One reason that I have not had anything to say about the Chas Freeman appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which has stirred up such controversy among the usual suspects, is that I am having difficulty understanding how the chairman of the NIC suddenly became such a critical position that merits so much discussion. Freeman certainly has all the right enemies, but that is not necessarily enough to give him a full-throated defense. However, his appointment does appear to deserve a qualified defense, because in the end the main criticisms of the appointment do not amount to very much.
From what I can tell, there are legitimate reasons to have some problems with this appointment. It is not the “disaster” that critics are making it out to be, and of course the appointment would scarcely have received any attention at all if Freeman had not written critical things about Israel or favorable things about The Israel Lobby. That is so painfully obvious that it hardly needs to be mentioned. It appears to be true that Freeman’s organization, the Middle East Policy Council, has received funding from both the Saudi government and Saudi individuals, and it seems that he did write that Beijing responded too slowly to the protests in Tiananmen Square. One need not be pushing for confrontation with China or desire the overthrow of the House of Saud to see how these things are less than desirable in and of themselves.
That said, it seems to be the case that Freeman is actually a very good intelligence analyst, as many well-informed professionals are claiming, in which case his past ties and opinions are of secondary importance. He will not be setting policy concerning Saudi Arabia, China or any other country, but will be reviewing and interpreting intelligence for the DNI, Adm. Blair, who specifically recruited Freeman for this post. It seems to me that if there were something seriously wrong with the Freeman appointment, the critics would be attacking Blair directly for his horrible judgement, which so far I have yet to see a single one of them do. For all of the huffing and puffing Chait does about Freeman’s alleged fanaticism, he does not even mention Blair, who is directly responsible for recommending Freeman for the job.
That tells me that the critics are opportunistically making hay out of these elements of Freeman’s record for other reasons. This puts him in a different relationship to the policymaking process as compared to, say, certain former Deputy and Assistant Secretaries of Defense. This is a difference that Freeman’s critics, such as Chait, deliberately elide to make people fear the influence of “fanatical” realists (leaving aside that “fanatical foreign policy realist” is almost a contradiction in terms) comparable to the influence of neoconservatives in the last administration. If I understand Chait’s argument against them, it is that realists are too focused on American interests and are not misled by cant about “values.” Remember, this is supposed to make us dislike Freeman!
The controversy prompted me to look into who chaired the NIC during the Bush administration. Of course, this required a little digging, because I am fairly sure that, like me, most of you had never heard of any of them. Between 2005 and 2008, it was someone named Thomas Fingar, and before that for two years it was Robert Hutchings. The outgoing occupant of the office is Peter Lavoy, who has served since early December of last year and who is now Blair’s Deputy DNI. In all of the extensive back-and-forth about various National Intelligence Estimates released over the course of the last six years, I cannot recall their names coming up, and I certainly cannot recall their prior political views and ties ever having been the subject of discussion by anyone.
P.S. Here is The Cable’s copy of the press release from the DNI’s office announcing Freeman’s appointment.