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A Second Look: What About Chas Freeman?

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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) freeman-chas-saudi-arabiaand 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.

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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.

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.

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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.

AJA

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Israel The Political Animal

The Hagelian Dialectic

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This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on January 4. Today, President Obama announced his nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense.

The Chuck Hagel trial balloon has been aloft for weeks now, not to burst or land – since its lofting was never officially acknowledged – until either he or someone else is officially nominated for Secretary of Defense. What conclusions may be drawn without tendentiousness?

Above all, we see a pattern, oft repeated, of charge and counter charge between supporters of Israel and critics of Israel and American policy toward Israel, using the same language each time, making similar tenuous accusations and identical unsubstantiated claims. It is a fake dialogue – because no genuine interchange is intended – that cannot reach a synthesis because on neither side is the true, greater argument sufficiently the focus of attention.

In detail, first, even if one is both a strong supporter of Israel and of President Obama, even if one is generally admiring of the President’s foreign policy and holds no doubt of his commitment to the security of Israel in even the ultimate circumstances, nonetheless, the weakest part of that foreign policy has regarded Israel. About Israel, the President has demonstrated the tinniest of ears and spoken with the most recurring hiccups. Even if, ultimately, he nominates someone other than Hagel, the very idea that Obama considered him will have served only to foster greater mistrust among the already mistrustful.

Gil Troy, writing at Open Zion, has done the best, most balanced writing on this subject. Perhaps overstating the case in both directions, Troy has nonetheless noted a schism in the President’s foreign policy inclinations, between McGovern and Kissinger.

The question of where Obama stands regarding Israel has often pivoted on this deeper question of which Obama shows up when doing foreign policy. His conjuring up of an American-Muslim heritage in Cairo, his dithering before supporting Iran’s Green Revolution, his historically sloppy comparisons between Palestinians and African-Americans, and his occasional “tough-love” approach to Israel, all expressed his inner McGovern—revealing how a position that appears lovely and idealistic often becomes morally myopic. But supporting Israel militarily, endorsing Israel’s defensive war against Hamas missiles, and backing Israel in the U.N., have all expressed his inner Kissinger—sprinkled with a dash of nobility and idealism worthy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Given Obama’s difficulties with the Jewish community, some unwarranted, others clearly created on his own, and there being no upside to a Hagel trial balloon and even greater downside to his actual nomination, one can only wonder, “What was he thinking?”

Second, there has been excess, as there often is in these cases, in the reaction to Hagel. Once again, the dispute has been unnecessarily and uncertainly personalized and driven by identity politics.

Let us observe, as the evidence seems clearly to suggest, that Israel and even Jews hold no special place in Chuck Hagel’s human sympathies and affections. So? How much does any randomly chosen American, Israeli, or Jew care about Ghanaians? Or the Aymara Indians of Bolivia? Everyone need not care all that much about Jews or Israel. That does not make anyone anti-Israel or even an anti-Semite, even if the occasional politically incorrect, clumsy locution escapes his lips. Yet as is often the case, some Jews and other supporters of Israel have responded to an unsympathetic political actor like Hagel with tenuous charges of animus and even anti-Semitism. This serves only to focus the debate on identity politics and group influence rather than on profound and outstanding principles.

The outstanding instance of this tendency occurred where such misbehaviors can be frequently found, somewhere in the vicinity of Bill Kristol, whether at the Emergency Committee for Israel or The Weekly Standard, which early headlined the threat of an anonymous senate aid,

Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.

The ugliest manifestation of that quote, beside its anonymity, is the charge of anti-Semite brandished as black mail threat: no honest commitment to exposing anti-Semitism just on its virtues, but only as a threat of character assassination to gain the upper hand in political warfare. Proud work, that – work that honestly earns the counter-charge of “smear” otherwise flung so carelessly and ignorantly by Israel’s programmatic Western foes.

However, in any widespread contention, there will be people who behave badly. There is no party discipline in public debate. The greater empirical truth is that such cheap resort to name-calling has been relatively rare, and most of it, if one investigates, from minor figures. Troy in his own searches discovered what I did, that when searching the Internet for “Chuck Hagel” and “anti-Semite” what one finds in overwhelming abundance are links to writing objecting to Hagel being called an anti-Semite rather than the few mostly unknown figures who have actually called him that.

This leads to a third point in detail – the nature of the response, whenever these affairs arise, from those whose program it is to criticize Israel and object to American support of Israel. First, they will decry the influence of the Israeli lobby – influence and support they wish they had themselves. Second, in the manner of the arch smear monger himself, Glenn Greenwald, they will accuse critics of someone like Hagel of smearing him, when they themselves have little understanding of, or concern for, the easy distinction between a smear and a criticism. Third, in the most extraordinary cases, such as that of Charles Freeman over three years ago, and now Hagel, portions of the foreign policy and journalism establishments will rise in defense of their now current standard bearer – this last even when, as now, it produces the incongruity of firm liberals providing very weak evidence in support of a very conservative figure they would otherwise vigorously oppose.

That incongruity, however, points us to that true, greater argument that should always be the focus in these debates, not the question of Jews and who loves them or hates them, or whether “they” have too much influence. Chuck Hagel did not need to be the second Jewish senator from Nebraska. One need be no anglophile to recognize England as a proper ally, or sacrifice one’s peeves with the French to know we would back them, again, against an intolerant aggressor. No less the South Koreans, the Aussies.

In his recent series of posts on Hagel, Steve Clemons of the Atlantic posed the following questions to a collection of experts almost universally supportive of Hagel’s foreign policy views on Israel:

Others argue that Hagel has been supportive of Israel’s interests but in a way that doesn’t make a false choice between Israel and Arab states and doesn’t compromise core US national security interests.  Do you think his views on US-Israel relations are disturbing, unconstructive and disqualifying?  Do you believe that Hagel is an enemy of Israel?  Or do you find his views, if you are familiar with them, constructive and realistic takes on US-Middle East policy?

These are all the reasonable or currently relevant questions to ask.

The suggestion itself that there is a “false choice” between Israel and, generally, the Arab States is the essential reason – and not philo or anti-Semitism – that Hagel is the wrong choice, and the defense of him mistaken. Is there a false choice between democracy and autocracy? Between modern liberalism and, often, medieval religious fanaticism? Is the there a false choice between the Enlightenment and a belief in the personal integrity of the individual – in human and civil rights on the one hand, and on the other, nations whose cultures frequently remain infected by misogyny, homophobia, and the vilest forms of anti-Semitism? The very idea that fundamental alliance with either Israel or the Arab states presents a false choice, and that such are the terms on which defenders of Hagel might offer their defense is reason alone to reject his nomination. Was it a false choice between Western Europe and the Soviet Bloc? Between South and North Korea? Kosovo and Serbia?

There is, indeed, an American foreign policy culture that has long excused the sins of the Arab world and minimized its stark differences from the Israeli state. They have had their economic or cultural reasons, or a commitment to foreign policy “realism.” But there is no reason that supporters, not only of Israel, but of all those Enlightenment and liberal democratic virtues should welcome as Secretary of Defense a man who in his policy stances has not sufficiently recognized the stark differences in this choice, or who garners his defense from others who similarly fail to recognize them.

When we hear spoken the idea that support of Israel might “compromise core US national security interests,” we must ask how it compromises US security interests to align the nation always with liberal democracies against undemocratic and repressive states. When, in the history of the United States, would anyone advocating for a cabinet position have wished to argue that the U.S. had been wrong, and had compromised core security interests by supporting allied democracies against surrounding undemocratic, repressive, and intolerant states that threatened them? Should we not now be supportive of Poland against potential threats from Russia? Australia against a terrorizing China? Which advocates of American foreign policy would deem these “false choices”?

All of these questions culminate in the proposal by Clemons that Hagel’s views might constitute “constructive and realistic takes on US-Middle East policy.” Realistic and constructive to oppose terror designation for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard? To oppose urging the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization, as the U.S. has done? To oppose economic sanctions on Iran, leaving only the choices of either, ultimately, armed conflict or dangerously naive faith in the possibility of negotiated settlement without coercive influence?

It is easy to argue that Hagel misperceives the nature of contending forces in a crucial geopolitical area. His advocacy of ending sanctions against Cuba is empirically well-founded. His refusal as a senator to acknowledge the Armenian genocide (facing none of the practical exigencies of a president, perhaps, to demur), suggests a similar realism ill-founded in a commitment to historical truth and humane international values, and this curiously aligns him in the current uproar with elements of the left critical of Israel for supposedly inhumane treatment of Palestinians. But then foreign policy realism contradictorily married to an agenda other than self-interest will always produce contradiction. Thus many Israelis and supporters of Israel had no difficulty criticizing the Obama administration for not fully supporting the Mubarak tyranny even in the face of a full popular uprising against it – even as Israel rightly touts its commitment to democratic values. Thus many on the left now run to the Republican Hagel’s defense – even as they oppose nearly everything else for which he has stood.

It is not only easy to argue that Hagel is wrong on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a strong and coherent argument can be made, on the historical evidence and the merits, that his misperception of the Middle East has broader implications worldwide. The argument can be made on its merits. To support Israel is to support democracy and liberal values. To support Israel against the repressive, intolerant, and often inhumane regimes that have hatefully and violently sought to destroy it even before its birth is to support all the virtues for which the American and Western democracies are supposed to stand – for which Western and American liberals are supposed to stand. The choice could not be starker, the implications in a post 9/11 world could not be bolder, the failure of vision through the wrong choice could not be greater.

What those committed to a wise and broad American foreign policy vision need care about is that nominees for foreign policy positions share this vision.  That is the ground, the honest and sufficient ground on which the battle should be fought. All the rest is a distraction or a cynical manipulation to other ends.

AJA

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