The possibility that Chas Freeman was brought down by an ad hoc operation run on a shoestring by a rogue ex-AIPAC official, Steven Rosen, awaiting trial on espionage charges, working the political and media pipe organ like the neo-conservatives did in the run-up to the Iraq war, is an indication that the guns are in place, the mines are laid, and—more disturbingly—that the Obama administration wandered into the battlefield bereft of a plan, arms, or allies close at hand and got its hat handed to it.
There’s understandable handwringing on thoughtful foreign policy blogs that hoped Freeman taking over something called the National Intelligence Council would lead to a more sensible, less reflexively pro-Israel stance on Middle East issues.
Of course, AIPAC has not endeared itself or its patron to the Obama administration by spearheading a nasty, humiliating, and successful battle to bar a high-level and qualified nominee from a significant post. Take for example the blog post by the Israel Policy Forum’s M.J Rosenberg:
The campaign to defeat Chas Freeman… may come at a cost. The perception, almost universally held, that he was brought down because he is a strong and vocal opponent of Israel’s West Bank and settlement policies is, not good for the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community in particular.…What does it all mean? …[An] insider I spoke to last night said: “This was a real pyrrhic victory. One, the administration is pissed off. And, two, Obama is going to be more determined than ever to take a strong stand on settlements, Gaza relief, and negotiations. They shot their wad on Freeman. They will not think that was so smart a few months from now.”
Let me tell you what it all means, MJ. As far as Israel’s lobbying position in Washington, zip.
Israel’s access to buckets of U.S. money and shiploads of arms is secure as long as the grass grows and the rivers run, no matter what it does with settlements on the West Bank or to the people of Gaza.
The real significance of the fight against Freeman takes us away from the traditional need to affirm the right of Israel to exist, enjoy America’s commitment to its continued survival, and consume its yearly entitlement from the U.S. budget. It has everything to do with trying to disrupt Obama’s initiative to engage with Iran — an initiative that has the active encouragement of Russia, probably tacit support from China, and the active interest of Iran itself.
Iran has an interesting battery of carrots to offer the United States. Beyond helping keep the lid on in Iraq by moderating the behavior of the majority Sh’ia against the Sunni, an active Iranian role in Afghanistan could do the United States a world of good, especially in opening some kind of second front against the Taliban in the opium heartland of western Afghanistan and providing an alternative to the risky Pakistan route for U.S. and NATO supplies into Afghanistan.
But rapprochement with Iran is anathema to the Israeli government, since it would replace the current situation—where it is assumed that the interests of Tel Aviv and Washington are identical and, if there is a conflict, Israeli priorities should prevail because it has the most at stake — to a more complicated arrangement in which Israel’s position might be downgraded to that of just another stakeholder, whose interests might be compromised by Washington for the sake of its geopolitical objectives and bilateral dealings with Iran.
Back on February 6, concerning the signs of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, I wrote oh-so-presciently (my crystal ball was polished to a brilliant sheen for this one):
Direct U.S. dealmaking with Iran (in effect, giving a higher priority to America’s own strategic interests a la Walt-Mearsheimer at the expense of unequivocal support of Israel’s priorities and preferences) is Israel’s greatest fear, so any thawing of relations between Washington and Tehran will have to run the multiple gauntlets of opposition, resistance, provocation, and sabotage thrown down by the Israeli government (soon, apparently, to be run by the hard-right Benjamin Netanyahu) and its allies in the United States.
So, consider l’affaire Freeman the first conspicuous salvo in the effort to sabotage the Obama administration’s outreach to Tehran.
Under the Bush administration, when the identity of U.S. and Israeli priorities was pretty much a given, regional confrontation was a welcome opportunity to advance Full Spectrum Dominance, and the idea of fighting two billion-dollar wars (plus for good measure a Global War on Terror) was considered to play to America’s economic and military strengths, AIPAC’s trashing of Middle East realists was not such a big deal.
But now we are in classic Walt-Mearsheimer territory, where the Obama administration’s intense desire to disengage from Iraq and fix Afghanistan requires at the very least a divergence from Israeli priorities and at worst (from Tel Aviv’s point of view) bilateral engagement with Iran.
Provocation, obstruction and even the active sabotage of U.S. Iran initiatives inflicts few costs on Israel. Israel’s political position in Washington is secure, and its claim to unstinting U.S. support is enhanced rather than damaged if it occupies an isolated position at the center of a dysfunctional Middle East filled with Muslim nations hostile both to it and the United States.
For the United States, it’s different. The Obama administration is trying to unwind from overextended positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It needs the help of regional powers that have real reach and positive interests inside Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid a catastrophic mess that would damage U.S. interests and cripple the Obama presidency.
That means Iran. And Syria.
I anticipate unending efforts by Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress, media, and think tank commentariat to make the political cost of dealing with Iran unsupportable for the Obama administration. And with the economy stuck in a mile-deep rut, President Obama may in fact decide not to pick a fight over Iran and do little more than prolong the bloody standoffs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, while the Schumers and Liebermans of this world celebrate Freeman’s withdrawal and engage in their enthusiastic osculation of AIPAC’s obliging hindquarters, they should consider that continued confrontation in the Middle East and drift in U.S. policy will have real costs for American interests and the world.
In order to pull the world out of recession, it’s better to have functioning states and economies in the Middle East and South Asia and working relationships with global and regional powers–not billion-dollar sinkholes for destabilizing security spending and defiant antagonism to Russia, China, and Iran.
That means the U.S. needs concerted multi-lateral efforts to ratchet down the existential crises looming in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, potentially, Iraq. The world system is in shaky shape and today we may not be able to afford the domestic political division, confrontation-and-conflict based foreign policy, and international instability that indulging the Israel lobby traditionally brings.
PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.