A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 27, 2009

Ambassador Chas Freeman and the NIC

There's been a brief flap over the past few days over the appointment of Ambassador Charles W. (Chas) Freeman as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council; supporters of Israel have denounced him as too pro-Arab and pro-Saudi. From what I've seen, the debate has been full of misinformation and possibly downright disinformation.

First of all, I need to note that I have some biases of my own here: I'm on the Advisory Board of the Middle East Policy Council (unpaid, before you ask), and, while some consider their journal Middle East Policy as a rival of The Middle East Journal, I've always felt they have independent identities, filling separate niches, and have myself published a number of times in Middle East Policy. I know Ambassador Freeman and have worked with him, and served on panels he chaired, though I haven't known him as well as I knew his predecessor, George McGovern. Here's his biography at the MEPC website. As you'll see, he's also an old China hand, and a combination of China and the Middle East would seem useful qualifications for the Chairman of the NIC these days, I would think. His opponents are using his China views against him as well, but I think the real complaint is his links to the Arab world.

Ambassador Freeman did serve as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), but the idea that the Middle East Policy Council is somehow a Saudi creation is simply untrue. In fact it was McGovern who changed the name of the journal from American-Arab Affairs to Middle East Policy to give it more balance. Similar allegations have been made about the Middle East Institute, even when our President was a former Ambassador to Israel, Ned Walker. They're par for the course in Washington, I suppose, but that doesn't make them true. (I get just as many complaints that we have too many Israeli authors in the Journal as that we're too pro-Arab. If both sides think you're biased, you're probably doing something right. If we're bought and owned by the Saudis, I'm not getting my fair share.)

This is not a Washington inside-the-Beltway type of blog that's going to spend a lot of time talking about Washington personalities and issues that don't matter anywhere but here, but some of the stuff I've seen on the Internet about Chas Freeman just isn't true. After all, Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is a clearly pro-Israeli organization, has also been called back by this Administration. There were some complaints about that in Arab circles, of course, but Ross' history of diplomacy in the region justifies his appointment (and his new beat is SW Asia and the Gulf, mostly meaning Iran). And so does Ambassador Freeman's. And George Mitchell's. I'd rather we suspend judgment until we see what they do, but I'm still convinced that the critique of Chas Freeman is undeserved.

And as always, the Middle East Institute does not take positions on policy issues; the opinions here are my own.

UPDATED: The Saturday Washington Post has this piece by Jon Chait of The New Republic on its op-ed page. No surprise, since Martin Peretz at The New Republic had already led the charge on Chas Freeman. None of this changes anything I've said, but gives you an idea of the drumroll that has been building up. There are actually a lot worse attacks from sites I'd rather not link to, and that are far to the right of The New Republic. Have any of these people actually met Chas Freeman? Chait at least presents him as an ultra-realist, while Peretz outright calls him a bigot. I suppose this is where we are now in Middle Eastern policy polemic, but I wanted to raise my still rather unread voice to say that it is misguided.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Michael has it right. I've known Chas since 1990, when he was the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and I was a State Department official. He did a lot of heavy lifting for U.S. interests in the 1990-1991 crisis. Chas was not shy about telling us of Saudi views and sensitivities, but at the end of the day he put his shoulder to the wheel of our efforts in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Chas is outspoken, but he is a US patriot to his core. David Mack