Smear Itself

by Jonathan Chait | March 3, 2009

Ever since he co-authored the wildly hyperbolic tome The Israel Lobby, Stephen Walt has been on his best behavior. He has authored a lot of staid hard-realist commentary about foreign policy and kept his fulminations about "The Lobby," as he liked to call it, more restrained--all the better to project his favored self-image as a thoughtful academic beset by agenda-driven ideologues.

But every once in a while, Walt lets his inner paranoid slip loose. One such moment occurred last weekend. I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing Chas Freeman, the new director of the National Intelligence Council, who has praised Walt and shares much of his worldview. Walt promptly went bonkers on his Foreign Policy blog.

The tone of Walt's piece is reflected in the deliciously over-the-top title "The despicable smear campaign against Charles Freeman." I particularly enjoy the redundant adjectives--those readers not adequately moved to outrage by a smear campaign, he apparently calculated, will be rise to Freeman's side to learn that it's a despicable smear campaign.

The rest follows in that vein. Walt wrote:

    As soon as the appointment was announced, a bevy of allegedly
    "pro-Israel" pundits leapt to attack it, in what The Nation's Robert
    Dreyfuss called a "thunderous, coordinated assault." Freeman's
    critics were the usual suspects: Jonathan Chait of the New Republic,
    Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Goldberg of the
    Atlantic, Gabriel Schoenfeld writing on the op-ed page of the Wall
    Street Journal), Jonah Goldberg of National Review, Marty Peretz
    on his New Republic blog, and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen.

A couple points here. First, I'm a little curious about this accusation that Freeman's critics "coordinated" our writings. Speaking personally, I did not coordinate with anybody. I can't speak for the others. It's possible they coordinated with each other, but I haven't seen any evidence that they have. It's certainly a strange thing to assume without evidence.

Second, Walt--in a breach of very basic internet etiquette--did not link to any of the columns by the critics he cited, which would have made it easier for his readers to see for themselves what Chait, Goldfarb, et al had to say about Freeman. Instead Walt proceeded to characterize the arguments against Freeman as purely focused on his views on Israel:

    What unites this narrow band of critics is only one thing: Freeman
    has dared to utter some rather mild public criticisms of Israeli
    policy. That's the litmus test that Chait, Goldberg, Goldfarb, Peretz,
    Schoenfeld et al want to apply to all public servants: thou shalt not
    criticize Israeli policy nor question America's "special relationship"
    with Israel.

This is even more strange. My op-ed did not argue that Freeman's views on Israel ought to disqualify him. To the contrary, I argued, "the contretemps over Freeman's view of Israel misses the broader problem, which is that he's an ideological fanatic." This was not a throwaway line. It was the last sentence of my first paragraph--the "topic sentence," which I intentionally placed there so any reader who had made it through 9th grade English would recognize it as the thesis of my column.

In fact, none of the other writers cited by Walt argued that Freeman's views on Israel alone should disqualify him. Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonah Goldberg cited Freeman's close financial ties with Saudi Arabia. Marty Peretz mostly focused on that as well, but did mention Freeman's views on Israel as well. Goldfarb and Schoenfeld gave most of their attention to Freeman's approval of the Tiananmen Square massacre (to be precise, Freeman disapproved, but on the grounds that China was too soft on the protestors) while also mentioning Freeman's Israel views and Saudi connections.

Walt's contention that these various writers applied a single-issue litmus test to Freeman's appointment is thus demonstrably untrue. It's as if he didn't even read the criticism and instead relied on an assumption. Another odd note is that he included in the list of critics National Review's Jonah Goldberg, who wrote just two very short blog posts on Freeman, both of which consisted of quoting other people, while excluding from his list Michael Rubin, Andrew McCarthy and Victor Davis Hanson, all of whom wrote much more extensive commentary about the Freeman appointment for National Review.

Anyway, that single, straw-man characterization accounts for Walt's entire substantive reply. The rest of the piece is taken up with hand-waving against the anti-Freeman conspirators. A sea of hyperbole washes over the reader: "infamous witch hunt," "lies," "innuendo," "intimidation," "attack," "remain silent," "heavy-handed," "McCarthy-like," "stifle debate," "un-American," and a creative sampling of different ways to incorporate the term "smear"--"smear campaign," "malicious smears," "smearing," and of course just plain "smear."

Doesn't Walt have any interest in addressing the serious charges made against Freeman? The comments on Tiananmen do seem, at the very least, rather nasty and illiberal, do they not? And you would think that Walt, who is known to have strong feelings on the topic of foreign influence over U.S. foreign policy, might at least acknowledge the potential complications of Freeman's Saudi ties. But he literally says nothing about these topics. The closest he comes is an ad hominem attack on the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg (who wrote a highly critical review of Walt's book for TNR):

    A journalist (Jeffrey Goldberg) whose idea of "public service"
    was to enlist in the Israeli army is challenging the credentials
    of a man who devoted decades of his life to service in the U.S.
    government.

So Goldberg's post-college aliyah to Israel, where he did serve in the Army (and produced a book criticizing the occupation) ought to cast aspersions on his patriotism. But Freeman's service on behalf of illiberal regimes like Saudi Arabia, whose king he called, in an interview with an official Saudi news service, "Abdullah the Great," is just as American as apple pie.

It seems to me that when you are baselessly accusing a group of people of conspiring together, wildly distorting their views, and questioning their patriotism, then you are coming pretty close to an objective definition of "smear." I think Walt has a right to express his opinion, unpersuasive though his opinion may be. The thing about Walt is that he thinks contrary opinions on matters close to his heart are inherently acts of smearing, intimidation, and conspiracy. Even his critics like to credit Walt with opening the dialogue. But opening is clearly not what he's after.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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