On May 26, 2006, Chas Freeman sent an e-mail to a confidential listserv called ChinaSec. The subject under discussion was the Tiananmen Square massacre, the 1989 Chinese government crackdown on peaceful democracy demonstrators. Sounding like a hard-line Chinese Communist Party flack, he referred to the young activists as constituting a “mob scene,” termed their appeals for liberalization “propaganda,” mocked the “goddess of democracy” they had erected in honor of the Statue of Liberty and deemed the government’s response — which resulted in over 2,500 deaths — “overly cautious.”
Savor that last line for a minute, and call to mind the indelible image from Tiananmen Square of the anonymous man standing in front of a line of tanks. In light of Freeman’s criticism of the Chinese regime’s “ill-conceived restraint,” one cannot escape the conclusion that he would have preferred that the episode had ended with the man being flattened, the vivification of George Orwell’s aphorism that totalitarianism is a “boot stomping on a human face.”
This missive became sadly relevant last week when Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, announced that Freeman would serve as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, where he will become the lead author of the government’s official strategic and intelligence estimates. Of all the criticisms of Chinese government behavior at Tiananmen Square I would expect to hear from a high-ranking official in a Democratic administration, that it wasn’t brutal enough in dealing with student pro-democracy activists is not one of them.
The Chinese Communists are not the only authoritarians for whom Freeman seems to have a soft spot. From 1989 to 1992, he served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, where he developed an affinity for the monarchs who run the kingdom as their own personal fiefdom. “I believe King Abdullah is very rapidly becoming Abdullah the Great,” he said last October. In 1997, he became president of the Middle East Policy Council, a Saudi-funded think tank in Washington. There, he bragged about publishing an “unabridged” version of “The Israel Lobby” by professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, which purports to expose the Jewish state’s nefarious power and the dual loyalties of Jewish government officials, journalists and political activists. A man who for a decade presided over a front group for a theocratic kleptocracy and who believes the title of “king” isn’t sufficient for the fat oil baron who rules that benighted land should pause before endorsing a work that questions the loyalty of others.
The elevation of Freeman provides welcome opportunity for a debate about a lobby, one just as well-financed and professionally staffed as the groups that support America’s strong relationship with Israel — that is, the one shilling for the House of Saud. While a pro-Saudi Arabia lobby does not enjoy nearly the same level of domestic support as the pro-Israel lobby (primarily because Saudi Arabia, unlike Israel, does things like behead homosexuals, ban women from driving and outlaw the practice of Christianity), the Saudis — and the Gulf states in general — have far more sympathizers in high-level positions in the State Department than does Israel, which is, and always has been, friendless at Foggy Bottom.
But what’s been most telling about the Freeman appointment has been the response — or lack thereof — from liberals. There has been very little discussion of Freeman by liberal commentators and elected officials, and what has been said has been largely positive. The Center for American Progress’ Matthew Yglesias came to Freeman’s defense, as did the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum’s M.J. Rosenberg. Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation praised Freeman, describing him as an “unsentimental realist.”
That’s a rather generous euphemism for “coldhearted creep,” but let’s not split hairs. The fact is that none of these self-styled “progressive” individuals seem to care that Freeman isn’t just a defender of authoritarian thugs but an enthusiast for them.
The mix of silence and pleasure that has characterized American liberal reaction to the Freeman appointment is but the latest, sad episode in the decline of the American left’s anti-totalitarianism and international solidarity. Liberals in America used to place human rights at the forefront of foreign policy. That emphasis began to wane in the wake of Vietnam, when many people on the left shifted from viewing America as a force for good in the world to seeing it as the source of the world’s problems. Jimmy Carter came into office purporting to put human rights at the forefront of his foreign policy, but the promise was mostly rhetorical.
Today, liberals don’t even bother with the lip service of human rights. So consumed by their hatred for the previous occupant of the White House, the left, over the past eight years, defined itself not by what it believed in but by what it opposed.
Running for president in 1992, Bill Clinton attacked George H.W. Bush for being too cozy with the “Butchers of Beijing.” However hot that language might have been at the time, its accuracy cannot be disputed. Moreover, it hearkened back to a time when Democratic leaders weren’t reluctant to speak of moral distinctions in foreign policy for fear of earning snickers from the ironic left. Meanwhile, the petro-theocrats and “butchers” must be happy knowing Barack Obama has elevated one of their saps to high office.