Freeman, hypocrisy and nuance


There are times, when you scent political hypocrisy, that you have to shut your eyes and try and pin down the time that the guy crying  "infamy!" was kind of infamous himself.

Not so with the defenders of Chas Freeman, the Saudi apologist now compiling the daily intelligence briefing.  Examples of an utter lack of self-awareness come so fast and furious they kind of bowl you over.

The argument advanced in his defense is that Freeman’s detractors start primarily from a pro-Israel perspective. That, according to M.J. Rosenberg, Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias, Chas Freeman’s son and now Josh Marshall  renders every subsequent  objection to Freeman  – his coziness with the Saudis, his apologies for China –  irrelevant.

What pristine environment are these folks imagining? Not the one in which they have been operating, unless apologies to John Bolton are forthcoming. After all, what felled Bolton’s appointment as U.N. envoy was not the militant brand of neoconservatism he embraces, but allegations of awful behavior to underlings and colleagues. Under the "Freeman formula" (my coinage! my coinage!) Bolton’s awfulness as a boss and peer should have had no bearing whatsoever, because his  policy formulas for dealing with the Middle East were what launched his detractors’ objections.

Funny, I don’t remember any of these folks protesting when Bolton was forced to step down. Some of them were even in on it.

Likewise, when Elliott Abrams’ flirtations with Latin American autocrats were held against him when it came to Middle East policy, I can’t exactly recall the principled objections noting the hemispheric distinctions between, you know, "the Americas" and "the Middle East."

Let’s break down the Freeman formula: Nominee/appointee plus motivation of detractors minus ostensibly irrelevant issue: Clarence Thomas plus opponents of strict "constitutionalism" minus allegations of sexual harrassment; Bernie Kerik plus opponents of militarization of Iraq policy minus myriad sexual entanglements that were fodder for a season’s worth of  "Law and Order" spinoffs; Bill Clinton plus opponents of all things Clinton minus Paula Jones; any number of nominees plus the perennial desire to make the other party’s life difficult minus any number of back tax issues.

You get the picture.

The "Freeman formula," were it ever to become custom, is a recipe for disaster. Of course, every single attack on a nominee starts off from a partisan perspective (and by partisan, I mean to a point of view as much as to a party.) And of course those partisans seek to establish alliances and associations.

And assessing the merit of those associations should be made on a per-case basis, against our understandings of how skills, ethics and policy intersect. For instance, for me personally, a potential Treasury secretary plus tax issues makes me incredibly nervous; a potential health secretary plus same, not so much.

Abrams’ flirations with dictators should have mattered, whether they spoke Spanish or Arabic. Bolton’s staff issues (and his alleged taste in the early 1980s for "swinging"), not so much. His difficulties with peers – well, yes: He was named to a top diplomatic post. Sometimes it’s nuanced, and you have to hold your nose and dig deep. Kerik shtupping Judith Regan was irrelevant to everyone  not contemplating  a double date with the couple from hell; shacking up with a lover at an apartment reserved for cops suffering post 9/11 trauma, I think, was telling.

Which brings us back to Freeman. His case requires nose-holding, partly because – it is true – some of his detractors have thrown irrelvancies and distortion into the mix.

Taking money from the Saudis? In this town, not a big deal, and Freeman even deserves credit for being forthright about it. Calling their king a liberal? Oops. Sponsoring a text book proselytizing a particularly Saudi brand of Islam to Amercian schoolkids? Yuck. Taking money from the Chinese? See above, under the Saudis. Saying they should have done more to crush dissent? Well, prepare to dive a little deeper. Freeman did not defend the massacre per se – saying so is a distortion – he says it could have been averted had authorities forcefully intervened earlier. That view was not unusual; it appears to have been shared by the first President Bush.

So Freeman was not an outlier on this issue – but that does not mean his views do not deserve scrutiny. Listen to this, from the offending email:

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. Such folk, whether they represent a veterans’ "Bonus Army" or a "student uprising" on behalf of "the goddess of democracy" should expect to be displaced with despatch from the ground they occupy. I cannot conceive of any American government behaving with the ill-conceived restraint that the Zhao Ziyang administration did in China, allowing students to occupy zones that are the equivalent of the Washington National Mall and Times Square, combined.

Really? How did someone who apparently slept through the 1960s and who couldn’t pick Martin Luther King Jr. out of a lineup get to be a United States ambassador? More seriously, after John Yoo, rendition, eavesdropping, ad nauseum, do we really – really – want someone running intel who upholds repression in an explicitly American context?

What this reminds me of most is the initial reaction to the classified information (not, not, not "espionage") case against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. A lot of the folks now backing Freeman were delighted then at the blow against the "lobby” until it dawned on them that it was of a piece with rampant Bush administration expansions of executive powers. This is more than forest-for-the-trees ignorance; it is an environmental disaster. The judge in that case – who now appears sympathetic to its constitutional challenges – nonetheless has set the precedent of criminalizing the aural receipt of classified information by civilians. Had the right folks realized what was at stake when the indictments were handed down, that damage might never have been done.

Narrow interests seek broader justifications. Sometimes they pass the “makes sense” test, sometimes not. Here’s a hypothetical test: Would Andrew Sullivan defend Freeman’s choice as ardently were it to emerge that the appointee defended Cuba’s monstrous anti-gay policies as vigorously as he defended China’s repression?

Freeman is an illiberal defender of dictatorships. That troubles pro-Israel figures, it’s true. Why it’s not troubling everyone else is in itself troubling.

UPDATE: Add Glenn Greenwald and Ezra Klein to the "Freeman formula" roll. Greenwald, who has written a thing or two about how intelligence and civil liberties intersect, is especially disappointing.

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