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Freeman The Contrarian?

Over the past few days, Chas Freeman's liberal defenders have been arguing that it would be valuable to have a contrarian voice in the administration. Jon Chait responded by noting that Freeman seemed less like a temperamental contrarian and more like someone with a worldview--dogmatic realism--that was simply unpopular.

I mostly agree with Jon, but I would offer a caveat: Some elements of Freeman's worldview aren't contrarian or unpopular at all; in fact, they are deeply conventional. I realize that, in celebrating his contrarian ideas, many of Freeman's defenders are referring to his views on Israel. Arguably, these views do contradict the conventional wisdom in Washington. (I also happen to think those views are misguided enough that the virtue of their being contrarian does not redeem them.) But, putting Israel aside, when it comes to human rights, Freeman's positions are anything but contrarian. As Matt Yglesias points out, in noting the large number of foreign-policy establishment types who signed a letter endorsing Freeman, "I would say that the letter, along with the fact that Admiral Blair tapped Freeman in the first place, reflects the fact that a broadly realist orientation is pretty widespread among military, intelligence, and diplomatic professionals." Exactly! The foreign policy establishment isn't controlled by Amnesty International. Actually, quite the opposite: The history of U.S. foreign policy shows that, at the end of the day, human rights almost always lose out to the national interest. This was basically the point of Samantha Power's book. During the Armenian genocide, during World War II (when we refused to take simple steps that might have saved Jews), during the slaughter of Kurds in 1988, during Rwanda, for the better part of 1990s in the Balkans (yes, we eventually acted there, but years too late to save thousands upon thousands of lives), during the genocide in Darfur--on all these occasions, human rights obsessives have been the lonely voices inside (or outside) the foreign-policy bureaucracy, and the realists have in large measure gotten their way.

As for the cases most relevant to the Freeman debate, Saudi Arabia and China: Who have been the dominant voices in shaping U.S. policy toward Riyadh for the past generation? The human rights crowd or realists like Freeman? The answer is obvious. Likewise, on China policy, the pattern in recent decades has been quite clear: The last three presidents prior to Obama--despite their radically different approaches to foreign policy in general--have all put human rights decidedly on the backburner in our relationship with Beijing. And given Hillary Clinton's statement downplaying human rights during her recent visit to China, it seems likely that the Obama administration is falling into that pattern as well. Add someone with Freeman's views on human rights into this situation, and what do you have? Certainly not contrarianism.

--Richard Just