Memo To Obama: Bring Back Chas Freeman

by James M. Wall

Less than a month after his 2009 inauguration, President Barack Obama made a move that quietly told the Israel Lobby there was a new sheriff in town.

He selected an experienced diplomat, Chas Freeman, to serve as the new administration’s Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC).

In retrospect, it it is clear that this was one appointment he did not clear with any lobbyists, no matter how much the special interest crowd hung around the White House armed with their own suggestions for important assignments.

Laura Rozen wrote the first story about Freeman on February 19, 2009, in The Cable, a Foreign Policy blog. Since the position of NIC Chairman did not require Senate approval, it was largely unnoticed among the large number of appointments made by the President early in his first term.

This was how Laura Rozen broke the story of Freeman’s appointment:

Sources tell The Cable that Chas W. Freeman, Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, will become chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the intelligence community’s primary big-think shop and the lead body in producing national intelligence estimates.

Freeman has told associates that in the job, he will occasionally accompany Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair to give the president his daily intelligence briefing.

Freeman’s appointment was slow to surface in the main stream media. But it was noticed by the Israel Lobby, which sprang into action. The new sheriff must not be allowed any deviation from the absolutist Washington obeisance to the Israel Lobby and its congressional loyalists.

One key call went from New York Senator Chuck Schumer to the newly-minted White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel: This must not stand.

There was something out of kilter with this picture.  Freeman’s appointments had been in China and in Saudi Arabia, a U.S. Middle East ally.  What could have riled the Lobby forces into such a fury?

Those who were keeping score as each new Obama appointee surfaced, were aware that Chas Freeman had made the occasional critical remark about Israel. This was, to the Lobby, unacceptable in the man who had been named NIC chair.

Few outside intelligence circles had even heard of the NIC, but in the close network of Israel’s defenders throughout Washington, 100 percent purity was demanded of anyone holding even minimum power that might relate to Israel.

Attacks on Freeman were personal and some were ugly.  The more benign attacks were veiled, as Richard Silverstein noted in his blog at the time:

[Freeman’s] critics veil their criticism in an attack on Freeman’s close ties to Chinese and Saudi business and government interests, but make no mistake–Freeman’s sin is his outspokenness on Israel and his sympathies for Palestinian suffering.

In a Wall Writings posting I wrote after the Lobby-generated campaign against Freeman was launched (Yes Virginia, There is an Israel Lobby and It is Still Fighting Charles Freeman), I cited an excellent posting from Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard University, a scholar who “knows the Israel Lobby quite well”.

Walt is the co-author, along with John J. Mearsheimer, of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. I later wrote my own longer essay on the Freeman appointment, for Link magazine.

In his posting, Walt “identifies the cast of characters in the ‘get Freeman drama'”:

 . . As soon as the appointment was announced, a bevy of allegedly “pro-Israel” pundits leapt to attack it, in what The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss called a “thunderous, coordinated assault.”  

Freeman’s critics were the usual suspects: Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, Gabriel Schoenfeld (writing on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal), Jonah Goldberg of  National Review, Marty Peretz on his New Republic blog, and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen (yes, the same guy who is now on trial for passing classified U.S. government information to Israel). . . .

Among Freeman’s “past crimes”, according to his opponents, was that he served as an able and respected US ambassador to Saudi Arabia where he developed a good relationship with the ruling family.  Along with many other non-profit American foundations, a foundation on whose board he sits has received donations from the Saudi government.  Good for the Saudis for plowing back oil profits into good causes in the country which buys so much Saudi oil.

Just for the record, in the unlikely event Mitt Romney is elected president, remember the names cited by Walt above.  They will be leading the media vanguard of the neoconservatives who will be riding herd on Middle East policy in a Romney White House. A Romney campaign that was run on outright lies (check the record) will not hesitate to develop a foreign policy strategy that ties U.S. “security” to that of Israel’s “security”.

Of course, the Freeman story has the inevitable ending.  The Obama team left Freeman to spin in the heat and fury of the Israel Lobby attacks. There was no public indication of support from the White House.

On March 10, 2009, Freeman withdrew his name from consideration. He did not, however, go quietly. This is what he said to Laura Rozen’s The Cable blog when he announced his withdrawal from the appointment:

I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office.  The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue.  I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country.

After Freeman withdrew his name, once again the main stream media failed to point to the Israel Lobby’s role in unfairly smearing a presidential appointee. The blogosphere, however, was quick to take notice.

Ben Smith named names when he wrote in Politico:

[T]he attacks on Freeman, in the end, hinged primarily on the question of Israel, something the Democratic senators who helped break the back of the nomination Tuesday made clear.

“His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration,” said Senator Chuck Schumer in a statement. “I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.”

Hours before the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, expressed his “regret” at Freeman’s withdrawal, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) told Blair he was concerned about “statements that [Freeman]’s made that appear either to be inclined to lean against Israel or too much in favor of China.”

In particular, Freeman has described “Israeli violence against Palestinians” as a key barrier to Mideast peace.   .    .   .

Which is why, assuming President Obama is reelected,  he has an opportunity to rectify a wrong from his first term.. He should bring back Chas Freeman to a position in his administration. Freeman has not lost any of his passion nor has he lost his ability to express that passion in the measured tones of a veteran diplomat.

On October 25, 2012, two weeks before the presidential election, Freeman delivered an address which he called, Change Without Progress in the Middle East, to the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations Policymakers Conference:

In his diplomatic realist style, Freeman presented a point of view to the Conference that must be heard inside the White House when a reelected Barack Obama enters his second term, determined to resolve issues he did not resolve in his first four years in office. The speech covered the entire region. This is what he said about Israel and the territory of Palestine:

Israel has now effectively incorporated almost all the territory of Palestine, if not its inhabitants, under its sovereignty. There is no longer any prospect for a two-state solution in Palestine, unless one considers Indian reservations or Bantustans to be states.

One state is a reality in Palestine. Within this state, Palestinians inhabit a jail administered by Palestinian trusties dependent on Jewish guards for their livelihood, personal safety, and authority.

The Palestinians face an unpalatable but unavoidable choice between the security of prison life and a struggle for their rights in the only state they will ever live in, which is Israel. In short, the two-state solution having been strangled by the success of scofflaw Israeli settlement policies, the Palestinian question has ineluctably become one of human and civil rights within the State of Israel, not one of self-determination.

The consequences of the death of the two-state solution for Israeli Jews are already apparent. Ensuring that Israel is a democratic state that provides a national home for both Jews and Palestinians – rather than a country based on ethno-sectarian apartheid – is now the only way to realize Zionism on a basis acceptable to the world, including the vast majority of non-Israeli Jews.

In default of this, Israel will suffer boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions in the West, escalating terrorism at home, rising tensions with ever more independent-minded and militarily-competent neighbors, and widening international isolation. The immediate danger is that, before civil rights and democratic liberties can be extended to the Palestinian inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael, Israeli Jews will have sacrificed these values to aggressive medievalism and racism.

We have to believe President Obama wants to achieve a peaceful and just resolution of the one-sided conflict between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and inside Israel. Chas Freeman’s experience, wisdom and counsel are badly needed in a second term to assist in that resolution.

After the election is over, the President should bring Chas Freeman back to active diplomatic duty.

The picture above is from the Foreign Policy web site.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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13 Responses to Memo To Obama: Bring Back Chas Freeman

  1. Andrea Whitmore says:

    Let’s hope President Obama hears you, Jim. What a good thing a Freeman appointment would be!

  2. Robert Assaly says:

    Jim, Shhh!

    Not until after the election, lest opponents try to get Obama to torpedo the suggestion as part of the campaign.

  3. Samir Khalil says:

    Let’s hope Freeman will be cloned into several ,we certainly need more Freemas.

  4. Brilliant, Jim! Let us pray….

  5. Bill Straka says:

    Thanks Jim, you restored some hope in me for Justice for Palestinians

  6. Frances Combs says:

    Now that the election is over , please, Obama, bring back Freeman, and others like him!
    Frances Combs

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