propagandists purporting to sit in judgment of what constitutes mainstream views towards Israel.  Just looking at the opponents of Freeman and their reckless history powerfully conveys how disastrous it would be to continue to allow this extremist clique, of all people, to continue to dictate the scope of legitimate debate over Israel, the Middle East and our intelligence policies generally.  It’s like allowing Dick Cheney and John Yoo to dictate what constitutes mainstream legal opinion and to reject prospective judges as being “extremists” on Constitutional questions.

Summing up the attacks on Freeman, Andrew Sullivan wrote that he finds “the hysterical bullying of this man to be repulsive.”  There’s no question about that.  Hysterical bullying — rank character smearing — is what they’ve been doing for many years in an attempt to intimidate people out of dissenting from their so-called ”pro-Israel” orthodoxies.  But last night, Sullivan made the more important observation about this controversy:

The idea that Obama should not have advisers who challenge some of the core assumptions of the Bush years, especially with respect to Israel-Palestine, seems nuts to me. And the impulse to blackball and smear someone as a bigot is reprehensible.

It’s destructive enough to artificially limit debate on a matter as consequential as U.S. policy towards Israel.  We’ve been doing that for many years now.  But it’s so much worse that the people who have been defining and dictating those limits are themselves extremists in every sense of that word when it comes to Israel and U.S. policy towards that country.  Their demands that no distinctions be recognized between Israeli and Americans interests have been uniquely destructive for the U.S.  Few things are more urgent than an expansion of the debate over U.S. policy in this area, which is exactly why this radical lynch mob is swarming with such intensity to destroy Freeman’s reputation and fortify the limitations on our debates which, for so long, they have thuggishly enforced.  If someone like Freeman can occupy a position like Chair of the National Intelligence Council — handpicked by Obama’s DNI, an Admiral — the taboos they are so desperate to maintain will erode just that much further.

 

UPDATE:  Greg Sargent reports that six of the most right-wing GOP Senators have now joined Chuck Schumer and other “Democratic leaders” by objecting to Freeman’s appointment, thus forming the perfectly bipartisan attack in the U.S. that always emerges towards any critics of Israel.  There are legitimate concerns about Freeman which have been raised — including whether, as Reason‘s Matt Welch suggests, his long-standing, elaborate ties to Saudi Arabia impede his objectivity (though all anyone has to do is look at people like Elliot Abrams, Dennis Ross, Richard Perle and Doug Feith (or even Rahm Emanuel) to know that extensive ties to foreign Middle Eastern countries aren’t considered disqualifying for high government posts).  And long-time China resident James Fallows — here and here — demonstrates how pretextual are the objections to Freeman based on his positions towards China.

Credit, at least, to the 6 anti-Freeman GOP Senators who (unlike Jon Chait) are at least honest enough to admit that Freeman’s views on Israel are a central cause for their opposition.  At least with that sort of candor, it becomes apparent that the real question posed by the Freeman appointment is:  “must one pledge allegiance to the right-wing, ‘pro-Israel’ agenda in order to serve in a high position in the American Government, or may one question and even oppose that agenda?”

 

UPDATE II:  Three related items:

(1)  The answer to the question posed by Andrew Sullivan here is “no.”

(2)  In one short post, former McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb manages to demonstrate that he (a) doesn’t understand and/or believe in the First Amendment and (b) doesn’t understand and/or recognize the difference between Al Qaeda and Hezbollah.  None of those deficiencies is remotely unusual for The Weekly Standard.

(3)  Greg Sargent notes and documents the surge in defense of Freeman by a wide range of commentators.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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