A fight I didn't intend to get into: Chas Freeman

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I have never met Chas Freeman, the man whose reported selection as head of the National Intelligence Council has drawn such criticism, including from my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg. Not having had a chance to assess him first hand, and not having put in time studying his views, I have not felt comfortable weighing in on the dispute about whether his outlook was unacceptably extreme. Here's the gist of the argument against him: that he is too close to the Saudis (as a former US Ambassador to the Kingdom, and now head of a think tank that has received Saudi funding); too tolerant of repression in China (because of comments saying the Chinese regime had no choice but to crack down in Tiananmen Square); and too deaf to the moral claims of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East.

But very recently I met with a friend who had worked years ago with Freeman  -- on China, not the Middle East -- and was upset about what he called the "self-lobotimization" of US foreign policy that the campaign to discredit Freeman represented. As I've looked into it, I've come to agree.

His first point was that Freeman was being proposed for a post within the president's discretionary appointment power, like one of his White House aides, and therefore didn't have to reflect the Senate's sense of who should be in the job. The more important point, he said, was that Freeman's longstanding contrarian inclination to challenge conventional wisdom of any sort, far from being an embarrassing liability, was exactly what a president needed from the person in this job.

A president's Secretary of State had to represent the country's policies soberly and predictably around the world. His National Security Advisor had to coordinate and evenhandedly present the views of the various agencies. His White House press secretary had to take great care in expressing the official line to the world's media each day. His Director of National Intelligence had to give him the most sober and responsible precis of what was known and unknown about potential threats.

For any of those roles, a man like Freeman might not be the prudent choice. But as head of the National Intelligence Council, my friend said, he would be exactly right. While he would have no line-operational responsibilities or powers, he would be able to raise provocative questions, to ask "What if everybody's wrong?", to force attention to the doubts, possibilities, and alternatives that normally get sanded out of the deliberative process through the magic known as "groupthink." As Dan Froomkin of NiemanWatch wrote in an item that called Freeman "A One-Man Destroyer of Groupthink,"

He has... spent a goodly part of the last 10 years raising questions that otherwise might never get answered -- or even asked -- because they're too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult.
For him to be put in charge of what [Laura Rozen of Foreign Policy] calls "the intelligence community's primary big-think shop and the lead body in producing national intelligence estimates" is about the most emphatic statement the Obama Administration could possibly make that it won't succumb to the kind of submissive intelligence-community groupthink that preceded the war in Iraq. 

Again, I don't know Freeman personally. I don't know whether the Saudi funding for his organization has been entirely seemly (like that for most Presidential libraries), which is now the subject of inspector-general investigation. If there's a problem there, there's a problem.

But I do know something about the role of contrarians in organizational life. I have hired such people, have worked alongside them, have often been annoyed at them, but ultimately have viewed them as indispensable. Sometimes the annoying people, who will occasionally say "irresponsible" things, are the only ones who will point out problems that everyone else is trying to ignore. A president needs as many such inconvenient boat-rockers as he can find -- as long as they're not in the main operational jobs. Seriously: anyone who has worked in an organization knows how hard it is, but how vital, to find intelligent people who genuinely are willing to say inconvenient things even when everyone around them is getting impatient or annoyed. The truth is, you don't like them when they do that. You may not like them much at all. But without them, you're cooked.

So to the extent this argument is shaping up as a banishment of Freeman for rash or unorthodox views, I instinctively take Freeman's side -- even when I disagree with him on specifics. This job calls for originality, and originality brings risks. Chas Freeman is not going to have his finger on any button. He is going to help raise all the questions that the person with his finger on the button should be aware of.

Read carefully this NiemanWatch Q-and-A with Freeman from 2006 (or read any of Freeman's recent policy articles here) and ask yourself two questions: do these sound like the views of an unacceptable kook? And, would you rather have had more of this sensibility, or less, applied to U.S. policy in recent years?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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