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Freeman, Hopefully For The Last Time

I’ve gotten tired of writing about Chas Freeman, but since he withdrew his candidacy--willingly or otherwise--he’s been busy providing inadvertent justification to his critics. Since Freeman is doing so in the course of lashing out at his critics, myself included, it’s worth pointing out just how off-base he is.

I’m one of the people who published excerpts of an emailed commentary Freeman made about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Freeman has claimed that his views were “taken out of context, and that he had been describing the dominant view in China in the years after the crackdown,” as a New York Times news story put it, without subjecting the claim to any factual scrutiny.)

This is demonstrably false. Here is the entire email:

I will leave it to others to address the main thrust of your reflection on Eric's remarks. But I want to take issue with what I assume, perhaps incorrectly, to be yoiur citation of the conventional wisdom about the 6/4 [or Tiananmen] incident. I find the dominant view in China about this very plausible, i.e. that the truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than -- as would have been both wise and efficacious -- to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo's response to the mob scene at "Tian'anmen" stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action.

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. 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. while shutting down much of the Chinese government's normal operations. I thus share the hope of the majority in China that no Chinese government will repeat the mistakes of Zhao Ziyang's dilatory tactics of appeasement in dealing with domestic protesters in China. 

I await the brickbats of those who insist on a politically correct -- i.e. non Burkean conservative -- view.

This is, without a doubt, an endorsement of the view and not merely a description of it.

Next, Freeman has written an operatic letter blaming his failure entirely on the Israel lobby. It’s certainly true that Americans who favor a strong alliance with Israel played an important role in the pushback against his candidacy. But Freeman and his allies have exaggerated the centrality of the Israel issue. Some of his opponents are not Jewish and have no particular interest in the Israel issue (see Matt Welch’s persuasive takedown of Freeman, which Freeman and his allies assiduously avoided mentioning) as well as Newsweek's account of Nancy Pelosi’s important role, which she based on her interest in Chinese human rights.

Again, absolutely nobody denies that the Israel lobby wields important influence over American policy. But there are many lobbies that do so. Sometimes the level of influence is extreme. A couple of weeks ago, to pull an example at random, The Hill reported, “House Democratic leaders on Tuesday pulled legislation from the floor that seemingly had nothing to do with guns because the NRA disliked it.” Nor is it unusual for presidential appointments to be subjected to pressure group lobbying.

The distinguishing trait of Freeman, and his allies, is that they place the Israel lobby in a category entirely unto itself. Their view of its power is paranoid and Manichean. Consider Freeman’s description of the role of the Israel lobby in his demise:

The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.

Freeman accuses the Israel lobbying of aspiring not only to influence policy but to “control” it. And he uses capitalization – it is not a “lobby” but the “Lobby,” a device that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer employed in their hyperbolic paper before wisely discarding it in their book. That is a dog-whistle message to people with a singular fixation on the role of the Israel lobby, to the exclusion of all other lobbies.

And then, in an interview with the Nation, Freeman added this analysis of the force that did him in:

I've decided I'm going to call it from now on the [Avigdor] Lieberman lobby. It's the very right-wing Likud in Israel and its fanatic supporters here. And Avigdor Lieberman is really the guy that they really agree with.

This is confused in two ways. First, on its own terms: Lieberman is not a Likudnik but the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Second, I don’t think a single American who has criticized Freeman in any prominent way shares Lieberman’s worldview. My views on Israel generally track those of the Labor Party. My boss, Marty Peretz, leans a bit further to the right, but he has described Lieberman as a "gangster" and "repulsive." Jeffrey Goldberg, another pro-Israel Freeman critic, has called Lieberman "incorrigible." So here, again, Freeman misses the mark very badly.

My argument in the Post boiled down to the contention that foreign policy “realism” is an ideology with useful contributions but which can be taken to extremes, as Freeman does. The BBC put my argument to Freeman, and he responded thusly: Mr. Freeman said he took it as a compliment. "It is an extraordinary accusation to accuse someone whose job is analysis of the sin of objectivity. If you already know what the answer ought to be and then voice it, why go through the pretence of analysis at all," said Mr. Freeman. "The notion that somehow analysis should bend itself to what is politically expedient is precisely the issue we need to crack."

The ideological rigidity Freeman demonstrates here is exactly my point. Freeman was not explaining China’s crackdown against democracy protestors, he was endorsing it. But he is unable to grasp the distinction between the two. That is exactly the problem I described: Freeman is so deeply in the grips of realist ideology that he doesn't even understand it's an ideology. If there's one thing Freeman has shown himself incapable, it's describing the world as it is.

--Jonathan Chait