Two More on Chas Freeman and China

By James Fallows

I realize that there's no point in getting into an endless endorsement-competition to see how many authorities can be lined up for and against the embattled Chas Freeman, nominee-apparent as head of the National Intelligence Council.

But anyone who has seen a Washington scandal get rolling understands the almost unstoppable momentum when one "revelation" follows another and you wait breathlessly to see what the next one will be -- and when the "embattled" victim will finally give in. That is very much how it looked for Freeman when -- on top of the original complaints about his views on Israel -- apparently-damaging new information about his views on China popped up.

To put a brake on the momentum, and to give a chance for deliberation about a man's reputation and a president's ability to get the range of advice he wants, I think it is worth reinforcing the idea that the people who know Freeman and China policy best think the complaints about him on this front are a crock. That was the point of the previous post with the views of Sidney Rittenberg and Jerome A. Cohen. Here, the views of the China scholar John Frankenstein of Brooklyn College, and the Beijing-based blogger and writer (and rock musician) Kaiser Kuo:

John Frankenstein:

I have known Chas Freeman ever since we were next door neighbors at the State Dept's Chinese language School in Taiwan over 35 years ago. (At the time he was studying Hong Lou Meng; most of us were struggling with Hong Qi) He's damn smart, speaks his mind, dedicated to the best interests of the United States, and has little tolerance for bullshit.  I cannot think of a better choice for NIC chairman than Chas.

Kaiser Kuo, in an entry two years ago from his Ich Bin Ein Beijinger blog, reported details from a speech Freeman gave on the importance of independent-minded intelligence analysis, especially as it applied to China.  According to the transcript Kuo quoted, Freeman said:

To deal effectively with China, Americans need to understand it in terms of its own complexities and authentic aspirations. This is unlikely to be achieved by officials engaged in writing narrowly focused and highly tendentious reports mandated by Congress to justify the single-issue agendas of our military-industrial complex or, for that matter, our humanitarian-industrial complex. Nor can it be accomplished by analysts stir-frying intelligence to suit the political appetites of those they work for....
Predictions about China based on a priori reasoning, ideologically induced delusions, hearsay, conjecture, or mirror-imaging have been frequent and numerous. They have racked up a remarkable record of unreliability. To cite a few relevant examples: contrary to repeated forecasts, the many imperfections of China's legal system have neither prevented it from developing a vigorous market economy nor inhibited foreign investment -- of which China continues to attract more than any other country, including our own. China's failure to democratize and its continuing censorship of its media, including the Internet, have not stifled its economic progress or capacity to innovate, which are increasingly impressive. China's perverse practices with respect to human rights have not cost China's Communist Party or its government their legitimacy. On the contrary, polling data suggests that Chinese have a very much higher regard for their political leaders and government than Americans currently do for ours.

The second paragraph, with Freeman's observations of China, rings almost all* true to me -- based on living here for nearly three years. The first paragraph, about the importance of truly independent-minded intelligence analysis, commends him for the job rather than disqualifies him. So let's slow down, stop the stampede, and -- since we're talking about a "non-confirmable" post that is presumably within the president's discretion -- look for actual proof that Freeman's views on other topics are so extreme, deep-held, and unreasonable that he should be banned from further service as a bigot or pariah. It doesn't look to me as if such proof is there.
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* Exception, for later discussion: I think there is more tension/contradiction between the Chinese government's determination to control the media and public discussion, on the one hand, and its desire to foster an innovative economy, on the other, than Freeman suggests here. Also, his comments about the relative popularity of US and Chinese officials was made during the late GW Bush era, not Obama's time. But all that is for another time -- and is certainly not a reason to think he should be banned from public office.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/03/two-more-on-chas-freeman-and-china/1339/