March 11, 2009

And They Say There’s No Israel Lobby

The National Review wrote that he has an “irrepressible instinct for the appalling.” The Jerusalem Post called his appointment one of many ominous “vibes emanating from Washington.” And Fox News claimed that his critics (which of course means Fox News) believed his “strong views…might present a conflict of interest.”

His name is Chas Freeman, and he was slated to become the next director of the National Intelligence Council. Why, you might be asking, was there such an uproar? What evil things did this man say or do? Let me refer you to a March 4 National Review editorial:

He has distinguished himself as a rabid Israel-hater who regards the Jewish state’s defensive measures as the primary cause of jihadist terror. He is a shameless apologist for Saudi Arabia (where he once served as U.S. ambassador) despite its well-documented record of exporting terrorists and jihadist ideology. And he is a long-time sycophant of Beijing, where he served as Richard Nixon’s interpreter during the 1971 summit and later ran the U.S. diplomatic mission.

His Chinese associations are alarming. Since 2004, Freeman has sat on the international advisory board of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, which is owned by the Communist government. Its 2005 attempt to purchase Unocal, the American oil giant, was thwarted by Congress for national-security reasons.

Brutal as his benefactors in Beijing have been, Freeman wished them more brutal still: The
Weekly Standard has unearthed a 2006 e-mail in which Freeman faults Chinese authorities for not moving swiftly enough in 1989 to crush democracy demonstrators.

Though this is a long list of indictments, the only one which really concerned Freeman’s critics was his supposed hatred of Israel. Of course, as is becoming increasingly evident, those accused of hating Israel usually don’t hate Israel but are merely critical of some of its policies. And Freeman was no exception.

Nowhere in Chas Freeman’s statements have I found proof that he favors the destruction of Israel. Nowhere have I found proof that he rejects a two-state solution or supports Palestinian terrorism. What I have found, however, is reasonable, well-informed, and often blunt analysis. For instance, he has pointed out that the Israeli occupation is “inherently violent” and that as long as it continues “it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance and retaliation against Israelis.” As long as the United States, through its financial aid and political acquiescence, continues supporting the occupation, Freeman believes “there is little, if any, reason to hope that anything resembling the former peace process can be resurrected.”

In academic circles, these statements would be uncontroversial. In fact, one can easily imagine them being made by such Israeli scholars as Neve Gordon and Avi Shlaim. It is only among neoconservative and right-winged Israelis that such words are met with ire.

In order to see that the campaign against Freeman had everything to do with his views on Israel and nothing to do with his views on China or Saudi Arabia or anything else, one merely needs to examine some of the charges leveled against him. Take, for instance, the matter of his “Chinese associations.” The National Review called these associations “alarming”; the implication was that a conflict of interest might exist between Freeman’s loyalty to the United States and his loyalty to China. Now, while it was certainly legitimate to raise this issue, I don’t recall the National Review—or for that matter any other neoconservative publication—being alarmed over any of the Bush administration’s many conflicts of interest. For instance, I don’t recall anyone on the right being outraged when Dick Cheney’s old buddies at Halliburton were being awarded no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq. However they found Freeman’s possible conflict on interest problematic.

Regarding Freeman’s defense of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it should be noted that he never defended the Tiananmen Square massacre! Unlike the National Review claimed, he never said that the Chinese government should have moved more swiftly to “crush” the students. And he never said that the students didn’t have a right to demonstrate. What he said was that they didn’t have the right to occupy “the heart of the national capital” with the intention of “disrupting the normal functions of government.” For this reason, he faulted the Chinese government for failing to prevent the demonstrations from becoming so large that in the end the only way to stop them was through force.

Of course, as a libertarian I would point out that the Chinese government could have also stopped the demonstrations by submitting to the students’ demands. But Freeman, as he made clear at the end of his email, was taking a “Burkean” view on the matter. And Edmund Burke, let’s remember, while strongly opposing tyranny, did not feel that revolutions were an effective means to bring about change. So, too, it could legitimately be argued that Freeman, while wanting to see the Chinese government become less oppressive, did not believe that a mass uprising was the way to bring it about.

Say what you will about this view, but I certainly don’t think it’s proof that Chas Freeman is a “long-time sycophant of Beijing.” To the contrary, in a second email uncovered by the Weekly Standard, he wrote that, although China has made “very significant progress on many levels,” it “continues to fall far short of our minimal expectations for human and civil rights in many respects.”

Freeman’s actual views about China didn’t really matter, of course. All that mattered was his “hatred” of Israel. So from February 19, when Steve Rosen began sounding the alarm bells, until yesterday, the neocon smear campaign raged on, getting uglier and uglier, finally forcing Freeman to withdraw his candidacy.

Though Freeman’s critics won this battle, they would do well to heed his parting words:

There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government – in this case, the government of Israel. I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.
As for those of us committed to justice, let this serve as a reminder not to underestimate our enemies. Say what you will about their morals, but there’s no denying that they know how to fight.

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