Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Parting Shot That Maligns Obama, Too

Charles Lane
Washington Post

There's been much talk about Charles Freeman and the angry parting shot he aimed at the "Israel Lobby," which he blames for forcing him to withdraw as President Obama's choice for chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Amid the hubbub, however, no one seems to have noticed that Freeman's broadside against "unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country" was also a not-very-implicit indictment of the president himself.

To be sure, Freeman protested his "respect" for both Obama and Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence directly responsible for picking Freeman. But if Freeman's attack on the "Israel Lobby" means anything at all, it is that the president and his staff are either too weak to resist the machinations of these foreign agents -- or are in cahoots with them. The same would go for the senators and House members who also opposed Freeman.

Freeman himself wrote that the affair "will be seen by many to raise serious questions about whether the Obama administration will be able to make its own decisions about the Middle East and related issues. I regret that my willingness to serve the new administration has ended by casting doubt on its ability to consider, let alone decide, what policies might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government."

So far, however, President Obama has had exactly nothing to say about this extraordinary claim -- either in his own defense, or in defense of the American citizens whom Freeman has impugned.

Asked on Tuesday whether Obama agreed that Freeman was "unfairly driven out," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he hadn't talked to the president about it and left the briefing room. When I contacted the White House press office on Friday, a spokesman e-mailed back that they "don't have anything additional to add."

No doubt the president faces a dilemma. I imagine that he finds Freeman's comments repugnant, but to say so publicly would raise questions about why the man was appointed in the first place. And Obama has other things on his plate. If I were him, I'd rather deal with Citibank than dive into the nasty Freeman fight.

But the administration's silence is disappointing just the same. The president needs to knock Freeman's insinuations down hard -- for two reasons. The first is to stop them from gaining any more currency than they already have in the rest of the world, especially in Arab and Muslim regions.

The second has to do with the United States itself and the quality of our political culture. Barack Obama first electrified the country when he told the Democratic convention in 2004 that "we are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America." That ennobling message helped propel him to the White House, and it is a major theme of his presidency.

Letting Freeman's comments pass unchallenged would undercut it.

To be sure, Freeman and his supporters feel ill used. The criticism he faced was not 100 percent fair; some of it went over the top in labeling him a pawn of the Saudis, etc. But for the most part it wasn't "libelous," as Freeman claims. It was basically a strong policy reaction based on his own voluminous paper trail.

That paper trail ranges from the brilliant to the offensive to the strange -- such as Freeman's 2006 speech to the United States Information Agency Alumni Association, in which he labeled both American political parties "xenophobic, Islamophobic, Arabophobic, and anti-immigrant." The United States, he opined, had become "the planet's most despised nation, with its most hateful policies."

Even if Freeman had a perfectly legitimate grievance, even if he had been maligned, he wouldn't be entitled to respond in kind -- much less to brand large numbers of his fellow citizens as fifth columnists. His accusations of dual loyalty went a step beyond even Patrick Buchanan's famous rant against Israel's "amen corner" in America.

Accepting his party's nomination for president last summer, President Obama declared that "one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and each other's patriotism."

Now would be a good time to say it again.

Charles Lane is a member of the editorial page staff.

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