Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America’s awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.
Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq — both designed to consolidate and expand America’s regional clout by removing adversaries — Washington’s actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by
calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney
Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the
United States, but no one really fears it, either — and increasingly,
no one pays it any mind at all.
There are plenty of reasons why America’s previously unchallenged
hegemony in the Middle East is in free fall. The disastrous invasions of
Afghanistan and Iraq generated anti-American fervor in the streets and
in the elites. America’s economic crisis since 2008 has convinced many
that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to sustain an
imperial presence. The Arab Spring, for all its ups and downs, has
challenged the status quo everywhere, leading to enormous uncertainty
while empowering political forces unwilling to march in lockstep with
Washington. In addition, oil-consuming nations like China and India have
become more engaged with their suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran,
and Iraq. The result: throughout the region, things are fast becoming
unglued for the United States.
Its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sullenly
hostile, routinely ignore Obama’s advice, and openly oppose American
policies. Iraq and Afghanistan, one formerly occupied and one about to
be evacuated, are led, respectively, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,
an inflexible sectarian Shiite closely tied to Iran, and President Hamid
Karzai, a corrupt, mercurial leader who periodically threatens to join
the Taliban. In Egypt, three successive regimes — those of President
Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the
chieftains of the July 2013 military coup — have insouciantly flouted
Turkey, ostensibly a NATO ally but led by a quirky Islamist, is miffed over Obama’s back-and-forth policy in Syria and has shocked
the U.S. by deciding to buy a non-NATO-compatible missile defense
system from China. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have little or no
government at all. They have essentially devolved into a mosaic of armed
gangs, many implacably opposed to the United States.
This downward spiral has hardly escaped attention. In a recent address
to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Chas Freeman, the
former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described it in some detail.
“We have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many
situations unfolding there,” said Freeman, whose nomination by Obama in
2009 to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council was shot down
by the Israel Lobby. “We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer
have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region.”
In an editorial on October 29th, the New York Times
ruefully concluded: “It is not every day that America finds itself
facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening
with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel.” And in a front-page story on the administration’s internal deliberations, the Times’s
Mark Landler reported that, over the summer, the White House had
decided to scale back its role in the Middle East because many
objectives “lie outside [its] reach,” and henceforth would adopt a “more
modest strategy” in the region.
Perhaps the most profound irony embedded in Washington’s current
predicament is this: Iran, for decades the supposed epicenter of
anti-Americanism in the region, is the country where the United States
has perhaps its last opportunity to salvage its position. If Washington
and Tehran can negotiate a détente — and it’s a big if, given the
domestic political power of hawks in both countries — that accord might
go a long way toward stabilizing Washington’s regional credibility.
Debacle in Syria
Let’s begin our survey of America’s Greater Middle Eastern
fecklessness with Exhibit A: Syria. It is there, where a movement to
oust President Bashar al-Assad devolved into a civil war, that the
United States has demonstrated its utter inability to guide events. Back
in the summer of 2011 — at the very dawn of the conflict — Obama demanded
that Assad step down. There was only one problem: short of an
Iraq-style invasion of Syria, he had no power to make that happen. Assad
promptly called his bluff, escalated the conflict, and rallied support
from Russia and Iran. Obama’s clarion call for his resignation only made
things worse by convincing Syrian rebels that the United States would
come to their aid.
A year later, Obama drew
a “red line” in the sand, suggesting that any use of chemical weapons
by Syrian forces would precipitate a U.S. military response. Again Assad
ignored him, and many hundreds of civilians were gassed to death in
multiple uses of the dreaded weapons.
The crowning catastrophe of Obama’s Syria policy came when he threatened a
devastating strike on Assad’s military facilities using Tomahawk cruise
missiles and other weaponry. Instead of finding himself leading a
George W. Bush-style “coalition of the willing” with domestic support,
Obama watched as allies scattered, including the usually reliable British and the Arab League.
At home, political support was nearly nil and evaporated from there.
Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to a war with or attack on
When, in desperation, the president appealed to Congress
for a resolution to authorize the use of military force against that
country, the White House found (to its surprise) that Congress, which
normally rubber-stamps such proposals, would have none of it.
Paralyzed, reluctant to choose between backing down and striking Syria
by presidential fiat, Obama was rescued in humiliating fashion by a
proposal from Syria’s chief ally, Russia, to dismantle and destroy that
country’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Adding insult to injury, as Secretary of State John Kerry scrambles
to organize a long-postponed peace conference in Geneva aimed at
reaching a political settlement of the civil war, he is faced with a sad
paradox: while the Syrian government has agreed to attend the Geneva
meeting, also sponsored by Russia, America’s allies, the anti-Assad
rebels, have flatly refused to go.
Laughingstock in Egypt
Don’t think for a second that Washington’s ineffectiveness stops with the ongoing Syrian fiasco.
Next door, in a country whose government was installed by the United States after the 2003 invasion, the Obama administration notoriously failed
to convince the Iraqis to allow even a small contingent of American
troops to remain there past 2011. Since then, that country has moved
ever more firmly into Iran’s orbit and has virtually broken with
Washington over Syria.
the start of the civil war in Syria, Shiite-led Iraq has joined Shiite
Iran in supporting Assad, whose ruling minority Alawite sect is an
offshoot of Shiism. There have been widespread reports
that pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite militias are traveling to Syria, presumably
with the support or at least acquiescence of the government. Ignoring Washington’s entreaties, it has also allowed
Iran to conduct a virtual Berlin Airlift-style aerial resupply effort
for Syria’s armed forces through Iraqi air space. Last month, in an
appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York during
the United Nations General Assembly session, Iraqi Foreign Minister
Hoshyar Zebari undiplomatically warned
Obama that his government stands against the U.S. decision — taken in a
secret presidential finding in April and only made public last summer
— to provide arms to Syria’s rebels. (“We oppose providing military
assistance to any [Syrian] rebel groups.”)
Meanwhile, Washington is also flailing in its policy toward Egypt,
where the Obama administration has been singularly hapless. In a rare
feat, it has managed to anger and alienate every conceivable faction in
that politically divided country. In July, when Egypt’s military ousted
President Mohammad Morsi and violently clamped down on the Muslim
Brotherhood, the Obama administration made itself look ridiculous to
Egyptians (and to the rest of the Middle East) by refusing to call what
happened a coup d’état, since under U.S. law that would have meant suspending aid to the Egyptian military.
As it happened, however, American aid figured little in the
calculations of Egypt’s new military leaders. The reason was simple
enough: Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, bitter
opponents of the Morsi government, applauded the coup and poured at least $12 billion in cash
into the country’s near-empty coffers. In the end, making no one
happy, the administration tried to split the difference: Obama declared
that he would suspend the delivery of some big-ticket military items
like Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts, and
F-16 fighter planes, but let other aid to the military continue,
including counterterrorism assistance and the sale of border security
items. Such a split decision only served to underscore the
administration’s lack of leverage in Cairo. Meanwhile, there are reports that Egypt’s new rulers may turn to Russia for arms in open defiance of a horrified Washington’s wishes.
Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag
The most surprising defection from the pro-American coalition in the
Middle East is, however, Saudi Arabia. In part, that kingdom’s erratic
behavior may result from a growing awareness among its
ultraconservative, kleptocratic princelings that they face an
increasingly uncertain future. Christopher Davidson’s new book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, outlines the many pressures building on the country.
One significant cause of instability, claims Davidson,
is the “existence of substantial Western military bases on the Arabian
Peninsula, [which are considered] an affront to Islam and to national
sovereignty.” For decades, such an American military presence in the
region provided a security blanket for the Saudi royals, making the
country a virtual U.S. protectorate. Now, amid the turmoil that has
followed the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the rise of an assertive
Iran, Saudi Arabia isn’t sure which way to turn, or whether the United
States is friend or foe.
Since 2003, the Saudi rulers have found themselves increasingly
unhappy with American policy. Riyadh, the area’s chief Sunni power, was
apoplectic when the United States toppled Iraq’s Sunni leader Saddam
Hussein and allowed Iran to vastly increase its influence in Baghdad. In
2011, the Saudi royal family blamed Washington for not doing more to
prevent the collapse of the conservative and pro-Saudi Mubarak
government in Egypt.
Now, the Saudis are on the verge of a complete break over
Washington’s policies toward Syria and Iran. As the chief backers of the
rebels in Syria, they were dismayed when Obama chose not to bomb
military sites around Damascus. Because it views Iran through the lens
of a regional Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance, it is no less
dismayed by the possible emergence of a U.S.-Iran accord from renewed
negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.
To express its pique, its foreign minister abruptly canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking U.N. members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down
a prestigious seat on the Security Council, a post for which it had
long campaigned. “Upset at President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran and
Syria,” reported Reuters,
“members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are threatening a rift with
the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and
the kingdom to its lowest point in years.”
That news service quoted Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince
Bandar bin Sultan, as saying that his country was on the verge of a
“major shift” in its relations with the U.S. Former head of Saudi
intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal lambasted America’s Syria policy
this way: “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s
chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious.
[It is] designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down
[from military strikes], but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”
This is shocking stuff from America’s second most reliable ally in
the region. As for reliable ally number one, Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu has visibly decided to be anything but a cooperative
partner in the region, making Obama’s job more difficult at every turn.
Since 2009, he has gleefully defied the American president, starting
with his refusal to impose a freeze on illegal settlements in the
occupied West Bank when specifically asked to do so by the president at
the start of his first term. Meanwhile, most of the world has spent the
past half-decade on tenterhooks over the possibility that his country
might actually launch a much-threatened military strike on Iran’s
Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran and indicated his
interest in reorienting policy to make a deal with the Western powers
over its nuclear program, Israeli statements have become ever more
shrill. In a September speech
to the U.N. General Assembly, for instance, Netanyahu rolled out
extreme rhetoric, claiming that Israel is “challenged by a nuclear-armed
Iran that seeks our destruction.” This despite the fact that Iran
possesses no nuclear weapons, has enriched not an ounce of uranium to
weapons-grade level, and has probably not mastered the technology to
manufacture a bomb. According to American intelligence reports, it has not yet even militarized its nuclear research.
Netanyahu’s speech was so full of hyperbole that observers concluded
Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world. “He was so
anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually
pushed the limits of credibility,” said Gary Sick, a former senior official in the Carter administration and an Iran expert. “He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”
Iran: Obama’s Ironic Beacon of Hope
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are fearful that the Middle Eastern
balance of power could be tipped against them if the United States and
Iran are able to strike a deal. Seeking to throw the proverbial monkey
wrench into the talks between Iran, the U.S., and the P5+1 powers (the
permanent members of the U.N. security Council plus Germany), Israel has
put forward a series of demands that go far beyond anything Iran would
accept, or that the other countries would go along with. Before
supporting the removal of international economic sanctions against Iran,
that country to suspend all enrichment of uranium, shut down its
nuclear facilities, not be allowed any centrifuges to enrich uranium,
abandon the heavy-water plant it is constructing to produce plutonium,
permanently close its fortified underground installation at Fordo, and
ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country.
In contrast, it’s widely believed that the United States is ready to
allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, maintain some of its existing
facilities, and retain a partial stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel
under stricter and more intrusive inspection by the International Atomic
Ironically, a U.S.-Iran détente is the one thing that could slow down
or reverse the death spiral of American influence in the region. Iran,
for instance, could be helpful in convincing President Assad of Syria to
leave office in 2014, in advance of elections there, if radical Sunni
Islamic organizations, including allies of al-Qaeda, are suppressed.
Enormously influential in Afghanistan, Iran could also help stabilize
that country after the departure of U.S. combat forces in 2014. And it
could be enlisted to work alongside the United States and regional
powers to stabilize Iraq.
More broadly, a U.S.-Iran entente might lead to a gradual
de-escalation of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf,
including its huge naval forces, bases, and other facilities in Qatar,
Bahrain, and Kuwait. It’s even conceivable that Iran could be persuaded
to join other regional and global powers in seeking a just and lasting
negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States
and Iran have a number of common interests, including opposing
al-Qaeda-style terrorism and cracking down on drug smuggling.
Of course, such a deal will be exceedingly difficult to nail down, if
for no other reason than that the hardliners in both countries are
determined to prevent it.
Right now, imagine the Obama administration as one of those
vaudeville acts that keep a dozen plates spinning atop vibrating poles.
At just this moment in the Middle East, those “plates” are tipping in
every direction. There’s still time to prevent them all from crashing to
the ground, but it would take a masterful effort from the White House
— and it’s far from clear that anyone there is up to the task.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist based in
Cape May, New Jersey, specializing in politics and national security. He
is a contributing editor at the Nation, and his blog appears daily at TheNation.com. In the past, he has written extensively for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.
Copyright 2013 Bob Dreyfuss
A Field Guide to Losing Friends, Influencing No One, and Alienating the Middle East
Is the Israel lobby in Washington an all-powerful force? Or is it, perhaps, running scared?
Judging by the outcome of the Charles W. (“Chas”) Freeman affair this week, it might seem as if the Israeli lobby is fearsome indeed. Seen more broadly, however, the controversy over Freeman could be the Israel lobby’s Waterloo.
Let’s recap. On February 19th, Laura Rozen reported at ForeignPolicy.com that Freeman had been selected by Admiral Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, to serve in a key post as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). The NIC, the official in-house think tank of the intelligence community, takes input from 16 intelligence agencies and produces what are called “national intelligence estimates” on crucial topics of the day as guidance for Washington policymakers. For that job, Freeman boasted a stellar resumé: fluent in Mandarin Chinese, widely experienced in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and an ex-assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration.
A wry, outspoken iconoclast, Freeman had, however, crossed one of Washington’s red lines by virtue of his strong criticism of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Over the years, he had, in fact, honed a critique of Israel that was both eloquent and powerful. Hours after the Foreign Policy story was posted, Steve Rosen, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), launched what would soon become a veritable barrage of criticism of Freeman on his right-wing blog.
Rosen himself has already been indicted by the Department of Justice in an espionage scandal over the transfer of classified information to outside parties involving a colleague at AIPAC, a former official in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, and an official at the Israeli embassy. His blog, Obama Mideast Monitor, is hosted by the Middle East Forum website run by Daniel Pipes, a hard-core, pro-Israeli rightist, whose Middle East Quarterly is, in turn, edited by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. Over approximately two weeks, Rosen would post 19 pieces on the Freeman story.
The essence of Rosen’s criticism centered on the former ambassador’s strongly worded critique of Israel. (That was no secret. Freeman had repeatedly denounced many of Israel’s policies and Washington’s too-close relationship with Jerusalem. “The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending,” said Freeman in 2007. “American identification with Israel has become total.”) But Rosen, and those who followed his lead, broadened their attacks to make unfounded or exaggerated claims, taking quotes and emails out of context, and accusing Freeman of being a pro-Arab “lobbyist,” of being too closely identified with Saudi Arabia, and of being cavalier about China’s treatment of dissidents. They tried to paint the sober, conservative former U.S. official as a wild-eyed radical, an anti-Semite, and a pawn of the Saudi king.
From Rosen’s blog, the anti-Freeman vitriol spread to other right-wing, Zionist, and neoconservative blogs, then to the websites of neocons mouthpieces like the New Republic, Commentary, National Review, and the Weekly Standard, which referred to Freeman as a “Saudi puppet.” From there, it would spread to the Atlantic and then to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, where Gabriel Schoenfeld called Freeman a “China-coddling Israel basher,” and the Washington Post, where Jonathan Chait of the New Republic labeled Freeman a “fanatic.”
Before long, staunch partisans for Israel on Capitol Hill were getting into the act. These would, in the end, include Representative Steve Israel and Senator Charles Schumer, both New York Democrats; a group of Republican House members led by John Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican Whip; seven Republican members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; and, finally, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who engaged in a sharp exchange with Admiral Blair about Freeman at a Senate hearing.
Though Blair strongly defended Freeman, the two men got no support from an anxious White House, which took (politely put) a hands-off approach. Seeing the writing on the wall — all over the wall, in fact — Freeman came to the conclusion that, even if he could withstand the storm, his ability to do the job had, in effect, already been torpedoed. Whatever output the National Intelligence Council might produce under his leadership, as Freeman told me in an interview, would instantly be attacked. “Anything that it produced that was politically controversial would immediately be attributed to me as some sort of political deviant, and be discredited,” he said.
On March 10th, Freeman bowed out, but not with a whimper. In a letter to friends and colleagues, he launched a defiant, departing counterstrike that may, in fact, have helped to change the very nature of Washington politics. “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,” wrote Freeman. “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.”
Freeman put it more metaphorically to me: “It was a nice way of, as the Chinese say, killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.” By destroying his appointment, Freeman claimed, the Israel lobby hoped to intimidate other critics of Israel and U.S. Middle East policy who might seek jobs in the Obama administration.
On Triumphs, Hysterias, and Mobs
It remains to be seen just how many “monkeys” are trembling. Certainly, the Israel lobby crowed in triumph. Daniel Pipes, for instance, quickly praised Rosen’s role in bringing down Freeman:
“What you may not know is that Steven J. Rosen of the Middle East Forum was the person who first brought attention to the problematic nature of Freeman’s appointment,” wrote Pipes. “Within hours, the word was out, and three weeks later Freeman has conceded defeat. Only someone with Steve’s stature and credibility could have made this happen.”
The Zionist Organization of America, a far-right advocacy group that supports Israel, sent out follow-up Action Alerts to its membership, ringing further alarm bells about Freeman as part of a campaign to mobilize public opinion and Congress. Behind the scenes, AIPAC quietly used its considerable clout, especially with friends and allies in the media. And Chuck Schumer, who had trotted over to the White House to talk to Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, later said bluntly:
“Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration. I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.”
Numerous reporters, including Max Blumenthal at the Daily Beast website and Spencer Ackerman of Firedoglake, have effectively documented the role of the Israel lobby, including AIPAC, in sabotaging Freeman’s appointment. From their accounts and others, it seems clear that the lobby left its fingerprints all over Freeman’s National Intelligence Council corpse. (Indeed, Time’s Joe Klein described the attack on Freeman as an “assassination,” adding that the term “lobby” doesn’t do justice to the methods of the various lobbying groups, individuals, and publications: “He was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of Jewish neoconservatives.”)
On the other hand, the Washington Post, in a near-hysterical editorial, decided to pretend that the Israel lobby really doesn’t exist, accusing Freeman instead of sending out a “crackpot tirade.” Huffed the Post, “Mr. Freeman issued a two-page screed on Tuesday in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister ‘Lobby’… His statement was a grotesque libel.”
The Post’s case might have been stronger, had it not, just one day earlier, printed an editorial in which it called on Attorney General Eric Holder to exonerate Steve Rosen and drop the espionage case against him. Entitled “Time to Call It Quits,” the editorial said:
“The matter involves Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former officials for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC… A trial has been scheduled for June in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Mr. Holder should pull the plug on this prosecution long before then.”
In his interview with me, Freeman noted the propensity members of the Israel lobby have for denying the lobby’s existence, even while taking credit for having forced him out and simultaneously claiming that they had nothing to do with it. “We’re now at the ludicrous stage where those who boasted of having done it and who described how they did it are now denying that they did it,” he said.
The Israel lobby has regularly denied its own existence even as it has long carried on with its work, in stealth as in the bright sunlight. In retrospect, however, l’affaire Freeman may prove a game changer. It has already sparked a new, more intense mainstream focus on the lobby, one that far surpasses the flap that began in March, 2006, over the publication of an essay by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt in the London Review of Books that was, in 2007, expanded into a book, The Israel Lobby. In fact, one of the sins committed by Freeman, according to his critics, is that an organization he headed, the Middle East Policy Council, published an early version of the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis — which argued that a powerful, pro-Israel coalition exercises undue influence over American policymakers — in its journal.
In his blog at Foreign Policy, Walt reacted to Freeman’s decision to withdraw by writing:
“For all of you out there who may have questioned whether there was a powerful ‘Israel lobby,’ or who admitted that it existed but didn’t think it had much influence, or who thought that the real problem was some supposedly all-powerful ‘Saudi lobby,’ think again.”
What the Freeman affair brought was unwanted, often front-page attention to the lobby. Writers at countless blogs and websites — including yours truly, at the Dreyfuss Report — dissected or reported on the lobby’s assault on Freeman, including Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe at Antiwar.com, Glenn Greenwald in his Salon.com column, M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Peace Forum, and Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss. Far more striking, however, is that for the first time in memory, both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran page-one stories about the Freeman controversy that specifically used the phrase “Israel lobby,” while detailing the charges and countercharges that followed upon Freeman’s claim that the lobby did him in.
This new attention to the lobby’s work comes at a critical moment, which is why the toppling of Freeman might be its Waterloo.
As a start, right-wing partisans of Israel have grown increasingly anxious about the direction that President Obama intends to take when it comes to U.S. policy toward Israel, the Palestinians, Iran, and the Middle East generally. Despite the way, in the middle of the presidential campaign last June, Obama recited a pro-Israeli catechism in a speech at AIPAC’s national conference in Washington, they remain unconvinced that he will prove reliable on their policy concerns. Among other things, they have long been suspicious of his reputed openness to Palestinian points of view.
No less important, while the appointments of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff were reassuring, other appointments were far less so. They were, for instance, concerned by several of Obama’s campaign advisers — and not only Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who were quietly eased out of Obamaland early in 2008. An additional source of worry was Daniel Shapiro and Daniel Kurtzer, both Jewish, who served as Obama’s top Middle East aides during the campaign and were seen as not sufficiently loyal to the causes favored by hardline, right-wing types.
Since the election, many lobby members have viewed a number of Obama’s top appointments, including Shapiro, who’s taken the Middle East portfolio at the National Security Council, and Kurtzer, who’s in line for a top State Department job, with great unease. Take retired Marine general and now National Security Advisor James L. Jones, who, like Brzezinski, is seen as too sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view and who reputedly wrote a report last year highly critical of Israel’s occupation policies; or consider George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, who is regarded by many pro-Israeli hawks as far too level-headed and even-handed to be a good mediator; or, to mention one more appointment, Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell and now a National Security Council official who has, in the past, made comments sharply critical of Israel.
Of all of these figures, Freeman, because of his record of blunt statements, was the most vulnerable. His appointment looked like low-hanging fruit when it came to launching a concerted, preemptive attack on the administration. As it happens, however, this may prove anything but a moment of strength for the lobby. After all, the recent three-week Israeli assault on Gaza had already generated a barrage of headlines and television images that made Israel look like a bully nation with little regard for Palestinian lives, including those of women and children. According to polls taken in the wake of Gaza, growing numbers of Americans, including many in the Jewish community, have begun to exhibit doubts about Israel’s actions, a rare moment when public opinion has begun to tilt against Israel.
Perhaps most important of all, Israel is about to be run by an extremist, ultra right-wing government led by Likud Party leader Bibi Netanyahu, and including the even more extreme party of Avigdor Lieberman, as well as a host of radical-right religious parties. It’s an ugly coalition that is guaranteed to clash with the priorities of the Obama White House.
As a result, the arrival of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is also guaranteed to prove a crisis moment for the Israel lobby. It will present an enormous public-relations problem, akin to the one that faced ad agency Hill & Knowlton during the decades in which it had to defend Philip Morris, the hated cigarette company that repeatedly denied the link between its products and cancer. The Israel lobby knows that it will be difficult to sell cartons of menthol smooth Netanyahu-Lieberman 100s to American consumers.
Indeed, Freeman told me:
“The only thing I regret is that in my statement I embraced the term ‘Israel lobby.’ This isn’t really a lobby by, for, or about Israel. It’s really, well, I’ve decided I’m going to call it from now on the [Avigdor] Lieberman lobby. It’s the very right-wing Likud in Israel and its fanatic supporters here. And Avigdor Lieberman is really the guy that they really agree with.”
So here’s the reality behind the Freeman debacle: Already worried over Team Obama, suffering the after-effects of the Gaza debacle, and about to be burdened with the Netanyahu-Lieberman problem, the Israel lobby is undoubtedly running scared. They succeeded in knocking off Freeman, but the true test of their strength is yet to come.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, the Nation, the American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Washington Monthly. He is also the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan). He writes the Dreyfuss Report blog for the Nation magazine.
Copyright 2009 Robert Dreyfuss
Is the Israel Lobby Running Scared?
In August, even before the official announcement that some two dozen would-be terrorists had been arrested in London, President Bush and his top advisers swung into action. Their goal was not to stop the terrorists, who were already safely behind bars, but to use the threat to justify the president’s seemingly endless “War on Terror.”
The problem is, almost everything that President Bush understands about his own war on terrorism is wrong. According to nearly a dozen former high-ranking officials who have been on the front lines of the administration’s counterterrorism effort, the president is not only fighting the wrong war — he is fighting it in a way that has actually made the threat worse. The war on terrorism, they say, has been mismanaged and misdirected almost from the start, in no small part because the president simply does not understand the nature of the enemy he is fighting.
“I hate the term ‘global war on terrorism,’ ” says John O. Brennan, a CIA veteran who served as the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the primary organization set up by Bush to analyze all intelligence about terrorism and coordinate strategic operational planning. “I hate the tough talk, you know, the ‘we’re gonna kill these guys’ stuff.”
Brennan is not alone. In a survey conducted this summer, more than 100 top foreign-policy experts — including former secretaries of state, CIA directors and high-ranking Pentagon officials — were asked if the president is “winning the War on Terror.” Eighty-four percent said no. Five years after the attacks of September 11th, the administration has failed to grasp the shifting realities of terrorism. If the United States is to have any chance at preventing another terrorist attack — as the British government apparently did in London last month — there are five essential lessons the president needs to learn:
1. AL QAEDA HAS BEEN VIRTUALLY ELIMINATED AS A THREAT
Although the administration continues to scare Americans with the specter of Al Qaeda, the organization that attacked the United States on 9/11 has been virtually wiped out. While Osama bin Laden and a number of Al Qaeda veterans are still at large, the force that assaulted New York and Washington has been effectively dismantled. “I personally don’t believe Al Qaeda exists as a robust organization anymore,” says Wayne White, a top intelligence official in the State Department who left the Bush administration last year.
2. WHAT WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT AL QAEDA CAN STILL HURT US
If the president had kept his focus on capturing bin Laden, top officials say, he might have been able to declare a swift victory. Instead, Bush shifted from going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to going after Saddam Hussein in Iraq — a decision with fateful consequences for U.S. security. “Iraq broke our back in the War on Terror,” says Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s Al Qaeda unit until 2004.
3. THE THREAT HAS GONE VIRAL
By failing to “smoke out” bin Laden as promised, the president has given hope to a new generation of freelance terrorist cells, Islamist copycats and Al Qaeda wanna-be’s. “We let them get away,” says a retired CIA station chief. “We took a relatively centralized organization and turned it into a generalized virus. Before Afghanistan, we were facing somewhat of a unified threat. We now have the equivalent of a phantom that we’re fighting.”
4. FIGHTING TERRORISM IS FOR COPS AND SPIES, NOT SOLDIERS
For President Bush, the way to stop terrorism is to wage a war. But isolated terrorists who conspire in the suburbs of London and coordinate their attacks on jihadist Web sites can’t be defeated by armies — they can only be stopped by a combination of patient, old-fashioned police work and good intelligence. Indeed, the success of the British police and Scotland Yard in halting the recent threat in London represents a textbook example of how terrorists can be thwarted.
5. TERRORISM CAN’T BE DEFEATED – EVER
Terrorism is not an enemy, but a method. As such, it can never be defeated — only contained and reduced. Even if the United States were to wipe out every terrorist cell in the world today, terrorism would be back tomorrow, because new grievances and new cries for revenge will continue to create new terrorists. In addition, there will always be violence-prone, armed insurgent groups that use terrorist methods in conflicts around the world, from Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon to rebel and dissident groups in Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Spain, Colombia, the Philippines and the Congo.
This post is based on an article that first appeared in Rolling Stone. To see the complete article, click here.