Don’t they [the Obama administration] understand that you have to start your term in office by making it clear that people will pay a price if they cross you? ~Stephen Walt
One of the reasons I have not portrayed this controversy as a test of the administration’s will in challenging the status quo is that the Freeman appointment was apparently never the President’s idea and Blair did not consult the White House about the appointment. If initial reports are correct, DNI Blair made the appointment on his own, so the White House probably preferred dropping Freeman rather than mounting a fight to defend someone they had not selected.
That said, Obama has never been inclined to challenge the establishment consensus in foreign policy since he entered national politics, and this has been especially true with respect to Israel. This is why he supported the Lebanon war and the incursion into Gaza, why he abased himself before AIPAC last year, why he distanced himself from Brzezinski’s mild defense of Walt and Mearsheimer about as quickly as humanly possible, and why in principle he remains committed to using any and all means to prevent Iran from acquiring nukes. Despite all of that, many of the usual suspects were still obsessed with spinning everything Obama said or did in the most negative way possible. The Freeman appointment drew nearly as much criticism from left as from the right because there were quite a few Obama supporters who had already defended his record on Israel, and so they took advantage of the reported fact that Freeman was not Obama’s idea. They could tear down Freeman without necessarily having to contradict their previous assessments of Obama. Had it just been the same people who had been raving madly about Obama’s dinner with Said and his friendship with Rashid Khalidi all last year, I am guessing the administration might have been able to put up with or ignore the controversy, but it was the presence of several Obama defenders in the ranks of Freeman’s critics that kept the controversy from being dismissed as nothing more than partisan hackery. In the event, it was ideological hackery, which is apparently still taken quite seriously.
Incidentally, from early on in the controversy I thought it was mistaken to frame support for Freeman as a matter of changing U.S. policy, when this is exactly the last thing that the appointment represented. On this point, some of his defenders got a bit ahead of themselves in declaring victory, and some made tactical mistakes in not pushing back more specifically on the Saudi and Chinese questions. Once Freeman’s appointment became seen a test of how the administration would be perceived on its approach to the Near East, rather than judged as a matter of intelligence analysis apart from policy (where Freeman’s predecessors and colleagues all insisted that he would be outstanding for the post), the outcome was more or less inevitable.
All of this is a drawn-out way of saying that the administration probably doesn’t see this as an episode where it has failed to punish people who crossed them, but as a controversy they did not want to have and were glad to be rid of as soon as they could. Because Obama has no intention of challenging the status quo, he doesn’t really see the defenders of the status quo as his enemies, even though they just dealt his administration a politically damaging blow.
The bureau chief argued that Freeman wasn’t a “high enough appointment to go nuts over in a big way,” and offered up a challenge: “Go Google his predecessor and see how much coverage he got.”
Well, this was exactly my point when this entire business began. No one paid attention to Freeman’s predecessors, their views or their ties, because the position, while important to some extent, was not nearly so crucial or influential as his critics made it out to be. Indeed, as Ackerman has argued, the chairman of NIC had become relatively less important under the previous administration than the position had been earlier. As Andrew notes, the different treatment Freeman received is significant in itself, because it says something about the reason for the controversy (hint: it is not because of a lack of sensitivity to the plight of Tibetan rioters!*), and might have merited some coverage for that reason, but the bureau chief’s remark helps drive home how unimportant and indeed irrelevant the appointment was as a matter of setting administration policy. This helps to make clear just how hysterical, obsessive and ideological the reaction to his appointment was.
* One of the supposedly damning things that Freeman has said in connection with Tibet is that last year’s riots in Lhasa were “race riots.” Well, they were riots, and they targeted Chinese businessmen and residents whom local Tibetans saw as an intrusive colonial presence, and the Tibetan rioters were ethnically different from the Han Chinese whom they were assaulting. When something similar happens in an American city, it is not all that unusual to refer to it as a race riot. Call it an ethnic riot if you prefer. What is so remarkable about the reaction to this quote is that almost everyone in the U.S. feels obliged to treat every episode of unrest in China through the narrow filter of anti-government activism, when the resentments and conflicts in last year’s riots, while stoked by Chinese colonial policy and provoked by mistreatment of some Tibetan monks, are the product of much more mundane majority resentments of successful minorities. If these riots had happened against Chinese merchants in Indonesia, remarking on the ethnic dimension of the conflict would hardly be something controversial.
Second Update: Regarding the now-infamous quote from the listserv regarding Tiananmen Square, here is some background:
Blair and others countered that the e-mail was taken out of context, and that Freeman was not describing his own views but what he referred to as “the dominant view in China.”
One member of the listserv who did not wish to be identified said that Freeman’s e-mail came in the context of an extended conversation about what lessons the Chinese leadership took from the Tiananmen Square events, and that Freeman himself has always regarded the events as a “tragedy.”
Anyone who has participated in such listservs and other online discussions can imagine how one statement made during the course of a running debate with others, if it were taken in isolation, might give the wrong impression about what you believe about a certain subject. More to the point, when it came to action, as Fallows has already related, Freeman actually worked to help individuals in China. Here is Sidney Rittenberg’s testimony:
To my knowledge–and from personal experience–Chas Freeman as DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission, #2 to the Ambassador] in Beijing was a stalwart supporter of human rights who helped many individuals in need. Not political bluster, but intelligent and courageous action. He is strong in both wisdom and integrity.
What all of this tells me is that most of the criticism of Freeman on matters related to China was premature at best and was made without knowing very much about him, his views or his career. As to the questions of conflict of interest, the IG investigation would have resolved them one way or the other, but instead of waiting for an impartial and professional assessment of these matters the critics piled on with what were likely to have proved to be entirely baseless insinuations about Freeman’s integrity and accusations of working for foreign governments. As usual, character assassins typically reveal more about themselves than about the person they try to destroy.