03/11/2009 01:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Saudis Impotent in Battle Over Freeman for Intelligence Post

In nothing else, Chas W. Freeman's surprise surrender Tuesday shows that when it comes to U.S. national security policy, the Arabs will never trump Israel in Washington, no matter how many think tanks they fund, law firms they hire and former American diplomats they buy.

Once Freeman's name surfaced as the Obama administration's choice to head the National Intelligence Council, he was as doomed as an Afghan villager in the cross hairs of a Predator drone.

Freeman's association with the Saudis went back a long ways. He was ambassador to Riyadh during the first Persian Gulf war. Since 1997, he has been president of the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington think tank with Gulf States and Saudi backing.

The capital is chock-a-block with Saudi-backed institutions, including academic departments, think tanks and law firms stocked by former U.S. diplomats who made their mark in Arab countries, such as Robert Jordan, a post-9/11 U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who went straight to work for Baker Botts, the powerful D.C. firm with important business there, as soon as he came home.

The Saudis have won plenty of behind-the-scenes battles over weapons and trade through the years, but when it comes to high profile public opinion battles like the nomination of Freeman to be the top analyst in U.S. intelligence, they're just not in the Israelis' league. Their only big guns are oil companies. They sit it out.

Conservative and pro-Israel bloggers angered by Freeman's Saudi connections and his condemnation of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians triggered a barrage of negative commentary.

Congressional Republicans demanded more information on Freeman's finances, which he had not been required to reveal for the position.

Liberals fought back.

The Nation
's Robert Dreyfuss called it a "thunderous, coordinated assault against" Freeman.

M.J. Rosenberg, policy director for the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal alternative to the muscular American-Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) wrote that "the (Israeli) lobby HATES Freeman."

"It considers Freeman anti-Israel because he has repeatedly indicated that he believes that successive Israeli governments deserve their share of blame for sinking the peace process. He does not toe the line," Rosenberg wrote for the Huffington Post.

"So what if Freeman is close to the Saudis. Why should that disqualify him for the intelligence post?"

Simple, said his critics. It was for remarks like this:

"As long as the United States continues unconditionally to provide the subsidies and political protection that make the Israeli occupation and the high-handed and self-defeating policies it engenders possible, there is little, if any, reason to hope that anything resembling the former peace process can be resurrected. Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab lands is inherently violent."

And this:

"And as long as such Israeli violence against Palestinians continues, it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance and retaliation against Israelis."

But some maintained that the Israeli lobby was not "very involved" in Freeman's defeat, as one of his opponents, Illinois Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, said to CQ reporter Tim Starks.

"Had this been simply a dispute over Middle East policy, Ambassador Freeman would have survived," Kirk said.

But some called that a smokescreen.

The issue was Israel, as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat, put it.

"Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position," Schumer said. "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."

For sure, other critics were mad about Freeman's views on China, such as when he said Beijing was provoked into a clamp down on Tibet because of the persistence of human rights advocates in Washington.

Freeman's other crime, in the eyes of neoconservatives, was that he is a foreign policy "realist" in the mold of Nixon-era foreign policy icon Henry Kissinger, who believed that America's democratic values should not prohibit the pursuit of stable relations with the Soviet Union and Mao tse-Tung's China.

"Freeman belongs to the camp that's the mortal enemy of the neoconservatives: the realists," wrote Jon Chait of The New Republic, in an influential opinion piece in The Washington Post.

"Realist ideology pays no attention to moral differences between states. As far as realists are concerned, there's no way to think about the way governments act except as the pursuit of self-interest ... they are completely blind to the moral dimensions of international politics."

Freeman's withdrawal would have ominous consequences, Dreyfuss forecast in his Feb. 25 Nation magazine piece.

"If the campaign by the neocons, friends of the Israeli far right, and their allies against Freeman succeeds, it will have enormous repercussions. If the White House caves in to their pressure, it will signal that President Obama's even-handedness in the Arab-Israeli dispute can't be trusted. ... " Dreyfuss wrote.

Hard to say, but Obama's Middle East team is indeed stacked with officials with close ties to Israel, including a former U.S. ambassador.

And you can bet the kibbutz on this: Obama won't risk another fight with the Israeli lobby with his next NIC pick.

Jeff Stein can be reached at Go to his daily SpyTalk blog at CQ Politics for more on this and other national security topics.