The New York Times and the Washington Post top-front-page the Chas Freeman story two days after he turned down a job chairing the National Intelligence Council and weeks after his nomination became controversial. Cue: crowing from the blogosphere. (I’m linking to Mickey Kaus simply because he’s the latest to note Freeman’s invisibility until now in the mainstream media; Freeman’s defenders and detractors alike have wondered why this has not been a story.)
The Times seems to take Freeman at his word that it was "The Israel Lobby" that dunnit; so does a Los Angeles Times editorial. At the Post, Walter Pincus has the gravitas to at least quote Freeman as making the claim instead of being coopted by it; he also interviews Steve Rosen, Freeman’s initial detractor and the former AIPAC foreign policy chief now facing classified information leak charges. Rosen claims that it would be hard to coordinate a campaign with a lobby where employees are under strict orders not to talk to him.
Appearing opposite a Washington Post editorial that essentially says "good riddance," David Broder regrets Freeman’s "loss" while acknowledging that some of his past statements about Israel and Tibet were "pretty startling." Broder also credits equally the Israel and China human rights lobbies.
Broder also appears – to me, at least – to be the first to extract from Freeman some of his original thinking. (Many of Freeman’s defenders, particularly James Fallows and David Rothkopf, wrote paeans to Freeman’s insightfulness without offering, you know, examples. "I actually know him," is how Rothkopf actually summed it up. Fallows was only slightly more self-effacing: His arguments, essentially, were "My buddies know him" and "Hey, he agrees with me!")
These are some of Freeman’s views on how he would have run the NIC, outlined in his interview with Broder:
Over time, he said, he would have challenged analysts to remember that "it is not how highly classified information is, but how reliable, even if it’s on the front page of the newspaper." He would have undermined the insularity of the intelligence world by asking members to meet with outside experts whose insights "may be worth more than security clearances." And he would have turned them loose even on "domestic" questions such as: "If we are 38th in the world in health, what could we learn from the other 37?"
For the first time, reading this, I felt a twinge of regret at Freeman’s departure. It’s not that any of these insights are remarkable; it’s that, if he made good on them (well, the first two – the one about health is so self-evident it’s inane), he would have finally shaken up the cocoon that the intelligence community continues to make its refuge.
The twinge dissipated when I read Charles Lane’s account of how he took Freeman up on his weird politburo challenge to read each and every one of his speeches. Lane survived the ordeal and sums up quite nicely:
Freeman’s strong suit is supposed to be original, contrarian thinking on foreign affairs. Actually, it’s more like a competing brand of conventional wisdom. On China, Freeman goes a bit further than others in his disdain for American human rights pressure on Beijing and in his indifference toward the regime’s opponents. But, overall, his sympathetic view of that country’s leadership is hardly unorthodox, much less brave. Right or wrong, Freeman’s thinking is widely shared among influential U.S. businessmen, diplomats, scholars and think tanks. A more paranoid person than I might even refer to these folks as the “China Lobby.” Stripped of its more controversial rhetoric, though, Freeman’s “analysis” of China is a rehash of a very familiar apologia.
On the Middle East, Freeman offers a relatively unsophisticated version of the shopworn view that the U.S. is to blame for much of the trouble.
Now, you can agree or disagree with Freeman’s take — I think it’s rubbish. But one thing it definitely is not is original. Susan Sontag said more or less the same thing just after September 11, 2001. You can get some version of this “analysis” any day of the week in the blogosphere or the Middle East Studies programs of our major universities.
As best I can tell, what distinguishes Freeman from other retailers of these clichés is attitude. It’s not just that he believes what he believes, he insists on sneering at or questioning the intelligence and good faith of those who disagree — while trumpeting his own supposed intellectual bravery. This has its ugliest manifestation, of course, in his embrace of conspiracy theories about the “Israel Lobby.”
Lane’s conclusion? "President Obama is well rid of him"