Whenever they become topically relevant, I am going to offer a scond look at some older pieces still worth reading. Yesterday, the anti-semitic Mondoweiss blog reposted a recent speech by Chas Freeman at A National Interest discussion about “Israel’s fraying image.” I do not link to Mondoweiss, but you can find Freeman’s comments at his own site, here. My interest is less in these particular comments of Freeman, of a piece with longstanding attitudes toward Israel, than in his decision to permit them to be published on Mondoweiss. The fact that Mondoweiss has an inexcusable respectability in some left quarters diminishes not at all its true and readily apparent nature or the disgrace of affording it that respectability. No doubt, however, it is that cover that comforts Freeman in emerging that much further out of the dark recesses, in the manner of “The Uncanny John Mearsheimer.” In this context, I think it worth revisiting how Chas Freeman, long a foreign policy establishment hand, first came brightly into the public view, and how, and the many ways, he revealed himself, not just on Israel, but in the context of the Arab world and, very significantly, China. This post first appeared on May 16, 2009.
What About Chas Freeman?
Maybe the most bitter inside Washington fight of the year was little known to the general public because it received scant attention from the mainstream media. However, while newspapers and television news nearly ignored ex ambassador to Saudi Arabia and China hand Charles Freeman – put forward by Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence as President Obama’s choice for Director of the National Intelligence Council – Washington insiders and the blogosphere fought another Mid-East war over him.
Supporters were many, in government and also in the journalistic ranks, including The Atlantic’s James Fallows, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein (Jewish, as were some other supporters) and top blogger Andrew Sullivan. The primary argument in favor of Freeman was that he is a “contrarian” – an outspoken proponent of ideas that challenge those of the foreign policy establishment, including, most prominently, wouldn’t you know, those of the “Jewish lobby” and its supporters. It is crucial, the argument went, in moving past the Bush years, that the U.S. break free of its “lock-step support” of Israeli policy and “return” to a position of “even handedness” that it is purported the U.S. held prior to the Bush years and the ascension of the neo-conservatives.
Opponents were many, too, perhaps most prominently Senator Charles Schumer of New York, but also Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and a range of human rights supporters – supporters of Israel and the NGO Human Rights Watch as well. Supporters of Israel pointed to Freeman’s cozy relationship with Arab despots, his one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his suggestions – against all evidence – that 9/11 had been a response to U.S. support of Israel. Pelosi, Human Rights Watch and others focused on comments about the Tiananmen Square massacre that were critical of the protesters and strikingly sympathetic to China’s rulers.
However, many supporters – Sullivan for instance – were determined to make the issue the always subterranean influence of the “Jewish lobby,” and they scoffed at any argument against Freeman that, in their view, pretended that the “campaign” against Freeman was anything other than an attempt to maintain Jewish influence over American foreign policy judgments. Sullivan, who won this past year’s Weblog award as the Web’s top blogger – and previously generally sympathetic to Israel – has chosen, post Gaza, to beat his drum of pernicious Jewish influence over U.S. foreign policy like a new toy, and would see nothing but that influence in the Freeman controversy.
Ultimately, Freeman withdrew from consideration for the post, but not without releasing a broadside demonstrating the kind of reckless extremity of view that worried his opponents from the start. “The tactics of the Israel Lobby,” he charged, “plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.” He went on to further lambaste “a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government” rather than those of the United States, raising the specter of a Fifth Column.
I wrote briefly about the imbroglio at the time and was spurred to some further comment yesterday by the surprising news of former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s smuggled memoir of Tiananmen and his fall from power. Zhao’s perspective offered such a striking contrast to that of Freeman. A reader replied (see the comments section at right) suggesting I didn’t know what I was talking about: “You might want to be a little more inquisitive about the quotes attributed to Charles Freeman about Tiananmen.” He also offered the standard defense of all those who explore their mouths with their feet (but never of those whose words have been praised) that they are the victim of misquotation and “inaccuracies.”
This is all part of the divergent post-mortems of the affair competing with each other to survive and evolve into history. Some points, then, about Freeman are worth making. First, if a major part of the opposition to Freeman came from supporters of Israel, nothing about his exit from the scene gave the lie to their concerns. It is one thing to disagree with Israeli policies, as I have always opposed Israel’s settlement policy; it is another to evince obvious hostility of the kind that those who rail against the “Jewish Lobby” almost always do. It is another, also, to express sentiments so peculiarly deranged that the radar of anyone about whose people the words were spoken is bound to blare “Danger, Will Robinson!” while supporters of the vocalist are compelled to contort themselves in order to achieve a position of defense.
In my April 6 post I cited Freeman’s Jewish Daily Forward phone interview of March 25, 2009 in which he said of Israel:
It’s a foreign country, and while maybe 40 years ago many of its values were convergent with ours, I think there’s been a divergence of values.
How very bizarre. I mean – aren’t they all foreign countries? Why apply this adjective particularly to Israel? Yet here “foreign” does seem to suggest something more fundamentally “gut” in nature for Freeman, as in something “alien,” something to which one uncomfortably cannot relate. More foreign than Saudi Arabia? Than China? Than Iran? Israel, whatever its flaws, is a democracy, a nation governed by the constitutional rule of law, with universal suffrage, equal rights for women and, like the U.S., expanding gay rights. It is fully a product – politically, culturally, and socially – of Western civilization, just as is the United States. But somehow in contrast to those nations just mentioned, and score of others, it is from Israel that we have experienced a “divergence of values”? Asked in the clearest and most direct way possible – What the fuck is Charles Freeman talking about?
A careful reader can’t help but wonder – what or who over the history of Western civilization has been so much of that civilization, yet cast repeatedly as somehow antithetically alien to it, “foreign” in it, divergent in values? Really. Again.
Nonetheless, and despite the desire of Freeman supporters to make the matter all about Israel, the other criticisms of Freeman – and an essential one fundamentally ignored – are just as cogent.
Supporters everywhere praised the “contrarian” in Freeman, which, once the range of his views and expression became known, felt a little bit like grasping for the warm milk to help the castor oil of crackpot loose cannon go down. However, when you get past the contrarian veneer and the anti-Israeli bias in almost every sentence that, for many, the “contrarian” garb was meant to dress up (yes, so he credits the remarkable talents of the “European” founders of Israel – and Shaquille O’Neal is very tall), what you find, in truth, is a man temperamentally aligned to the preservation and exercise of state power. It is one thing to possess the practical virtue of being able to see circumstances through the eyes of a contestant or adversary – a quality for which Freeman was much praised; it is another, Stockholm-style, to begin to see things, in fact, as does the adversary.
In Freeman’s much discussed 2006 US-Arab Policymakers Conference speech, the Palestinians are barely mentioned. Israel, alone, for good or ill, always ill, is considered the determining actor in events. Who else, we might ask, sees the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in that way? And in the same speech, Freeman uses, with apparent naturalness and ease, the word “rulers” when referring to the heads of the GCC states rather than “leaders” or “heads of state” or some other, republican or democratic nomenclature that might come more readily to the tongue were these individuals anything other than, in fact, despotic rulers. But this fact does not restrain Freeman’s encomiums or the intimacy of his wise counsel, as the essential democratic nature of Israeli society, in contrast to the nature of the Arab states or the Palestinian parties, shows no influence on his judgment making.
The equally much discussed remarks about the Tiananmen Square massacre reveal the same temperamental affiliation with state control and order. The “unforgiveable mistake” of the Chinese rulers was that they had been too cautious. This phrase is couched in terms of a description of the “dominant view” in China, but it is clear that Freeman agrees with it and he terms it a “very plausible” view. (Read the entire email for yourself here.) However, “For myself, I side on this — if not on numerous other issues — with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be” [emphasis added].
To be clear, it is Freeman’s historical judgment that the Hoover-MacArthur directed attack on the 1932 “Bonus Army” – hardly the U.S. government’s proudest hour – was correct, and a model for future government action by a democratic government toward aggrieved and protesting citizens. The Chinese leadership, he says, had engaged in “dilatory tactics of appeasement” with the protesters. The protesters’ aspiration to liberty he characterizes as “propaganda.” And, to the point, it is not “acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government” – that is, Freeman makes no distinctions as to a government’s inherent right to rule. The United States in 1932, China in 1989, a democracy, monarchy, authoritarian regime – it makes no difference in the consideration of a government’s legitimacy in opposing and crushing the incipient popular will of its people.
“I cannot conceive of any American government behaving with the ill-conceived restraint that the Zhao Ziyang administration did in China.” Note that it is Freemancharacterizing Ziyang’s restraint as “ill-conceived.”
What Freeman pretends is a “realist’s” descriptive analysis of events is easily detected as a belief in the state’s – any state’s – imperative and right to maintain civil order, i.e. the condition for its continuance in power, regardless of the nature of the state or its rule and without any consideration to the political program of those who might oppose that state. The protesters at Tiananmen are reduced to, and belittled as, “exuberantly rebellious kids,” and Freeman is “aware of no evidence that Chinese currently consider their government less ‘legitimate’ or worthy of support than Americans do ours.” (Read this full email here.) This claim about general popular acquiescence to the rule of the existing government undoubtedly applied at the time of every native rebellion against the British Crown, as well as that by the American colonists, and the uprising against Louis VI. By Freeman’s “realist” and “contrarian” lights there would have been no Magna Carta and no American and French Revolutions.
Given this political alignment to power and “realist” disregard for the apparatus of democracy, it is no wonder that Freeman so easily operates without consideration to the essential difference in political nature between Israel and its enemies. “Even-handedness” that willfully ignores the differences between the adversarial parties has become again a fashion of the day – as in the foolish argumentative cry heard far too often after 9/11 that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter – and this is a fashion that suits Freeman’s amorality perfectly. But contrarian perspectives are one matter; consistently unsound judgment contrary to the spirit of democracy is another.