Friday 13 March 2009

Former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia withdraws candidacy for chair of National Intelligence Council (NIC)

Less than two months after taking office, President Barack Obama is getting increasingly bogged down into reactive politics instead of pursuing the proactive policy-making agenda that drove his campaign(see also the post of 5 November 2008).

Now the new U.S. presidency has run into another obstacle on its path to approach the problems in the Middle East and larger Muslim world afresh. Yet another designated candidate for one of the top jobs in the administration has withdrawn. This time the 'victim' is former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, who has dropped out as a contender for one of the top jobs in foreign policy making: Chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC).

Aside from the detrimal impact this has on the revision of actual politics, this particular incident is also illustrative of how difficult it is to dispel preconceived notions and change deeply ingrained positions and attitudes towards the Muslim world, which is the reason for covering it on this blog.

Freeman, a foreign service veteran who accompanied Richard Nixon on his groundbreaking visit to China and interpreted his conversations with Mao, served was ambassador in Riyadh during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. The English-language Saudi Arabian newspaper Arab News reported that US news sources have alleged a former Israel lobbyist awaiting trial on espionage charges was behind the effort to discredit him. They identified Steve Rosen, who used to be associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and is now awaiting trial in the US on espionage charges, of being the coordinator of the campaign to discredit Freeman. Rosen, who is accused of furnishing secret US intelligence documents on Iran to reporters and foreign officials, has been working for the Middle East Forum, a think tank run by neocon Daniel Pipes, since November of last year. Its website als hosts the blog in which Rosen discusses the nomination of Freeman.

Freeman himself reacted with an edgy commentary directed at the powerful pro-Israel lobby:

“I have concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office,” Freeman wrote in a letter to friends and supporters regarding his withdrawal. “The effort to smear me and to destroy my credibility would instead continue. I do not believe the NIC 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.”

Arab News goes on: Freeman blasted the Israel lobby for what he considered a concerted effort to smear his name. “The libels on me and their easily traceable e-mail trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East,” Freeman wrote. “The tactics of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.”

Commentators in Saudi Arabia reacted with disappointment, among them renowned photographer Reem Al Faisal (see the post on 29 November 2008) : “I am not surprised, [..] With or without Freeman, American policies will remain the same. They have not changed for the last 60 years. Palestinians continue to suffer because of America’s lopsided foreign policy. We have just seen what happened in Gaza. To say that Israel controls American foreign policy doesn’t sound right. The United States believes in these policies. How can one accept that the world’s lone superpower is being dictated by someone else if it itself did not believe in that policy?”

Guardian commentator Richard Silverstein* suggests it is only the beginning of Obama's long uphill battle to change attitudes towards the Middle East question, and in fact all political issues involving the Muslim world.

* Silverstein also writes a blog, Tikun Olam, about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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