The appointment by the administration of US President Barack Obama of Charles Freeman as National Intelligence Council (NIC) chairman has caused a stir in many circles, not least among China/Taiwan watchers. Freeman, John Chait warned in the Washington Post, is from the “realist school” and would drop friends like Israel or Taiwan if it were in the US’ interest.
There is no doubt that the realist school of international relations is ascendant in the US. But this situation is not without precedent, as liberalism and realism are two extremes in the pendulum of US foreign policy. Periods of idealism have often been followed by a return to realism, especially in time of crisis. After years of liberalism under president John F. Kennedy and the fiasco in Vietnam, for example, US foreign policy under president Richard Nixon turned realist, leading to Henry Kissinger and other realists dealing with the People’s Republic of China at the expense of Taiwan.
Idealism re-emerged under president Ronald Reagan, which, like no administration until that of George W. Bush, perceived the world in terms of good and evil. The pendulum did not immediately swing after Reagan left office, however, mostly because he was seen to have won the Cold War and US credibility was at its highest level since World War II.
It would be another 20 years before the pendulum swung back, after eight years of neo-conservative idealism under Bush, “seismic events,” as New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger put it in his latest book, “that led America to lose so much standing and leverage in the world.”
But Chait, and the many Zionist organizations who have criticized Freeman’s appointment, overstate the impact he would have on foreign policy. Part of their mistake is to assume that governments speak in one voice, as if the Obama administration would be homogeneously realist. Chait uses Freeman’s favorable review of The Israel Lobby, a book by realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that criticizes the Israeli lobby in the US, to argue that Freeman is unable to grasp that Americans might have “an affinity for a fellow democracy surrounded by hostile dictatorships” — in other words, that at their core, Americans are liberal, not realists, when it comes to threatened democracies like Israel and Taiwan.
Despite Freeman’s appointment to the NIC, it is unlikely the US will abandon Israel for the sake of its own “interest,” because the US foreign policy establishment is a plurality of voices. For every Freeman who advocates more cautious support for Israel, there will be equally influential policymakers like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who make no secret of their ideological support for the Jewish state. How else could we explain Washington’s continued support for Israel even after right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu — who played a prominent role in destroying the Oslo Peace accords — comes back to power? If the US thought only in terms of its interest, or if the NIC dictated policy rather than advise the community, it would abandon a troublemaker like Netanyahu with little provocation. But it won’t.
The same applies to Obama’s Asia team. For one, a purely realist administration would not have tapped Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, the high priest of “soft power,” as ambassador to Japan. In other words, despite Freeman’s positions on Taiwan and China — which are indeed worrying — others in the US government will counterbalance him.
The NIC is but one of many government bodies involved in US foreign policy. It is not even the most powerful one, as demonstrated by the lack of traction that its principal product, the National Intelligence Estimate, has had in the White House under previous administrations.
It is too early, therefore, to be overly alarmed by the appointment.
The US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for this year certainly cannot be faulted for having a narrow focus or Pollyanna perspective. From a rising China, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to climate change, future pandemics and the growing reach of international organized crime, US intelligence analysis is as comprehensive as it is worrying. Inaugurated two decades ago as a gesture of transparency and to inform the public and the US Congress, the annual threat assessment offers the intelligence agencies’ top-line conclusions about the country’s leading national-security threats — although always in ways that do not compromise “sources and methods.”
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