In Washington, the Israel lobby, a loose conglomeration of organisations and individuals who throw their weight behind what they perceive as Israel's strategic interests, has until recently enjoyed an unparalleled level of political influence. Nowadays, its power is clearly waning. The appointment of veteran diplomat and uber-realist Chas Freeman as chairman of the highly influential National Intelligence Council is seen by many as a major setback for the lobby. On Friday, Muckety reported: "Despite intense, behind-the-scenes lobbying by some Jewish groups, the Obama administration yesterday tapped veteran diplomat Chas W Freeman Jr to head the National Intelligence Council in what may be its most controversial appointment yet. "As chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Freeman will be responsible for producing the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) - the classified document given to the president and senior intelligence officials that analyses threats to US security." In The National, Tony Karon observed: "If Israel and its backers are to persuade the Obama administration to accept their views on Iran, it is a less than helpful for the NIE be the province of a sceptical, independent thinker who believes that Israel's interests are not necessarily those of the US. Renowned as a brilliant diplomat and analyst, even-handed in his assessments of the Middle East and not bound by the Israel-first consensus that the Israel lobby has fought so hard to establish in US Middle East policy, Mr Freeman was denounced by Steve Rosen, a former top American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) official, as 'a profoundly disturbing appointment'. "Last October Mr Freeman castigated President Bush for 'writing blank cheques to Israel, which harms it by depriving Israelis of any immediate incentive to make the hard choices they must make to achieve long-term security for themselves and their state? it benefits no one for the United States to continue to underwrite the injustices, indignities, and humiliations of the occupation'. "His appointment was all the more remarkable given such statements, and the ire they provoked among Israel's traditionally influential backers." In Arab News, Barbara Ferguson wrote: "Pro-Israeli publications are attacking his appointment as something close to betrayal - Why? He's been called everything from 'a Saudi puppet,' 'Chas of Arabia' to being 'linked to Saudi cash'. "The 'link' goes back to 2007, when as president of the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council (MEPC) he accepted a $1 million donation from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for the council. "Not only is he is being attacked for being pro-Saudi, but also for his calls for a more balanced US foreign policy between Israel and the Arab world. "Back in 2007, Freeman addressed the pro-Israeli Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, and said: 'Israel no longer even pretends to seek peace with the Palestinians; it strives instead to pacify them.' " At Nieman Watchdog, Dan Froomkin said: "Chas Freeman's selection to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council (first reported by Laura Rozen of Foreignpolicy.com) is notable not just for his surprising (and, to some, disturbing) even-handedness about the Middle East. "The man is one of a rare breed: He is a Washington insider, and yet he is also a ferociously independent thinker, a super-realist, an iconoclast, a provocateur and a gadfly. He has, as I wrote in a Niemanwatchdog.org article about him in 2006, spent a goodly part of the last 10 years raising questions that otherwise might never get answered - or even asked - because they're too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult. "For him to be put in charge of what Rozen calls 'the intelligence community's primary big-think shop and the lead body in producing national intelligence estimates' is about the most emphatic statement the Obama Administration could possibly make that it won't succumb to the kind of submissive intelligence-community groupthink that preceded the war in Iraq." In a speech titled Can American leadership be restored? delivered in 2007 after Hamas had won Palestinian parliamentary elections and Israel had imposed economic sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, Mr Freeman said: "The Palestine problem cannot be solved by the use of force; it requires much more than the diplomacy-free foreign policy we have practiced since 9/11. Israel is not only not managing this problem; it is severely aggravating it. Denial born of political correctness will not cure this fact. Israel has shown - not surprisingly - that, if we offer nothing but unquestioning support and political protection for whatever it does, it will feel no incentive to pay attention to either our interests or our advice. Hamas is showing that if we offer it nothing but unreasoning hostility and condemnation, it will only stiffen its position and seek allies among our enemies. In both cases, we forfeit our influence for no gain. "There will be no negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, no peace, and no reconciliation between them - and there will be no reduction in anti-American terrorism - until we have the courage to act on our interests. These are not the same as those of any party in the region, including Israel, and we must talk with all parties, whatever we think of them or their means of struggle. Refusal to reason with those whose actions threaten injury to oneself, one's friends, and one's interests is foolish, feckless, and self-defeating. That is why we it is past time for an active and honest discussion with both Israel and the government Palestinians have elected, which - in an irony that escapes few abroad - is the only democratically elected government in the Arab world."
"President Obama won crucial backing on Thursday for his Iraq military withdrawal plan from leading Congressional Republicans, including Senator John McCain, the party's presidential nominee, who spent much of last year debating the war with Mr Obama," The New York Times reported. "As the president prepared to fly to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on Friday to announce that he would pull combat forces out by August 2010 while leaving behind a residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops, he reassured Congressional leaders from both parties that his plan would not jeopardise hard-won stability in Iraq. "But Republicans emerged from a meeting on Thursday evening more supportive than several leading Democrats, who complained earlier in the day that the president was still leaving behind too many American forces." The Washington Post said: "Those who had sought a speedier withdrawal included many in the Democratic Party and, at one time, Obama himself, who pledged during the campaign that combat troops would depart Iraq at the rate of one brigade a month and would all be home within 16 months of his inauguration. "Not only will the timetable be longer and the pace less even - with major reductions unlikely to begin until after Iraqi elections in December, according to senior military officials - but about a third of the current US force of 142,000 will remain in Iraq until the end of 2011. Their new mission, Obama said, will be to train and advise Iraqi security forces, protect diplomats and civilians working in Iraq, and continue the counterterrorism fight against al Qa'eda and other insurgent groups." Reporting for The Guardian from Sulaymaniyah, Michael Howard said: "There was scant disagreement that Iraq had to stand on its own feet among the among those who spoke in the immediate aftermath of Obama's address. " 'I wish it [the withdrawal] could happen more quickly, but it is the beginning of the end of the US occupation,' said Mohammed Faris, a car salesman in the northern city of Mosul. 'I think Iraq is getting stronger by the day.' "General Abdul Kerim Khalaf, spokesman for the interior ministry and a key player in the Baghdad security plan, said: 'We will be ready to take over when the Americans leave. There is no doubting the improved performance of Iraq's security forces. We are even now taking on and beating al Qa'eda and the militias.' "Mahdi al Hafez, an MP and former planning minister, applauded the withdrawal timetable as 'wise'. The pace of withdrawal suggests that the bulk of the current US military presence in Iraq, some 140,000 troops, will remain in Iraq through nationwide elections later this year." At Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch noted: "Iraq's parliamentary elections have not yet been scheduled and don't even have an electoral law, and according to a number of senior Iraqi politicians probably will not be held until March 2010 (not December 2009). That would then give the US about five months to withdraw the bulk of the dozen combat brigades which would reportedly remain. And then, keep in mind that US officials generally agree (correctly) that the most dangerous period of elections is actually in their aftermath, when disgruntled losers might turn to violence or other destabilising measures. So the following month will likely not seem a good time either. So that would leave four months to move, what - 9 brigades? Did someone say precipitous? Good luck with that. And that's assuming, of course, that nothing else risky or destabilising comes up in April or May 2010 (Kirkuk?) which would make a drawdown at that moment appear risky. "So which is it? 'Combat brigades out by August 2010' or 'Most combat brigades there until spring 2010 at which point we can have another big debate about how fragile the situation is and how unrealistic it would be to move all those troops in half a year'? Not exactly the same."