By Dan Fleshler | March 11, 2009
I’ve patiently tried to dissect who was responsible for the Charles Freeman fiasco and to discern what it portends for the Obama administration. Some commentary on the commentary:
Myth #1: The “Israel lobby” and AIPAC per se were not behind the opposition to Freeman; it was just a bunch of loud neocons.
AIPAC has publicly denied that it lobbied against the appointment. Joe Klein writes that Freeman: “ pins his departure on ‘the Israel Lobby,’ which is imprecise. He was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of Jewish neoconservatives–abetted by less than courageous public servants like Senator Chuck Schumer, who has publicly taken credit for the hit.”
Similarly, Jim Besser (a great reporter whom I admire) writes that he “saw no evidence the “lobby” — meaning AIPAC itself – was involved in the anti-Freeman effort, although that effort was sparked to a considerable degree by Steve Rosen, a former top AIPAC employee, and there’s plenty of evidence the more right-wing elements of the pro-Israel movement were heavily involved.”
Sorry, fellas. Very reliable sources inform me that Josh Block, an AIPAC spokesperson, contacted bloggers and journalists expressing concern about Freeman. That is probably what Freeman referred to when he mentioned “easily traceable e-mails” in the announcement that he was giving up the fight. Trust me on this one. I had to think twice about writing it because I want Block, who is generally very nice to critical journalists at the AIPAC Policy Conferences, to be nice to me. There is no way I would have written it unless it were manifestly true, and important.
Even it were not true, it is simply inconceivable that Mark Kirk, Charles Schumer and other Congressfolk who publicly objected to Freeman would have done so without the encouragement –or winks and nods– of AIPAC. The Hill is where it lives and breathes, and nothing this important could have been orchestrated without its blessing.
Myth #2: The Freeman fracas proves that the conventional Israel lobby has the power to dictate Middle East policy by ensuring that no one willing to criticize Israel will get a hearing in the Administration. Here is Andrew Sullivan on the meaning of power in Washington: “You get to dictate to a president who he can and cannot appoint to his own intelligence staff. This was not a Senate-confirmation issue. And it was not because of some financial or tax issue. It was because of what he believed. And a president is simply not allowed to have that kind of diversity of view in his administration. And he knows this is a battle he shouldn’t fight.”
Almost, but not quite…The Freeman affair shows that the lobby knows how to convey the IMPRESSION that it has the power to dictate Middle East policy, and that it will make life miserable for any President who wants to take an independent course on Israel. Ron Kampeas of the JTA has an interesting take on this:
I’d like to argue that if, theoretically, a critic of Israel’s occupation had been appointed to a sensitive, senior security position without Freeman’s baggage, jampacked with apologias for the Saudi and the Chinese dictatorships, such a person would have been a serious test of the pro-Israel lobby’s power. I’d like to argue the point, but I don’t have to: Samantha Power, after all, handles multilateral organizations on the National Security Council.
Samantha Power, who accused Israel of war crimes, who called for moneys for Israel to be diverted to the Palestinians, who called for an interventionary force to protect the Palestinians from Israel. And yes, I know the White House placated pro-Israel figures by saying that her work would be confined to Darfur and other non-Israel issues. And then her first assignment was: Durban. With nary a pro-Israel complaint. With the blessing (not that it would have mattered, I think) of one of Freeman’s fiercest critics, Marty Peretz.
Freeman’s appointment was not a serious test of the lobby’s power. Not even close. He had enough extra baggage to make him an easy mark. It is an example of a pattern that is familiar to those who follow the lobby closely: it only picks fights that it knows it can win, at least when it comes to assaulting individual reputations. One important goal of these very occasional battles is to demonstrate the ability to affect political outcomes in order to make the political elite more docile. As one Congressional staffer told me: “They only kill the deer when it is wounded and in the middle of the road.”
This whole Freeman affair is an example of what my wife, who is in the ad biz, calls “power puffery.” AIPAC and its allies manipulate perceptions and create exaggerated notions of their resources and influence, and foster the widespread belief that both elected and appointed officials cross swords with the lobby at their peril.
But the Hill is filled with an increasing number of Representatives and Senators who don’t hesitate to criticize Israel and even the Israel lobby, and nothing ever happens to them. There can and should be many more. For example, if anyone is a logical target for AIPAC’s wrath, it is Rep. Jim Moran, the Virginia Dem who blamed Israel’s supporters for the Iraq War and was roundly condemned by his own party in 2002. He’s been re-elected twice. The AIPACers know they can’t beat him, so they haven’t tried (at least they haven’t tried very hard). I get into all of this is in much more detail in my book. Sorry, can’t give away more now.
Yes, Hobbes was mostly correct: ‘The perception of power is power.” But that is true only if people allow it to be true, if they don’t bother to scrutinize carefully the extent to which someone can actually do what he wants you to believe he can do. Samantha Power got the Durban portfolio, for God’s sake! Of course, Obama will take political risks if he relies on people who want to help him chart a truly independent course in the Middle East. But the risks are not as great as the lobby, and the critics who help it puff up its power, want us to believe. And that is good news.