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Freeman: Israel’s policies destructive to US

Fri, 03 Apr 2009 17:11:32 GMTfreeman

By Susan Moddares
The following is a Press TV interview with former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles W. Freeman on the controversy surrounding his nomination and subsequent withdrawal form chairing the US National Intelligence Council.

Press TV: News of your nomination as director of the National Intelligence Council stirred mixed emotions among the American political establishment and initially you weren’t sure if you were going to take the position or not. What made you accept [Director of National Intelligence] Admiral Denis Blair’s offer to lead the National Intelligence Council at that time?

Freeman: Well it is true. I did not particularly want to go back into public service. I had given 30 years of my life to the government and was frankly enjoying the freedom to speak out, and do what I wanted and even make some money that came from being in the private sector.

But in the end Admiral Blair convinced me that I had a unique combination of things to give to the job; broad experience on every continent in the world; and a reputation for speaking my mind quite honestly and directly regardless of the political fall out.

What he wanted and I wanted was to improve the quality of the US intelligence, and to improve, enhance, its credibility. So,…in the end I guess I could not resist the call to serve my country one more time.

Press TV: Did it bother you that President Barack Obama remained silent when you were criticized for this position? Did you expect more of this administration and its “policies of change”?

Freeman: well I think that I was obviously disappointed that I did not have support from the White House. But as I understand it is the way this administration works, I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

Appointments in this administration are made on quite a decentralized basis. The President is a very confident manager and good managers delegate staffing decisions to their subordinates so I think too much has been read into this.

The reason I was selected was not to signal a policy change of any kind in any region of the world; the Middle East or anywhere else, but as I said to improve the credibility and quality of our intelligence output. I was made into a symbol of a policy change by my detractors because they projected some kind of fantasy of my going in with some strong anti-Israeli agenda, and nothing could have been further from my intention.

The point is that I think the decision not to back me was not a political signal of any kind, it simply reflects the reality of this administration.

Press TV: You say that you do not have an anti-Israeli agenda, but you have been quoted as calling the Israeli lobby in the United States as the Likud lobby that as detracting the American national interests, this strong lobby that we see inside Washington.

Freeman: Yes I believe there is a group, a relatively small group in American Jewish community, which is strongly aligned with Likud and even with Avigdor Lieberman and the Israel Beitenu movement in Israel, that uses quite despicable tactics of charlatanism assassination and political intimidation to get its way in American politics.

I don’t think this represents the majority of American Jews and it certainly does not represent the majority of the American people. In fact, one the most heartening elements in this political experience was the many expressions of support I had from Jewish friends and indeed many American Jews I had never met who thought that I was opening room for a debate that was long overdue and freeing them from a sort of oppression by these elements who sympathize with the most extreme political trends in the Israel proper.

Press TV: You expressed your dissatisfaction in your writings, saying that it actually bothers you to see that this small group of people are working in the interests of a foreign government on your soil. Why do you think they singled you out and prevented you from taking this post? Why were they intimidated a figure like you?

Freeman: Well, I do not think that they are working on behalf of a foreign government, but that they are working on behalf of a faction in a foreign country, which is even worst.

What is it that they objected to about me? Well I am critical of the Israeli policy. I believe Israel’s policies are destructive to American interests and also to Israeli interests.

I do not see how Israel can continue to survive in the long term as a state in the Middle East if it is not prepared to deal with respect and consideration with its Arab neighbors, especially the Palestinians.

I think it is not an act of hostility to Israel to be critical but an act of friendship, and the failure to observe that, see that and agree with that is what I think is most detestable about this group of people.

Press TV: This “particular group of people” probably would not agree with you when you say that being critical of them is an act of friendship, because it seems that criticizing Israeli policies abroad is much easier than criticizing them here in the United States, almost a taboo among Washington policy makers.

Freeman: Well it is very much a taboo and it has been employed in the kind of tactics that were applied to me and the great irony is that the Israelis themselves are far more critical and in much harsher terms of their government’s policies than I have ever been.

It is a strange thing that Israelis can criticize these things and somehow Americans are not allowed to.

Press TV: Why?

Freeman: Well, I think the interest of this group on the right-wing of the Israel lobby is to ensure that there is no debate; that Israel receives a blanket support for whatever it does; that it is not subject to criticism and that it is protected from the majority of the international communities’ anger over its actions.

The United States repeatedly exercises vetoes to in the United Nation’s Security Council to prevent criticism of Israel. All of this is seen somehow seen by this group of people as helpful to Israel. I think it is actually very destructive and unhelpful to Israel, because, it prevents Israel from having to make the sorts of choices that has to make if it is to survive as a state in the Middle East.

Press TV: And how destructive is this for American’s national interests. Americans say “For the people, by the people” and they mean Americans. Touching upon the patriotic issue, do you think that this is harming America’s image abroad in anyway?

Freeman: well my critics were themselves Americans but they are Americans with what George Washington called passionate attachment for a foreign country. He argues that such passionate attachments are destructive and should be avoided. So I believe that considerable damage has been done to the United States, and our image and our interests by and unreasoning support of whatever it is that is decided in Israel.

I believe the resulting atmosphere in the Arab world, and indeed the broader Muslim world, is conducive to the recruitment of terrorists who attack us, to hostility to the American interests, and efforts to undermine those interests in the broads swath of the Dar al Islam.

Press TV: at the beginning of the interview you said that you wanted to use this opportunity to bring change to the US intelligence? What kind of change would have brought to the council and what kind of change does this council need at this point in time?

Freeman: There have been grave issues with both the quality and the credibility of the United State intelligence in recent years. Not only was there the infamous slicing, dicing and stir-frying of intelligence that went on in preparation for the invasion of Iraq, but there have been other controversies and the political abuse of intelligence.

In many ways it has come to be seen that some people in Washington see intelligence as ammunition for political argument or polemics rather than a guide for policy making.

So, the object, what I wanted to do, was to restore realism and objectivity to the process and not by imposing my own views which may be wrong but by asking hard questions before people release a conclusion; I want to know why is it that you are saying this, is it because everybody else is saying this? Or is it because you have some evidence to back your saying; why do you come to the conclusion that you do, if it is at odds with the conclusion of others who have studied the same subject?

I would have like to have opened up the process and built some checks and balances to protect it against politicization. The irony is that of course I was accused of intending, myself, to politicize it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Press TV: Your critics were basically saying that because you have very strong feelings for the Middle East and China, and American policies regarding these regions that you might not have the objectivity to really lead this council. What is your response?

Freeman: I think that what they actually said is that the only conclusions of intelligence analysis are those that are politically correct, and if you are to come with a conclusion that politically unwelcome or inconvenient, we do not want to hear them.

To this I would say that if in fact the only acceptable outcome of analysis is conclusions that are stipulated before the analysis has even been done, why bother with the analysis at all? Why not just make a political statement and be done with it?

Press TV: Is that what has been happening?

Freeman: To some extent it has been. There has been an element of sycophancy and tailoring intelligence to fit the preconceptions or preferences of the consumer rather than to reflect the underlying facts.

Press TV: Let us talk about the current administration. Just recently you wrote that this whole episode has for you cast out on the willingness of the Obama administration- this is a direct quote- to consider, let alone decide what policies that might best serve the interests of the United States rather than those of a lobby intent on forcing the interests of a foreign government.

What does it take for the Obama administration to break free and move away from decisions like these?

Freeman: Well in the interest of accuracy I think I said that this development, the requirement for me to withdraw, would raise doubts in many people’s minds about the Obama administration’s ability to make decisions.

What does it take to reverse that? It takes action, it takes decisions. Talk is not enough in itself. I think the administration is much too new and has barely begun its work to make any judgment about what it may or may not be able to do in the Middle East.

So far, we had two very encouraging initiatives from the president, both in the nature of softening up issues for later discussions; the one was his decision to speak to Al-Arabia and the other was his Nowrouz message to the people of Iran and to the government of Iran, which he dignified with its official name.

These things in themselves do not solve problems but they indicate a desire to communicate, to listen, as well as speak and a willingness to try to understand the view point of the other side. That is the basis of a sound policy.

Press TV: His interview with Al-Arabia actually stirred a lot of fury in the Arab world as you may know. The Arab community was saying that that was not really an interview. It was a step but don’t actions usually speak a lot louder than words?

Freeman: Well in the end as I said there will have to be action for credibility to be restored. There has been much too much talk with no action. The classic example was the so-called Annapolis peace process at the end of the Bush administration which was either a farce or deception, I don’t know which.

I believe President Bush may actually have inhaled his own propaganda and believed that he was doing something. In the end of course it amounted to less than nothing.

Press TV: What about current President Barack Obama’s Nowrouz message to the Iranians? How would you view that? And what about the response that it got from Iranian officials?

Freeman:Well, I think it was in the nature of pre-negotiating step, and that both sides made it clear- he in his message and the Iranian government in its response- that pre-negotiation is not negotiation and that there are serious issues that need be addressed between the two countries and that neither side is in a position to pick and choose its agenda and has to address the agendas of both parties.

That is all very realistic and it does not in itself solve anything, but it certainly makes it easier to move to a problem-solving mode.

Press TV: What does it take for the betterment of ties between Tehran and Washington?

Freeman: Well it takes first of all the abandonment of a monotonous and strident message that the previous administration sent to Iran. I do not think that it is useful to call people evil and say that you will not talk to them unless they surrendered. It is not useful to threaten them with bombing, and attack. All this does is harden attitudes and provide a justification for the very nuclear program you object to.

President Obama has not repeated this litany. On the contrary, he has held out the possibility of broad discussions. Those discussions are not going to be easy. There are serious issues on both sides.

I suppose on the Iranian side, people want to go back to the early 1950s and the overthrow of a democratically elected government and its replacement with the regime of the Shah. And there will be other issues that are of concern, that are ancient and are long past but much-remembered in Iran.

On the United States side there are also serious issues having to do with the way in which Iran has exercised its growing influence in the region and the relationship that it has with the enemies of Israel, who are by our own decision our own enemies as well.

There will be a serious need to address the question of security in the [Persian] Gulf.

Press TV: What about the Israeli lobby or the Likud lobby, or AIPAC? Are they going to stand in the way of the betterment of ties between Washington and Tehran?

Freeman: I think this element that is the far-right in Israel and its sympathizers here see Iran as the only serious threat to Israel’s existence. I think that they are wrong about that.

I think that Iran’s actions are the most serious threat to Israel’s existence. I don’t believe that Iran intends to attack Israel, whatever it may say for political effect. The fact is that there is a danger that Israel will insist on its agenda.

I don’t think that the Obama administration is ready to cooperate with that. That is already an advance over the previous administration.

There are other questions with regards to the Israeli relationship with Iran in the past of course, because Iran is not Arab and lies behind the Arab world from the Israeli perspective.

Iran and Israel had a very close relationship. I suppose if that relationship were open to an Israeli government that had resolved the Palestinian issue for example, they would seize on it with alacrity and Iran and Israel would once again have good relations not withstanding their recent history.

So I am sure that one should not assume unrelenting hostility from either Israel or the Israeli lobby here to an improvement in relations with Iran under some circumstances.

Press TV: With pre-conditions?

Freeman: Under better conditions than the present. As long as Israel does not express a willingness to approve and pursue a two state solution, which allows the Palestinians to live free of oppression under an occupation, then there will still be a great incentive for Iran to exploit the animosity that the suffering of the Palestinians causes and there will be an opening for Iran to extend its influence in a way that is injurious to Israel.

If that issue were removed, I don’t think that Iran would have the same interest at all.

Press TV: it is interesting that we are talking about the policy community and the policy makers in the United States, and which ever path we take, it goes back to Israel and the Israeli government.

Let us shift from that and take a look at the policy community here in the United States. Do you think that they are ready for a fresh start with Iran?

Freeman: I think that there is a broad consensus that the past approach has failed. We have been locked in the past thirty years in some sort of impasse. Iran is too important a country to be ignored in the manner of which we have ignored it.

Iranian policies, including the nuclear program, are very serious issues which need to be discussed with Iran. I think there is something approaching a consensus about the need to engage with Iran. Whether that means that in the end we need to reach some common understanding with Tehran I do not know.

Press TV: The NIC is in the process of working on its latest NIE on Iran. What can you tell about this report?

Freeman: Well, I am not there so I can not tell you anything.

Press TV: But you have been on the forefront of these reports. Back in 2006, one of the most important decision making processes of United States was the NIE report so….

Freeman: I would say that with regard to the National Intelligence Estimates on Iran that they remain controversial, and it has been said that one of the reasons my appointment was blocked, was the fear that I might not come up with the politically correct conclusion that Iran is an irremediable threat to Israel and the United States.

What conclusion I might have come with if I had actually been on the job I do not know, because I have not seen the material that intelligence community is examining.

All I can say is that I hope that the intelligence community once again stands its ground and reports its own conclusions and not those that are politically convenient for the Likud lobby or any other faction in the US government.

Press TV: Back in 2006, the NIE regarding Iran stirred some controversy here in the United States, and some analysts say that even the Bush administration was caught by surprise.

Freeman: I think that the Bush administration was indeed very taken aback by the conclusion that Iran had suspended or possibly abandoned the nuclear weapons program while it was determined to continue other elements of a nuclear program.

I think that was very politically inconvenient for an administration which had been seeming to steal itself to attack Iran. It rather pulled the plug on that whole thing.

So the intelligence community, I think, demonstrated in that case that it was prepared to stand up and deliver a conclusion without regard to the political fallout that that conclusion would generate.

Press TV: What bout the appointment of Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State? Do you see, considering her past comments concerning the Middle East and her ideas about the region as a whole, do you see a fresh start on that part?

Freeman: Well, there is of course a question which has been raised, less about Hilary Clinton who is a very adaptable politician and very pragmatic, than about Denis Ross and his role. And the question is that can the same old faces produce new policies?

And the answer to that is we don’t know, because it is too early to tell. So far we are in a very preliminary stage of establishing the atmosphere for a more direct dialogue; we have not begun the dialogue itself.

Press TV: Do you approve of the appointment of Denis Ross? Do you think that he is the man to do the job?

Freeman: Well nobody asked for my approval and I have no official position from which I can confer approval on Denis Ross. I do not think that anyone would care very much what I have to say, but I think Denis Ross’s appointment was very reassuring to the Israelis and not very reassuring to anybody else.

Press TV: What’s next for Charles Freeman?

Freeman: Well I have the wonderful opportunity to reinvent myself. I have, in preparation for this job, severed all my commitments and I have left all of the positions that I had assumed over the previous fifteen years since leaving government.

Now I can go back to living the full life and I hope making some money so that I can fully enjoy the freedom that I have regained. In a sense, I have not lost anything.

I think my reputation actually has been enhanced, where I care about it, and those who denigrated me have perhaps had a pyrrhic victory that they may regret, because I believe the scope of debate on the issues they have sought to keep out of debate has now been opened somewhat.

Press TV: Do you think you will return to the US government?

Freeman: Well as I said I had no desire to return to the government in the beginning. I am relieved not to be in the government, but I fully intend to continue to speak out in public on issues regarding the Middle East and other issues that I care about.

Press TV: Some analysis have paralleled you to former US President Jimmy Carter in being an outspoken figure with regards to US policies and American alliance with Israel. Would relate to that?

Freeman: That is very distinguished company that they put me in and I am honored by it. It is not particularly a club I would have chosen to join.

Press TV: which club would have chosen to join?

Freeman: Well I am not much of a club type. I think President Carter has demonstrated both a very deep commitment to human rights and humane policy and realism, and I find it absurd that someone who brokered the Camp David accords at considerable political expense and with great difficulty should be accused of somehow being anti-Israel. This is preposterous.

I would like to think that my own focus which is to help Israel to do what is necessary to ensure its existence for the long term, would also be seen as pro-Israel and not anti-Israel.

*Viewers can watch Face to Face on Fridays at 1835 GMT.


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