A Proxy Battle Over Obama's Mideast Policy?

The fight over Amb. Charles Freeman highlights the domestic politics of foreign policy.

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The staffing of the National Intelligence Council doesn't ordinarily excite much attention, let alone controversy, but last week a nasty political fight over the selection of former Ambassador Charles "Chas" Freeman Jr. as its chairman burgeoned to the point that Freeman withdrew.

The factors behind Freeman's decision reflect much more than a routine dispute over the suitability of a prospective administration official (and had nothing to do with unpaid taxes). Instead, they involve sensitive issues at the intersection of American domestic politics and foreign policy: unstinting support for Israeli actions, the role of pro-Israel activists in the United States, the tolerable range of diversity in views about the Middle East held by senior officials, the politicization of intelligence, and the bad blood between "realist" thinkers like Freeman and the "neoconservatives" they blame for derailing foreign policy during the Bush administration.At times, the exchanges in the blogosphere over Freeman seemed like a proxy battle over the Obama administration's future Mideast policy.

To be sure, Freeman, 66, is not your ordinary Washington foreign policy player. An iconoclastic diplo-savant fluent in Chinese, Spanish, and French and conversational in Arabic, he sports an uncommon array of experience and an uncommon propensity for candor. He served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Persian Gulf War, negotiated in southern Africa, ran Chinese affairs at the State Department, and even served as a translator for President Richard Nixon in Beijing on his breakthrough 1972 visit. In recent years, as head of the Middle East Policy Council, a nonpartisan think tank, Freeman drew attention in policy circles as a biting critic of Israel's approach to the Palestinians and U.S. policy toward Israel and of the missteps of the Bush "diplomacy-free" foreign policy, as he put it an interview with U.S. News last fall.

Freeman's detractors saw a biased, anti-Israel figure. His admirers instead saw in his bluntness and wide-ranging intellect an ideal fit for the NIC job. "If you want bland, business-school analysis, he's not the person to go to," said Jonathan Clarke, a former British diplomat and friend who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

The broader fight over Freeman coursed from pro-Israel and conservative bloggers to op-ed pages to Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers were lobbying the White House against Freeman. One day before he withdrew, all seven Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee challenged his impartiality and vowed to step up "oversight scrutiny" of his future analyses. House Republicans sought a probe of Freeman's ties to Saudi and Chinese interests and drilled on the point that his think tank had received some of its funding from the Saudi royal family. Remarks by Freeman about the Chinese crackdown on democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square also drew criticism.

Freeman, in an E-mail to supporters, decried "tactics of the Israel Lobby" that "include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record." He added, "The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views."

Critics seized on that blast as validating their concerns, while others in the foreign policy world see the flap as emblematic of the rough-and-tumble domestic politics of Mideast issues, including the selection of appointees who will influence policy. "This indicates," says Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, "that we are in for a turbulent battle ahead inside the Obama foreign policy team and inside Congress.