Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Good riddance, Chas Freeman

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I haven't blogged on the Charles "Chas" Freeman saga, until now, but I've been following it fairly closely, notably the rather intense debate his nomination to head up the National Intelligence Council spawned in the blogosphere, if less so elsewhere.

Freeman withdrew from consideration yesterday. And that's for the best. He never should have been nominated in the first place.

This puts me at odds with many on the left, many with whom I usually agree, including high-profile bloggers like Matt Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald, the latter of whom argued in response to Freeman's withdrawal that "blind loyalty to Israel" was the driving force behind his critics. (Andrew Sullivan also made this case, in a way, arguing that "[h]aving the kind of debate in America that they have in Israel, let alone Europe, on the way ahead in the Middle East is simply forbidden.")

While acknowledging the disproportionate influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., and acknowledging that many of Freeman's critics are vocal members of that lobby, I reject Greenwald's argument.

I, for one -- while hardly one who wields much influence -- am not Jewish, am not a member of the so-called "Israel Lobby," and am certainly not a neocon. But I am a liberal, and a proud one, and, to me, there were strong liberal grounds upon which to object to Freeman.

In this regard, I have been in agreement with TNR's Jon Chait, one of the leading and most compelling voices against Freeman throughout this saga. There may be some who question Chait's liberal credentials, but I do not. He is a liberal, albeit a more hawkish one than most, and, at The Plank and elsewhere, he made the liberal case against Freeman: In short, as Chait put it at WaPo, Freeman is "an ideological fanatic," an extremist realist with a history of cozying up to authoritarian dictatorships like Saudi Arabia. Now, it's not like realism should have no place in the Obama Administration. Certainly it should. (I would like to think of myself as an idealist tempered by enough realism to keep me fairly grounded.) But when realism means defending China's brutal response to the Tiananmen Square protests, and even suggesting that it should have been more brutal? That's just not acceptable.

"There just aren't many liberals out there who want to defend a man who sees regimes like China and Saudi Arabia as something close to the beau ideal of a modern nation-state. It's only the fact that Freeman is also controversial for things like praising the hyperbolic book 'The Israel Lobby' and blaming Israel for the 9/11 attacks that has endeared him to the left." So wrote Chait.

I will admit that I think Chait overstated the case against Freeman and has been overly critical of Freeman's supporters on the left -- like them, if not nearly to the same degree, I worry about the excessive influence of Israel's more rabid backers in the U.S. And, to be sure, most of Freeman's supporters are not unhinged -- some, like James Fallows, made impressive cases for Freeman, arguing that he is not the extremist Chait and others made him out to be. Still, I think Chait was mostly right that "[t]he basic strategy of Freeman's defenders, with a few thoughtful exceptions, has been to paint the entirety of the criticism against Freeman as relating to his views on Israel, and even to insist that Freeman critics who raise non-Israel-related concerns are secretly acting in Israel's interests." That strategy, simply put, involves a gross misrepresentation.

It is possible that Freeman would have made a valuable addition to Obama's team. As a liberal, though, I simply cannot look past the illiberalism at the core of his worldview. That is reason enough to applaud his withdrawal. I cannot support a proponent of Chinese and Saudi brutality. Whatever their concerns about Israel and the "Isreal Lobby," liberals everywhere should have objected to his nomination.

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