It is a pity that jeremiads have gone out of fashion, as Chas Freeman’s latest book is a splendid example of that biblical art form. Freeman writes with an effortless elegance, a sharp wit and an ability to reduce complex issues to clear and vivid images. This book is a series of essays and speeches given by Freeman over a twenty-year period for a variety of audiences, in some cases the general public, in others audiences composed of former or current officials. They reflect an extraordinary breadth of vision and knowledge of regional issues. This is all the more striking when one remembers that the most significant parts of his career were spent in China and Africa and that his only direct engagement with the Middle East from the State Department’s perspective was as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. This lack of regional expertise does not inhibit Freemen from trenchant and perceptive analyses or from a relentless critique of American policy in the Middle East.
Freeman repeatedly identifies and condemns the arrogance and fecklessness of American foreign policy. He describes the United States as constantly overreaching, seeking to impose a moral and political imperium on states less powerful than itself. He argues repeatedly that America has allowed itself to be led too often by Israeli analyses and interests with an increasingly damaging impact on our relations with the Arab and Muslim world. It is worth noting that his criticism of Israeli policies and the perception that he was too pro-Saudi led to his having to withdraw as a candidate to chair the President’s National Intelligence Council (A fascinating essay in the book describes the process whereby he was attacked by the Israel lobby and the difficulty he faced in defending himself from attacks.)
In other essays he is an outspoken critic of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which he insists were pursued with an entirely inadequate understanding of the societies into which we intervened. He is not an enthusiast for nation building and our efforts to reconstruct what we have so carelessly destroyed. He insists that our polices in the Arab world have resulted in alienation and a loss of trust in and admiration for the United States and a consequent reduction in our ability to influence the course of events in a constructive manner. His conclusions are breathtakingly sweeping and often overstated. Hyperbole is his normal mode of address with the result that he tends to overstate his case and overly dramatize the loss of American influence and the collapse in the credibility of American moral values.
In part IV of the Book “In Defense of Diplomacy and Intelligence” Freeman is at his best. He understands the craft of diplomacy and is articulate in explaining what it can and should be asked to do. He compares current American diplomacy unfavorably to the professionalism and training of the United States military and deplores the steady militarization of our engagement with the world. Not unexpectedly he denounces the use of inexperienced and untrained political appointees to lead our most important diplomatic missions.
Freeman is a self-conscious and self-proclaimed intellectual. Few American diplomats today would dare to begin an essay with a Latin quotation from Caligula “oderint dum metuant - Let them hate as long as they fear” He argues that we must discard Caligula’s dictum and instead return to our traditional respect for the opinions of mankind. For him public diplomacy is a much undervalued and underutilized skill. Throughout this volume his encyclopedic knowledge often shines quoting as he does a wide array of figures from Otto von Bismarck and John Quincy Adams to Woody Allen.
It should be noted that this work is also diplomatic history notably the first part on the Kuwait Crisis as seen from the perspective of the American Embassy in Riyadh where the author was Ambassador. In that first section he lays out the complex and highly positive relationship he developed with General Norman Schwarzkopf and reminds us that where there is good will and a desire to work together with the military truly positive results are possible.