A retired Foreign Service Officer and frequent American Diplomacy contributor who, like the subject of this essay, frequently offers “contrarian views in … glittering, memorable prose,” examines the aborted nomination of Chas Freeman (also an American Diplomacy contributor) to be Director of the National Intelligence Council. He finds the abortion to be appropriate. – Ed.
Chas Freeman and the Perils of Articulate Partisanship
"Chas" Freeman is not my friend. Honestly, other than sharing the same profession in roughly overlapping periods, we are barely colleagues. Thus, should he sit down beside me and introduce himself, my reaction would likely be "Oh, you're Chas Freeman. Pleased to meet you. I've heard a lot about you."
And indeed I have; we all have heard a lot about Chas – especially recently. In one sense, that "heard a lot about him" element is remarkable in its own right. Freeman never held the most senior State Department positions, e.g., Under Secretary for Political Affairs such as did Tom Pickering. He wasn't closely associated with a noteworthy negotiating success such as completing a major treaty (INF arms control – Mike Glitman; Panama Canal – Ellsworth Bunker) or a noteworthy disaster (Tehran embassy seizure – Bruce Laingen). He was not one of our most senior ambassadors (Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, London, Bonn, Mexico City); Riyadh is certainly important, but second tier. Nor did Freeman write a know all/tell all book such as Dennis Ross's The Missing Peace about the Middle East, despite his pivotal position as our ambassador in Saudi Arabia during the Desert Shield/Desert Storm Gulf War. His slight (140 page) Arts of Power published in 1997 was listed 155,959 in sales on Google.
What has gained Freeman his high-visibility profile both within and without the Foreign Service is a combination of his exceptional intelligence, superb language skill (Nixon's interpreter during the 1972 opening to China), and contrarian attitude toward that at which he takes umbrage. And he says and writes these contrarian views in vivid, articulate speech and glittering, memorable prose at a time when bureaucratic writing is deliberately opaque and official speech scrubbed of any nuance that might cause offense.
And now with the explosive contretemps over his nomination for and withdrawal from the directorship of the National Intelligence Council, we have heard much, much more of Ambassador Freeman. A man, who was a Foreign Service semi-legend, has become a poster child nationally (and internationally) for politicized foreign policy. Thus there have been back and forth surges/charges of McCarthyism and/or woe-is-us lamentations that the Foreign Service's best and brightest are being trashed for expressing their views. Our chattering class has opined over "the country's loss," and even Canadians have chimed in, noodling about the "Israel lobby" and "Republican neocons."
But, as is often the case, there is a need for context.
Two Substantive Cases: China and Israel
Freeman claims that statement was taken out of context and really reflected the views of the Chinese government. Perhaps. Indeed, abstractly, one might recognize that a government will defend itself against opponents (we may recall that the U.S. government suppressed violent rioting in its cities during 1968). And we can appreciate that a government, whose revolutionary ideological origins circa 1949 were still the roots of and inspiration for the governing class in 1989, was not going to shrug its shoulders and slither gently into the night by surrendering power. One can even appreciate abstractly that the level of violence employed in suppressing the Tiananmen protestors did not approach the levels inflicted during the revolution ending in 1949 or the internal repression related to the "Great Leap Forward" (1958-61) and the "Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But to assert this point in the context of the photograph of the still unknown lone man standing in mute defiance of an oncoming tank in Tiananmen Square lacks a basic appreciation for if not a blithe indifference to the human rights values crushed by the PRC.
Nor did Freeman seem to get the point in human rights terms when in a speech to alumni of the National War College in April 2008, he referred to "…recent race riots by Tibetans…" Again, the man-from-Mars observer might conclude that Chinese police forces were relatively restrained and, consequently, the resulting casualties were significantly fewer than one might have anticipated. But that level of abstraction has no relevance given the 50-year effort by Beijing to suppress Tibetan popular culture and the international iconic nature of the Dalai Lama's peaceful effort to regain Tibetan autonomy.
As the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia during a critical period (Desert Shield/Desert Storm), it is hardly surprising that Freeman would be well and favorably known to the Saudi government. Nor is it surprising that the Saudis would individually and/or as a government provide funding to the institute that he heads (The Middle East Policy Council). Even less is it surprising that he would offer a paean of praise to "Abdullah the Great," as one rarely bites the feeding hand, and who hasn't offered a few turgid platitudes of praise for a friendly sponsor?
What became more problematic, however, was a series of observations on Israel and the U.S. relationship. Thus to cite a few:
To be sure, one can be a fully fledged supporter of Israel, and still be critical. Indeed, Israeli domestic opinion is rife with dissension over elements of its foreign and domestic policy. U.S. policy has a sophisticated "warts and all" appreciation of the reality that Israel is the sole legitimate democracy in a very dangerous, hostile neighborhood and far superior to all others in the region in its respect for the human rights of its citizens and the rule of law. Nor are we willing to criticize Israel's efforts to protect itself against terrorism in a post-9/11 world that has seen the U.S. government adopt strenuous efforts at self protection. Although we may wince when the December 2008 incursion into Gaza resulted in 100-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli killed, we also note that whatever the economic privation inflicted by the Israelis on Gaza, Hamas militants were firing rockets by the hundreds into Israel.
All too frequently observers of the Middle East become either uncritical lovers or unloving critics of one side or the other. It is hard to see balance in Freeman's conclusions.
The 9/11 Codicil
In a Washington conference in October 2005, he said, "On the question of U.S. strikes on targets on Iran or elsewhere, I simply want to register what I think is an obvious point; namely that what 9/11 showed is that if we bomb people, they bomb back." And in the November 2008 edition of the Foreign Service Journal, he remarked that "Among other things, the shocking attack on our homeland that day showed that, in the post-Cold War world, if the United States launches or sponsors military operations in other people's homelands, we should expect them to find a way to retaliate against ours."
One truly must remain baffled over this "blame the victim" theology – particularly given that many of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis. Following this logic, the United States was equally at fault for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor because we provided support to Chinese resistance to Japanese aggression.
But in some ways, Freeman's views are most comprehensively available in a piece largely overlooked by his current pack of critics. These were laid out in the November 2008 edition of the FSJ cited above – a comprehensive excoriation of virtually every element of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Indeed, it is as much a classic in its leave-no-stone-unthrown at the Bush glass house approach as was National Security Advisor Steve Hadley's fin de régime defense of Administration policy (everything is coming up roses) reviewed in American Diplomacy on February 6. (www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/ 2009/0103/spch/spch_assessing.html) Freeman's commentary came down to ‘even a blind pig finds an acorn’ (in the Bush Administration case the "acorn" was AIDS policy in Africa), but otherwise the Administration was wrong minded in every dimension: the Middle East; Europe; Africa; Russia; Cuba; the United Nations – well, you get the point. With no sense of irony, he says that "only small boys, hicks, and clueless speechwriters think it clever to call foreign leaders or countries names." This after describing comments by former Secretary Albright as "smugly bumptious articulation" and characterizing U.S. foreign policy as led by "Mr. Magoo" (just who did he have in mind?) rather than Uncle Sam.
Throughout his retirement, he vigorously exercised his right of free speech; his commentary was intelligent, pungent, idiosyncratic, and contentious. His critics, also exercising their free speech rights, were vigorous in their examination of his positions. There are those whose tongues are so sharp that they cut their own throats.
The ultimate question became not Freeman's right to these positions (or even whether they were correct or incorrect) but whether he was so wedded to them and convinced of their verisimilitude that he would skew the national intelligence estimates under his direction. Was he balanced and judicious in his appreciation of the complexities and imprecision of intelligence analysis – or was he convinced that he knew the answer regardless of what conflicting analysis might indicate? And all of us have seen the consequence of intelligence that, although constructed with the best of intention by skilled professionals, proved not to be "slam dunk" accurate, but horrendously in error.
Throughout the dissection of his qualifications and views, Freeman had many defenders, including 17 prominent ambassadors who published a letter in the Wall Street Journal endorsing his intelligence and his character as a man "who would never let his personal views shade or distort intelligence assessments." But let Amb Freeman have the penultimate word with a full rendition of his statement on March 10 after he withdrew his candidacy for chairing the NIC.
Presumably these are the beliefs of some; they are not the beliefs of others. Nevertheless, it is hard to conclude that an individual holding such conclusions would be able to render abstract judgment on topics affecting U.S. Middle East policy.