The Great Vetting Disaster

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 11, 2009

During the 2008 campaign, it seemed whenever someone–anyone–demonstrated the temerity to question whether then-Senator Obama had the executive experience to be the President of the United States, such a question would be met with a chorus of disapproval and outrage on the part of Obamaphiles. After all, reasoned the future President’s ardent fans, the Obama campaign itself was a splendidly run operation and was a testament to Barack Obama’s executive management skills. Surely, running the country would not be that much more difficult.

We are reminded now that indeed it is. Verily, we are reminded that running the country is significantly more difficult than running a campaign.

2009 is the anti-2008 for Team Obama. Whereas, last year, the Obama campaign was able to demonstrate its supreme competence at running a campaign, raising money, and using technology to further Barack Obama’s political goals and personal ambitions, once Team Obama moved into the White House, it seemed that its hold on managerial competence disappeared. Thus, we have a Treasury Secretary whose tax delinquencies were not discovered by the Obama vetting system, and who is Home Alone at the Treasury Department because the White House can’t get its nominees confirmed quickly enough to provide the Treasury Secretary the personnel support he needs to deal with the greatest economic crisis since the recession of the early 1980s. The White House’s initial choice for HHS Secretary, Tom Daschle, was himself eliminated because of tax delinquencies. Because of the multiple problems with nominees running into tax problems, the responsibility for vetting over tax issues became concentrated in the White House Counsel’s Office . . . only to discover that White House Counsel Greg Craig has his own tax problems. Two Commerce Secretaries have been forced to withdraw their nominations. Only now is the Senate turning its attention to confirming the nomination of Ron Kirk as U.S. Trade Representative. And in the latest personnel snafu, the selection of Charles Freeman as the Chairman of the National Intelligence Counsel has been withdrawn.

The allegations against Freeman included claims that he was insensitive to the cause of Tibetan independence, having described Tibetan independence efforts as “race riots.” He described “Israeli violence against Palestinians” as the barrier to peace in the Middle East without acknowledging Palestinian violence against Israelis. Freeman’s stance on these issues may come as no surprise given that he was part of an institute that was funded by Saudi money and sat on the board of a Chinese state-owned oil company. If that were not enough, Freeman also made the following claim concerning the protests in Tienanmen Square back in 1989:

For myself, I side on this — if not on numerous other issues — with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be. Such folk, whether they represent a veterans’ “Bonus Army” or a “student uprising” on behalf of “the goddess of democracy” should expect to be displaced with despatch from the ground they occupy. I cannot conceive of any American government behaving with the ill-conceived restraint that the Zhao Ziyang administration did in China, allowing students to occupy zones that are the equivalent of the Washington National Mall and Times Square, combined. while shutting down much of the Chinese government’s normal operations. I thus share the hope of the majority in China that no Chinese government will repeat the mistakes of Zhao Ziyang’s dilatory tactics of appeasement in dealing with domestic protesters in China.

In other words, it is “Burkean” to claim that the Chinese government should have attacked and massacred the protesters sooner. The mind reels.

Lest anyone think this intemperate outburst was a fluke, consider Freeman’s statement in the wake of his withdrawal:

“The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East,” [Freeman] wrote.

“The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.”

More on Freeman’s statement can be found here, in which he states that his critics are “clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government – in this case, the government of Israel.” Of course, Freeman is not the first to accuse supporters of Israel–whom many will identify simply as “Jews”–of having dual loyalties at best, or not being loyal to the United States at all, at worst. But Freeman had problems that went beyond his disagreements with the “Israel Lobby.” Senator Charles Schumer took up the fight against Freeman. Doubtless, Senator Schumer will be accused of being Jewish–guilty!–without Freeman defenders considering that perhaps, Freeman’s one-sided views on Mideast peace and China’s interactions with dissidents might have done more than the Israel Lobby ever could have done to cause Freeman’s withdrawal.

Additionally, Ben Smith’s article, linked above, makes clear that the Obama Administration itself did nothing to fight for Freeman. Unless we now conclude that the Administration is part and parcel of the Israel Lobby, one cannot conclude that the Israel Lobby was the sole and exclusive cause of Charles Freeman remaining a private citizen. Indeed, it may not even have been a proximate cause of Freeman withdrawing his candidacy. (A humorous side note: Andrew Sullivan thinks that by not fighting for Freeman, the President has shown that he is “shrewder” than Sullivan is. In other news, water is wet, but what can the President do that will not capture Sullivan’s praise?)

I suppose that it is worth exploring why it is that Charles Freeman believes that the Tibetan dispute with heavy-handed Chinese suppression tactics constitutes nothing more than a “race riot,” or why he thinks that the Chinese should have killed the protesters at Tienanmen Square faster, or why he seems to turn a blind eye to the practice of terrorist tactics against the Israeli people. Those issues can be examined, though perhaps with Freeman’s withdrawal from public service, that examination is not so pressing as it was when he was set to serve as chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

What is worth examining now is why President Obama felt the need to select a National Intelligence Council head whose views on Middle East peace are so one-sided and whose views on Chinese human rights abuses are simply devoid of any moral sensibility. Charles Freeman is praised as a foreign policy realist, but as a realist myself, it is hard for me to divine any homage to realism that is found in casually dismissing Tibetan dissidents or the pro-democracy demonstrators who were massacred at Tienanmen Square 20 years ago. Freeman is also praised as a provocateur who could have asked tough questions as the NIC Chairman, but while being a contrarian has its advantages, there is a difference between being a contrarian and being appallingly wrong on issues that could very well influence one’s views as the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

It was said of Barack Obama and his coterie that they were the very embodiment of competence. Now we see that the President and his White House are, in fact, exceedingly poor judges of personalities. Far too many appointment snafus have occurred to place much trust in this President’s ability to choose responsible and inspiring public servants to people his Administration. Consider the words of Machiavelli:

Of no little importance to a prince is his choice of ministers, who are good or bad according to the prince’s intelligence. In forming an opinion about a ruler’s brains, the first thing is to look at the men he has around him, for when they are adequate and loyal he can be considered prudent, because he recognizes those who are competent and keeps them loyal. When they are otherwise, the prince is always to be estimated low, because the first error he makes, he makes in choosing advisers.

One can readily conclude of Barack Obama that he is an intelligent man. But based on “the [people] he has [tried to have] around him,” and the “first error” he has made in selecting those people, one cannot help but fear the second, third, fourth, and fifth errors to come.

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