In a normal world, people in Washington might welcome the hiring of a “realist” to oversee the production of U.S. intelligence analyses, with the hope that even if the truth doesn’t set you free, it at least might be the foundation for sound policies.
But that is not the world in which the United States finds itself. In today’s Washington, the city’s preeminent newspaper publishes a neoconservative attack on President Barack Obama’s choice to oversee intelligence analyses because the person is a “realist.”
Despite having lost standing with the American people for leading them into the Iraq War and other disasters, the neocons still have a strong beachhead in the national news media and are using it to wage a nasty rear-guard battle against Obama’s appointment of former U.S. Ambassador Chas W. Freeman to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which vets National Intelligence Estimates on threats facing the United States.
Freeman’s chief offense, according to The New Republic’s Jon Chait in a Washington Post op-ed, is that the appointee is “an ideological fanatic” because Freeman believes excessively in “realism” and fails to apply a moral filter when looking at the world.
In Chait’s neocon critique, “realism” is not simply a hard assessment of what today's challenges are; it is an “ideology” – and thus open to dismissal as simply a competitive way of understanding the world.
“Realist ideology pays no attention to moral differences between states,” Chait wrote in a Feb. 28 article entitled “Obama’s Intelligence Blunder.” He added: “As far as realists are concerned, there's no way to think about the way governments act except as the pursuit of self-interest.”
Chait concedes that “realism has some useful insights. For instance, realists accurately predicted that Iraqis would respond to a U.S. invasion with less than unadulterated joy,” but he complains that realists “are completely blind to the moral dimensions of international politics.”
Yet, the supposed purpose of U.S. intelligence analysis is to provide the President and other policymakers with an objective assessment of the world with the understanding that they – not the analysts – should put the facts into a broader vision of American interests, including moral and political judgments.
Chait’s article – published without any balance by the Washington Post’s neocon-oriented editorial section – also reflects a continuation of what the neocons set out to do more than three decades ago, gain control of the CIA’s analytical division to give cover to favored neocon policies.
The neocons, who are essentially right-wing intellectuals wanting to bend U.S. government policy in directions that fit their ideological interests, recognized early on that seizing the main levers of information inside Washington was crucial. So, they took aim at two targets in particular: the CIA’s analytical division and national journalists.
The origins of this extraordinary assault on reality can be traced back to 1976 when a young neocon named Paul Wolfowitz joined with a band of Cold War hard-liners to gain access to the CIA’s raw intelligence on the Soviet Union for what became known as the “Team B” experiment.
At the time, CIA analysts were spotting systemic weaknesses in the Soviet system, a finding that encouraged Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to pursue a policy of “détente” aimed at reducing tensions with Moscow and possibly ending the Cold War.
However, “détente” was anathema to the neocons and the hard-liners – many of whom had ties to the military-industrial complex – so “Team B” not surprisingly concluded that the Soviet Union was actually on the rise and on the march, possessing new military technologies that were creating a “window of vulnerability” for the United States.
Under political pressure from Ronald Reagan and the ideological Right, President Ford soon scrapped any talk about “détente” and the stage was set for reigniting the Cold War (with massive new U.S. military spending) when Reagan became President in 1981.
Reagan then credentialed many of the key neoconservatives, the likes of Elliott Abrams and Richard Perle, who continued their collaboration with old-time hardliners like CIA Director William Casey. He began purging the CIA analytical division of “realists” who stubbornly kept seeing evidence of the Soviet Union’s rapid deterioration.
Casey’s key action officer within the CIA’s analytical division was a young up-and-comer named Robert Gates, who ousted or marginalized analysts who refused to march to the new ideological drummers.
Gates’s politicization of the analytical division proved so effective regarding the issue of the Soviet decline that the CIA and the U.S. government were caught off-guard when the East Bloc and the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. [In 2006, Gates became George W. Bush's Defense Secretary, a post he has retained under President Obama.]
Also, in the 1980s, a parallel operation, run out of Reagan’s National Security Council, went after journalists who uncovered unwelcome facts about the administration’s support for brutal right-wing despots in Central America and Africa – or who dug up critical information about policies in the Middle East, especially anything that reflected poorly on Israel.
As intellectuals who followed the elitist philosophy of Leo Strauss, the neocons understood the vital need to control and shape the information that reached politicians and the public, all the better to manipulate them. This concept was known internally as “perception management.” [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
When George W. Bush took power in 2001 and many of the Reagan-era neocons returned, they simply picked up where they had left off. The neocons were back twisting intelligence analyses to fit their policy desires and spinning reporters who then published slanted stories, scaring the American people and ultimately clearing the way to the Iraq War.
Only after years of Bush’s catastrophes did American voters push back, stripping the Republicans of congressional control in 2006 and handing the Democrats the White House in 2008.
But the neocons and other rightists retain one important bastion of power: the U.S. news media, which can roughly be divided between the right-wing media infrastructure, from print to radio to TV to the Internet, and mainstream journalism, which includes important pro-neocon outlets like the Washington Post and The New Republic.
Which gets us back to Obama’s appointment of Chas Freeman to oversee the production of U.S. intelligence analyses.
On the surface, Freeman would seem eminently qualified. A former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Freeman also was a top Defense Department official under President Reagan and now heads up the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based think tank on the region.
But the neocons and the Right launched a fierce attack against Freeman because he threatens their influence over U.S. intelligence estimates and thus their ability to exaggerate dangers and to manage the perceptions of politicians and the public.
So, as Chait does in his Post op-ed, the neocons have transformed Freeman’s realism into evidence that “he’s an ideological fanatic.”
But Chait’s real beef with Freeman appears to be that he thinks the “Israel Lobby” actually exists in Washington. It is a staple of neocon rhetoric that anyone who observes the political clout of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or other influential pro-Israel groups must be an enemy of Israel.
“Realists tend not to abide the American alliance with Israel, which rests on shared values with a fellow imperfect democracy rather than on a cold analysis of America's interests,” Chait wrote. “Taken to extremes, realism's blindness to morality can lead it wildly astray. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, both staunch realists, wrote ‘The Israel Lobby,’ a hyperbolic attack on Zionist political influence.
“The central error of their thesis was that, since America's alliance with Israel does not advance American interests, it could be explained only by sinister lobbying influence. They seemed unable to grasp even the possibility that Americans, rightly or wrongly, have an affinity for a fellow democracy surrounded by hostile dictatorships. Consider, perhaps, if eunuchs tried to explain the way teenage boys act around girls.
“Freeman praised ‘The Israel Lobby’ while indulging in its characteristic paranoia. ‘No one else in the United States has dared to publish this article,’ he told a Saudi news service in 2006, ‘given the political penalties that the lobby imposes on those who criticize it.’ In fact, the article was printed as a book the next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York.”
Though Chait argues that Freeman is paranoid about how today’s neocon-dominated Washington metes out punishment to dissenters, the broad – and vicious – assault on Freeman’s reputation would seem to prove the point.
The Washington Times published its own smear job against Freeman, written by former Reagan administration Pentagon official Frank Gaffney.
“The announcement ... that the Obama administration would turn over the job of preparing National Intelligence Estimates to a man whom Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and Hamas surely consider an agent of influence calls to mind an old axiom about Charles ‘Chas’ Freeman's new line of work — ‘Garbage in, garbage out,’” Gaffney wrote on March 3.
It is classic neocon/Right style to accuse someone who disagrees with them of treason, or in this case, acting as “an agent of influence” for adversarial or hostile states.
The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss also took note of this “thunderous, coordinated assault against" Freeman.
Dreyfuss traced the initial assault to “a few right-wing blogs,” before it “migrated to semi-official mouthpieces like the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and ... reached the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the form of the scurrilous piece by Gabriel Schoenfeld, a resident scholar at some outfit called ‘the Witherspoon Institute.’”
Dreyfuss also noted that staunch neocon Martin Peretz, Chait’s boss at The New Republic, also weighed in against Freeman.
“Freeman's real offense,” Peretz wrote, “is that he has questioned the loyalty and patriotism of not only Zionists and other friends of Israel, the great swath of American Jews and their Christian countrymen, who believed that the protection of Zion is at the core of our religious and secular history.”
Dreyfuss added: “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. ...
“Freeman is a one-of-a-kind choice: with an impeccably establishment pedigree, Freeman has developed over the years a startling propensity to speak truth to power, which is precisely what one would want in a NIC chairman.”
In the wake of the Iraq War and the disastrous Bush presidency, the neocons have been driven back from their key positions in government. But they have not gone away and through their media power, they apparently hope to exercise a veto over whom President Obama can appoint to important jobs – and to make sure that “realism” remains a dirty word.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on March 7, 2009.