How important has resentment of Israel been to Al Qaeda’s terrorism? Here is one side of the argument, by an American who knows Saudi Arabia well:
The heart of the poison is the Israel-Palestinian conundrum. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was told by Saudi friends that on Saudi TV there were three terrorists who came out and spoke. Essentially the story they told was that they had been recruited to fight for the Palestinians against the Israelis, but that once in the training camp, their trainers gradually shifted their focus away from the Israelis to the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and to the United States. So the recruitment of terrorists has a great deal to do with the animus that arises from that continuing and worsening situation.
And here is the opposing view, by an American who knows the Kingdom equally well:
Mr. bin Laden’s principal point, in pursuing this campaign of violence against the United States, has nothing to do with Israel. It has to do with the American military presence in Saudi Arabia, in connection with the Iran-Iraq issue. No doubt the question of American relations with Israel adds to the emotional heat of his opposition and adds to his appeal in the region. But this is not his main point.
So now you’ve heard two sides of the debate. Who made the first statement? Charles “Chas” Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration’s nominee to head the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Who made the second statement? Charles “Chas” Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration’s nominee to head the National Intelligence Council (NIC).
The first quote dates from January 2004, the second from October 1998. The difference between them is 9/11, when it became the Saudi line to point to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians as the “root cause” of the September 11 attacks. The initial promoter of this approach in the United States (well before Walt and Mearsheimer) was Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed. “At times like this one,” Alwaleed announced a month after 9/11, “we must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack. I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance towards the Palestinian cause.” That statement led then-mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani to return a $10 million check Alwaleed had just presented to him for a special “Twin Towers” relief fund.
Since 9/11 Freeman hasn’t repeated his 1998 assessment (“nothing to do with Israel”), instead sticking with his Saudi-pleasing spin of 2004 (“the heart of the poison is the Israel-Palestinian conundrum”). It’s not hard to figure out why. When the 9/11 Commission interviewed him in 2003, it noted that his position as president of the Middle East Policy Council “requires regular trips to the Persian Gulf for fundraising. While there, he meets with many senior Saudi officials.” In 2006, Freeman finally went the extra mile, offering this explanation for 9/11:
We have paid heavily and often in treasure for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel’s approach to managing its relations with the Arabs. Five years ago, we began to pay with the blood of our citizens here at home.
Freeman was now touting precisely the sort of nonsense he had previously dismissed out of hand. And he hit paydirt for doing it: within months, Prince Alwaleed wrote a check to Freeman’s Middle East Policy Council for $1 million. Here is a photo of Freeman, supplicant, visiting Alwaleed in the latter’s Riyadh HQ.
Does Freeman really believe that Israel’s actions caused Bin Laden’s terror? Who knows? He’s put forward two completely contradictory explanations. One would like to believe that in his heart of hearts, he still knows what he knew in 1998, that Bin Laden’s “campaign of violence against the United States, has nothing to do with Israel.” One would like to believe that in 2006, he was cynically shilling for the Saudis when he blamed 9/11 on “our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel’s approach.” Because if he wasn’t just cynically shilling, he’s gone off the rails. (Actually, there is a third Freeman explanation for 9/11, so bizarre that I don’t know quite how to categorize it. Parse this: “What 9/11 showed is that if we bomb people, they bomb back.”)
If Freeman’s gone off the rails, he obviously shouldn’t be taken out of mothballs to coordinate U.S. intelligence. But that’s so even if he was just cynically shilling. “An ambassador,” said Sir Henry Wotton, “is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.” In America, an ex-ambassador is all too often an honest man hired from abroad to lie to his own country. Freeman may have an impeccable record of past service, just as his old buddies attest. But if the National Intelligence Council and its products are to earn the respect of the American people, the NIC chair cannot be suspected of ever having deliberately twisted the truth into something else for our consumption, especially on a crucial issue of national security and at the behest of foreign interests.
Chas Freeman doesn’t pass that test.
Update, March 9: Some have argued that the two opening quotes in this post are actually consistent with one another. So I offer the full context of the first quote from 1998, which demonstrates that on that occasion, Freeman was actively deflecting the thesis that Bin Laden’s appeal rested on Israel and U.S. support for it. He was chairing a panel, and a member of the audience asked a question.
Q: I’m astonished that nobody has mentioned the name Osama bin Laden. And it astonishes me also that we do nothing, apparently, to indicate that we are not a colony of Israel, when his whole appeal depends on demonstrating and reminding Muslims the world over that the United States is identified with Israel. If we do not develop a firm disagreement with Israel, we are going to suffer repeated casualties and deaths, including Foreign Service personnel.
AMB. FREEMAN: Perhaps I could begin by saying that Mr. Osama bin Laden is a renegade from his family and from Saudi Arabia; his family has disowned him, and the kingdom has certainly dissociated itself from him. Mr. bin Laden’s principal point, in pursuing this campaign of violence against the United States, has nothing to do with Israel. It has to do with the American military presence in Saudi Arabia, in connection with the Iran-Iraq issue. No doubt the question of American relations with Israel adds to the emotional heat of his opposition and adds to his appeal in the region. But this is not his main point.
So Freeman was actively deflecting an argument he himself would later make. It is interesting that this one-time-only absolution of Israel occurred while Freeman was playing host to a panel featuring Martin Indyk, at the time Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Maybe that explains it.
Pointer: See subsequent post, Chas Freeman and preemptive cringe.
Update, late afternoon, March 10: “Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”