Charles W. “Chas” Freeman Jr. is an author and career diplomat who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, assistant Secretary of Defense, and assistant Secretary of State among many other jobs. He was famous for serving as principal interpreter on Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972 and for being chosen by the Obama administration to be director of National Intelligence Council in 2009, an appointment so vigorously opposed by Israel supporters that Freeman withdrew. This interview was conducted by phone, with additions by email.
Chas, you said in an email that your concern about the congressional push against the Iran deal is broader than just Middle East issues.
I’m quite concerned about the impact the Iran deal and its possible aftermath could have on our domestic politics and our standing in the world. I’m particularly worried that Congress may be devaluing the power of the executive to conduct foreign policy in future.
The 47 senators remind me of the 47 ronin. (Look it up– a famous episode in 18th century Japan when 47 leaderless samurai ran amok and ended up doing themselves in.) Our 47 ronin wrote a letter to the Ayatollah saying basically: Pay no attention to our leader, he has no authority to act on behalf of the American people and anything he plans to do we plan to undo. Whatever else this letter was, it was stunningly irresponsible.
This was a new low for something that has always been a concern in the eyes of the world. The US separation of powers raises the question, when you deal with our president, are you dealing with someone who has the ability to close a deal?
Has that ever been a real issue?
It certainly was in the case of the League of Nations. The League of Nations was inspired by and shaped by Woodrow Wilson. He made its creation a major aim of World War I. And without commenting on the wisdom of it, it clearly exemplified American idealism and our belief in a rule-bound international order.
We persuaded reluctant allies to sign up for it. It was our vision — not theirs — of what should come out of the huge war we had just fought together. But the League of Nations was repudiated by the Republican Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge. That repudiation led to a withdrawal of the US from international affairs – the isolationism of the 1920s and ’30s, in which the richest country in the world conducted itself selfishly and without consideration of commitments to its allies in the war.
There are other examples in our history where we’ve done that sort of thing, but the relevance to the Iran deal is obvious. We are at risk of a League of Nations moment.
Any Iran agreement will require action by the United Nations Security Council. If there’s a deal, the Security Council will have to act to remove the sanctions it imposed. These are binding on everyone, including the Russians and the Chinese. There are also US sanctions, unilateral sanctions, many of them joined by our NATO allies. These sanctions are not binding on other countries, like Russia or China, or India.
We have developed a habit of acting without regard to the Security Council – in the Iraq invasion, in the campaign in Bosnia, and in the detachment of Kosovo from Serbia, which the Russians lately cited as precedent for their Crimean activities. Well, now Congress has raised the possibility that it will try to override the Security Council and part ways with our allies to prevent Iran from getting any sanctions relief at all, regardless what we may have agreed with Iran.
This could bring down or at least gravely weaken the U.N. system, which is the post World War II order we have dominated. It would be a fundamental and perhaps fatal break between the U.S. and its principal allies in Europe. And it would degrade — it might mean the end of — American credibility in dealing with anybody in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere in the world.
Let’s say you go out with some friends and reach agreement with other people on how you should all settle a bitter quarrel. And then you come home and your wife or husband says, you can’t do that, and blocks you from keeping your part of the bargain. Well, nothing you say is going to be taken seriously by anyone after that. We all have only one reputation for seriousness of purpose to lose. That’s what’s at stake here. This has much wider implications than the particulars of the US versus Iran, or the US versus the Israel lobby, or the US versus the rightwing government in Israel.
People don’t seem to be thinking about the larger consequences of what’s at stake. That’s because American don’t worry about our reputation, we think it’s inviolable and unassailable. In fact it’s pretty shitty just now. Arguably, we have the world’s first genuinely autistic government: we seem uninterested in — perhaps incapable of — seeing ourselves as others see us.
You think this is a recent trend?
It reflects our domestic dysfunction.
For example, in 2010 we agreed to fairly modest changes in the governance of the IMF and the World Bank, because their governance doesn’t reflect the current distribution of wealth and slights countries like China and India. These organizations are central elements of the global order. They overweight the US and Europe. So we agreed to modest changes to plus up the role of newly prosperous places like China. But Congress has been unable to do anything to implement this agreement. It hasn’t really tried to do so.
Finally, a few months ago, China proposed a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to meet some of the investment needs that the existing institutions couldn’t. We urged our allies and friends not to join the Chinese bank, but 57 countries, including our major NATO allies and Israel, went ahead and joined it anyway. We claimed the right to lead but we proved incapable of leading because of our domestic political divisions and dysfunction. And so we devalued our credibility. Next time we take a stand, it’ll be even harder to persuade others to follow us.
Now we seem headed for an agreement that imposes constraints on Iran’s nuclear programs that go way beyond the NPT and the expectations of critics of the negotiations. And we may be about to repudiate our own success, just as we repudiated the fruits of victory in World War I.
What’s the damage? Every society has issues?
If you can’t deliver on your word, you’re a deadbeat. That can be dangerous. In the case of World War I and the League of Nations, our inability to deliver on our commitments due to our domestic politics worked out really badly.
We excluded Germany from a role in the governance of Europe, and that led to a lot of very nasty developments there. And we were left with no governing structure for global affairs despite the need for one. World War II and the Cold War were the direct result of these failures.
Now the U.S. Congress may be setting us and the world up for a similar setback to our leadership or preparing to create another institutional vacuum, diminishing our role in world affairs or turning it negative and putting us at a disadvantage with other great powers — our allies as well as our adversaries.
Are you talking about the world’s interest or ours?
I was a professional diplomat and served my country for thirty years. I can’t break the habit of putting US interests first. I’m concerned about what partisan irresponsibility is doing to our ability to navigate world affairs, our ability to protect and advance our interests, our ability to exercise influence over others. But we are enormously powerful. So what we do matters to everyone on this planet.
What power does the US have on the UN on sanctions?
Well, the US has a veto. Can the US exercise the veto and refuse to lift UN-authorized sanctions, irrespective of what else is going on? Maybe the Republican Senate will try to force the president to do that. I don’t think he would give in to them. But, whatever we end up doing, the reality is that the Congress of the United State cannot dictate the policies of Britain, France, and Germany. If they are cooperating with us on sanctions, they’re doing so as allies. And Russia, India and China are cooperating only to the extent that the UN has required them to or we and our allies have been able to pressure them to. Treating our allies with contemptuous indifference will have consequences. Trying to veto an Iran deal that they helped put together will cause those who have been with us to turn against us.
Unfortunately, you can’t entirely rule out the U.S. repudiating its own policies in the Security Council. A year ago, only the suborning of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan prevented our having to veto our own policies on Palestine [abstaining last year on a Palestine statehood resolution, depriving Palestine of the nine votes it needed; the US opposed the resolution]. Our actions went against our stated policy on a Palestinian state and reflected a White House surrender to domestic pressures. Now the White House has again shown its weakness by signing up to a compromise giving Congress a veto over the results of negotiations with Iran, notwithstanding the interests or views of our negotiating partners and the international community. It’s gotten so you never know whether we will act in our own interests or against them.
But this is not a surprise to anyone in the world. It’s been happening for years. I once went to a lodge in New Guinea and the Australians there were talking about the Israel lobby in the U.S.
That’s true, and people in the Middle East are not in the least surprised that the flea directs the dog, as it were. The moment in which it became impossible to deny this was when George W. Bush told Ariel Sharon not to go into the Jenin refugee camp in 2002 and Sharon basically gave him the bird and went in and the US did nothing. Everyone knows that the U.S. is the enabler of Israeli misbehavior and creates moral hazard for it: Israel can do anything it frikkin wants and be confident that the US will pick up the pieces — save it from the consequences of its own mistakes.
People around the world have come to see the U.S. as a shill for Israel — proclaiming policies and negotiating deals and then walking away from them because the Israel lobby insists on our doing so.
Sheldon Adelson and his ilk call the shots, not the American people. Our politics are now so venal that our democracy excites no admiration anywhere. On Israel and many other issues, policy clearly reflects the views of wealthy donors, not the views of any majority. Only a small minority of American Jews stand with Mr. Adelson but his opinions, not theirs, are what matter. America looks like a plutocracy to a growing number of people. That’s how they’ll see us if the Iran deal goes down to Adelson and Israel.
What will happen with the Iran deal?
Deep down, I hope that members of Congress will understand the stakes and will pull the plug on this business of undermining the authority of the presidency to represent us internationally. That is something only the president can do. If this president is repudiated on the Iran matter, the next president will be gravely incapacitated. That means our country will be incapacitated.
This is a constitutional crisis. One of many we’re going through. Another being the war power. We don’t follow the clear language of the constitution. The Constitution doesn’t work on matters of peace and war anymore. And habeas corpus and the freedom from surveillance and so forth are gone—we no longer provide an example to the world of the rule of law.
Did we ever?
One of the main aims of our foreign policy for much of the 20th century was the promotion of norms of international law. World War II led Roosevelt to push for the United Nations, which enshrines international law and attempted to give it teeth. For a long time we took it seriously. When we opposed the Soviet Union, we set our vision of the rule of law against their ideological expediency.
The end of the cold war ended that.
When we became the sole superpower– that changed the calculation. The purpose of law is to protect the weak. After the demise of the USSR, there was no one who really rivaled or threatened us, so we decided we didn’t need law anymore, and we became increasingly scofflaw. That’s something we have in common with Israel. It pioneered the scofflaw behavior that we now practice, when it decided to ignore Security Council resolutions and the opinions of the international community because we supported it and it could. It also came up with the doctrine of preemptive warfare that we adopted.
So having spent the first part of the 20th century espousing international law, and trying to implement a system based on it, after the Cold War, we abandoned that effort and went in our own direction.
The concept of human rights is deeply embedded in the American psyche. But it wasn’t a central theme of our foreign policy until Jimmy Carter made it one. We were never consistent in giving respect for human rights priority but we tried to craft policies that bowed to it as an objective. We have now abandoned even lip service to human rights in the Middle East. Just consider our resumption of arms sales to Egypt as it tortures and executes huge numbers of its citizens or our exemption of Israel from laws requiring the suspension of military aid when a country uses US weapons to commit gross abuses of human rights, as Israel does daily in the West Bank and Gaza. In practice, we don’t seem to care about human rights anymore.
Once at least we pretended to do otherwise.
Isn’t the Israel lobby in the headlights over the Iran deal? Isn’t that progress for the American discourse?
If you look at the latest polling on Republican and Democratic support, Israel is now a very highly a partisan issue. So yes, that marks the evolution of the issue from one that’s obscure to one that’s out in the open and being discussed. The role of the lobby has gotten more and more obvious. The most symbolically potent moment was when Mrs. Adelson’s purse fell onto the head of a congressman as Adelson looked on and the Israeli prime minister and his congressional puppets put on the theatrical production he had paid for.
People see this. Amid the general public disgust has risen very high.
And people are less likely to be intimidated by the anti-Semitism charge.
That’s right. American Jews have split on the issue of Israel; that’s been the key. It’s made it clear that dislike of Israeli policies is not the same as dislike of Jews. Once Jewish unity could be invoked by accusing any non Jew who spoke in other than glowing terms about Israel of being an anti-Semite. The mere possibility of the charge of anti-Semitism was enough to stifle all debate.
Now the fact the American Jewish community is openly debating the consequences of Zionism and other issues having to do with Israel, combined with the profligate use of the charge of anti-Semitism, has changed the equation. An anti-Semite used to be someone who hated Jews. Now it can mean someone who some Jew thinks other Jews should hate. So it can indicate someone persecuted by Jews as well as someone who wants to harm Jews. And so you see people brushing off the slur and not taking the accusation too seriously, hateful as it is.
I thought it was high noon for the lobby in 2006 with the Walt Mearsheimer paper. But that was just one of a number of steps. It’s been years. Your firing in 2009 was another step.
What happened wasn’t anything I’d planned. But I think that by doing a back flip and three twists and giving my attackers the finger on the way down instead of silently walking the plank as so many before me had done I helped open the issue of the lobby’s unhealthy role in our politics to public debate.
Since then there have been a series of additional lapses in judgment by elements of the Israel lobby, culminating in its egregious overreach in the Iran negotiations and the Netanyahu appearance before Congress.
And now an openly partisan divide has opened up because of Netanyahu’s hubris. It’s incredible! I can’t think of an example in history of so thorough an “own goal” by a leader. I knew he was self-centered, and showing contempt for the United States helped him win reelection. But, this latest set of maneuvers on his part has to take the cake. He didn’t think twice about trashing the interests of his country to advance his own.
So they will lose on the Iran deal?
I believe they will, because the lobby now routinely overreaches. It seems to have no sense of proportion. The extreme Israel firsters don’t even pretend to be divided in loyalty, they show loyalty only to Israel. For instance, Adelson declaring that he regrets wearing an American uniform and wishes he had served in the IDF– I don’t think many Americans hear that kind of thing with pleasure. This is an example of extreme obnoxiousness and lack of consideration for one’s fellow citizens. It is very off-putting. It tests the limits of acceptable behavior and fails them.
Why are Republicans supporting Israel?
Money. Money. Money. Some may have swallowed the Israel line hook line and sinker. But for most it’s all about campaign contributions. This is why I said that we have the world’s most notoriously venal politics. We have malefactors of great wealth openly pulling the strings, and in many cases they are identified with Israel.
The Iran deal goes well beyond the Israel lobby in your view.
Yes. The lobby’s efforts to skew policy are unhelpful but, in my view, the real issues now are the consequences of partisanship to our ability to operate in the world order we created and that is now disintegrating. And our ability to secure our interests in the system that replaces the one that’s on the way out. And the status of the president as our spokesperson internationally. And the status of the constitution, and whether it is still a serious document, with an effective separation of powers that gives us the ability to make sound decisions and stick with them.
In that separation, the Congress was to serve as a board of directors, authorizing and funding policies, offering guidance, and monitoring policy implementation. The Congress was not supposed to micromanage the executive or attempt to carry out policy itself. The president was supposed to seek authority and guidance from Congress but exercise judgment about how best to do things. Now we have an undeclared war with Daesh, and the Congress is debating after the fact what the president can and can’t do– not what the policy should be. It is trying to dictate tactics. And no one is crafting a strategy. This is not how our constitution is supposed to work.
Hasn’t Obama achieved something by jilting Netanyahu?
I see Obama’s 2013 visit to Jerusalem as the graduation ceremony for a trust fund kid. Israel, you’re on your own now. I’m not going to do anything for you now but keep the checks coming. It’s your problem if you don’t follow the ideas I’ve laid out. Good luck to you.
This was the message I thought I heard then. Obama later let Kerry spin out the farce of trying to restart a peace process. But he did not interrupt the enablement of Israel and offered it no counsel.
Obama’s attitude toward the Israeli right wing seems clear: Let them destroy their country if that’s what they want to do. Now this and the Israeli election have given the Israeli right what it always wanted: a blank check to take Israel wherever it desires without fear of American obstruction. Obama seems to me to be saying to Israel, If you drive off the road and wreck yourself, that’s your problem, not ours.