Charles Freeman, America’s Next Political Rorschach Test

In her new book, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, the brilliant intellectual historian Susan Jacoby describes the Hiss case of the early post-World War II period as a kind of political Rorschach test.

If you‟re a liberal, she writes, you believe that Hiss, a former top State Department official in the 1940s who alleged spied for the Soviet Union, was framed; that conservatives created the “Red Scare” after World War II for political purposes; and that they did the same for today‟s war on terror.

If you‟re a conservative, you believe that Hiss was rightly accused; and, moreover, that he symbolizes the longstanding inability of liberals to recognize the evil of America‟s enemies, from the Soviet Union of yesteryear to, today, radical regimes in Iran and Syria and the terrorist groups they sponsor.

Jacoby‟s book is timely, for it arrives just as the next Rorschach test of U.S. foreign policy is unfolding in Washington – the case of Charles Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia whom President Obama recently picked to chair the National Intelligence Council (NIC), a perch from which he could shape public perceptions of America‟s foreign policy challenges in profound ways.

Partisan debate need not discourage the fair-minded from taking sides over Freeman. Just as the weight of accumulated evidence of the last half-century suggests that Hiss did spy, the weight of evidence today suggests that Freeman‟s appointment is deeply problematic for U.S. foreign policy.

The split over Freeman is less between liberals and conservatives than between other cross-sections of foreign policy disagreement.

“Realists” (who believe that national interests, and not morality, should drive U.S. foreign policy) support Freeman – particularly those realists who are strong critics of Israel. Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists, who believe that American values should drive U.S. foreign policy and that America can use its power to improve the world, hope to force Freeman from his new post.

The case against him involves his financial ties to Saudi Arabia, his views on Israel and the Middle East, his ties to the Chinese government and his response to China‟s crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Freeman served as president of the Middle East Policy Forum, a think tank that received a $1 million grant from the Saudi royal family in 2006 and that published the first version of The Israel Lobby, the controversial book that said that an all-powerful Washington lobby for the Jewish state bends U.S. foreign policy to its will – to the detriment of both the United States and Israel.

Of Israel, Freeman reportedly said that it “no longer even pretends to seek peace with the Palestinians” and that it sought “to bomb Lebanon into peaceful coexistence with it and to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle.” Of the September 11 attacks, he suggested that U.S. foreign policy was at least partly to blame.

Freeman was a board member of the China National Offshore Oil Cooperative that, according to Rep. Frank Wolf, is majority-owned by China‟s government and has business ties to the brutal regimes of Sudan, Burma and Iran.

Of China‟s crackdown in Tiananmen Square, he wrote in a leaked e-mail: “(T)he truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud . . . the Politburo‟s response to the mob scene at „Tiananmen‟ stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action.”

As chair of the NIC, Freeman would oversee preparation of the National Intelligence Estimate, a product of 16 intelligence agencies on key issues of national security. It was a controversial, and since discredited, estimate in late 2007 that suggested that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program, thus undercutting U.S. efforts to increase the pressure on Tehran to scrap the program.

Freeman‟s selection does not require Senate confirmation, but some lawmakers hope to force him out.

Wolf has written to Obama, urging him to reconsider. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor echoed Wolf‟s suggestion.

Meanwhile, nine House members – eight Republicans (including Cantor and House Minority Leader John Boehner) and a Democrat – wrote to the inspector general in the Office of National Intelligence, urging an investigation of Freeman‟s financial and contractual relationships with Saudi Arabia for possible conflicts of interest. Rep. Steve Israel sent a similar letter to the IG three days earlier.

Regardless of what the IG finds, Freeman is the wrong man for this job. Obama should seek a replacement.

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