Are You Now or Have You Ever Been an Arabist?

“Are you now or have you ever been an Arabist?” Could this be he signature phrase of a post-Cold War McCarthyism that poisons Washington’s ability to deal rationally with the Middle East and sometimes makes it Al Qaeda’s best recruiter? The admirers of Charles Freeman certainly think so, though few who seek advancement in this town have what it takes to say so publicly.

Freeman, arguably one of the most talented American diplomatists of his generation, was to have come out of a busy retirement to chair President Barack Obama’s National Intelligence Council. Last week, under bipartisan fire from Israel’s – or more accurately Likud’s – staunchest defenders in Congress, he stepped aside.

The White House failed to come to his aid, evoking this from Washington Post’s David Broder, the down-the-middle doyen of America’s political commentators: “The Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in their place, and their friends on Capitol Hill. The country has lost an able public servant in an area where President Obama has few…credentials of his own, the handling of national intelligence.”

The NIC chairman oversees the production of strategic analyses known as National Intelligence Estimates. Often turgid and of questionable value, sometimes the documents have an impact. The December 2007 NIE concluding that Tehran stopped work on a key nuclear weapons component in 2003 may have stalled momentum towards an attack on Iran. It infuriated the so-called neocons behind the invasion of Iraq.

They had every reason to worry that under Freeman the NIC would cause them even greater pain. He is smarter than most of them. A realist’s realist who fiercely opposed the lesser Bush’s Iraq adventure, he actually knows stuff. He speaks Mandarin and Arabic and is steeped in the cultures they express. When President Nixon went to China, Freeman was his interpreter. He was the greater Bush’s man in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf war.  As Dr Chester Crocker’s principal deputy (which is when I joined the fan club), he helped engineer South Africa’s exit from Namibia.

The day before Freeman withdrew, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s new intelligence chief, told Broder: “We are so fortunate, with the challenges we face in Asia and the Middle East, that he could be persuaded to come back to government.” Blair added that what he especially admired in Freeman was his ability – fundamental to good diplomacy – to put himself in the shoes of the people he was dealing with.

Ironically, that strength was also material to his undoing. To look at the world through the eyes of the Palestinians, or the Arab and Moslem world more generally, is a risky thing to do in Washington. Likewise, it is risky to say things like this (from a 2006 speech – a Jeremiad, really — readily available on the Internet):

“Not content just to let foreigners hate us – Arabs and Moslems in particular – we often seem to go out of our way to speak and act in such a way as to compel them to do so.  Consider Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the practice of kidnapping and “rendition”, our public defense of torture, or the spectacle a month or so ago of American officials fending off peace while urging the further maiming of Lebanon and its people (by the Israeli defense force).”

Speaking truth to power is not always the best way of getting hired by power. In this regard, Freeman has been an equal opportunity offender. From the same speech: “Neither party (Democratic or Republican) is in the least introspective. Both are happy to attribute all our problems to irrationality of foreigners and to reject consideration of whether our attitudes, concepts and policies might not have contributed to them. Both are xenophobic, Islamophobic, Arabophobic and anti-immigrant.”

“The two parties vie to see who can be more sycophantic toward whoever’s in charge in Israel and to be most supportive of whatever Israel and its American lobby wish us to do.”

And so they vied again last week.  Freeman’s views, said the Democratic leader in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were “beyond the pale”.

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