Winners and losers in the knock-down fight over Charles Freeman's aborted appointment.

Military analysis.
March 11 2009 7:09 PM

Intelligence Failure

Winners and losers in the knock-down fight over Charles Freeman's aborted appointment.

Chas Freeman. Click image to expand.
Charles Freeman 

Discomfiting as it is to say so, President Barack Obama was right to cut Charles Freeman loose—but not for the reasons that Freeman's foes might think.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It's always discomfiting when nominees to high office are done in by mendacious pressure campaigns—and that's clearly what happened to Freeman, who was about to be named chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the interagency group that produces the official National Intelligence Estimates.

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But in this case, while the campaigners are no doubt celebrating their victory now, they may find that in the long run they've committed a strategic blunder.

When news of Freeman's impending appointment leaked last month, two sets of opposition groups leapt into action. Pro-Israel lobbyists, bloggers, and legislators protested that Freeman was hostile to Israel and in the pay of the Saudis. Some human rights groups, especially those sympathetic to Tibetans, complained that he was an apologist for China's ruling dictators, even for their crackdown on dissidents at Tiananmen Square.

The position of NIC chairman does not require Senate confirmation, but several senators—Democrats and Republicans—expressed their deep misgivings, publicly and privately, and they were heard at the highest levels. On Tuesday, Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, defended Freeman at a Senate hearing. If President Obama had intended to put up a fight, he or one of his spokesmen would have backed up Blair's defense. But the White House stayed mum—and Freeman's doom was thus sealed.

Freeman's friends and former colleagues—many of whom had worked with him during his many years as a foreign service officer and a senior Pentagon official—decried the whole scummy process. During the struggle for his nomination, which was carried out almost entirely in the blogosphere, they mustered evidence showing that Freeman's critics were distorting his statements, taking them out of context, in some cases wildly so.

For the most part, his defenders were right. For instance, the critics claimed that Freeman once said that Chinese officials had acted with restraint at Tiananmen Square and that they should have plowed down the dissidents more quickly—when, in fact, he said that they were more restrained and slower to act than Mao Zedong would have been. He certainly did not condone the crackdown. And though his speeches on the Middle East have been more critical of Israel than of the Palestinians—here his critics had a point—his critiques have been more unbalanced than wrong; his main sin has been to hold Israel even partially at fault. (For more on the things he has and hasn't said, click here.)

But a debate on the merits is beside the point. Once Freeman became a lightning rod—once his impending job became about him and some of the things he's said since leaving government for the world of think tanks—President Obama had no choice but to abort the appointment. Otherwise, he would have faced not only a struggle over personnel but a never-ending series of struggles over policy.