So, Is Human Rights Watch "Neocon" Now, Too?


Remember when Saudi-bashing was a lefty thing? When Michael Moore was devoting a big chunk of Farenheit 9/11 to the over-warm relationship between U.S. leaders and the clannish House of Saud, stewards of the dictatorship that produced 15 of 19 hijackers on that sunny September morning, and Craig Unger was peddling House of Bush, House of Saud? Well now that Barack Obama is in the Oval Office, the proper lefty response has morphed into a full-throated defense of one of Saudi Arabia's most influential apologists: Former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman, who has been nominated to head up the National Intelligence Council. Why? Because neocons don't like him.

The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss, who calls Freeman "a one-of-a-kind choice…with an impeccably establishment pedigree…[and] a startling propensity to speak truth to power," declaimed the "thunderous, coordinated assault" against Freeman by "the neocons, friends of the Israeli far right, and their allies." Stephen "The Israel Lobby" Walt decried "the despicable smear campaign against Charles Freeman," comparing Freeman's critics to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (yes, he used the headline: "Have they not a shred of decency?"). Andrew Sullivan noted the "attacks" by the "neocon right," and claimed that "Freeman was originally targeted…because he has actually criticized the recent policies of the state of Israel in blunt terms." And TPM Cafe's M.J. Rosenberg uncorked the most persuasive analysis since "Neener neener neener":

Hey, neocons, you lost. President Obama ignored you and appointed Chas Freeman anyway. Elliot Abrams' "back channel" is gone forever. Doug Feith is probably en route to The Hague.

Get over it.

All of which begs the question: Since when is Human Rights Watch an organ of the neocon right???

The Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch said, however, that Mr. Freeman's nomination sends the wrong message.

"A capacity to make moral distinctions may not be a prerequisite for being a good intelligence analyst," Tom Malinowski said. "But for such a high-profile appointment, it would still be wise for President Obama to weigh the message sent by choosing someone who has so consistently defended and worked for the clenched fists the president so eloquently challenged in his inaugural address."

As Michael Moynihan pointed out here recently, Freeman stands accused, plausibly, of sending out an e-mail to a diplomatic listserv arguing that "the Politburo's response to the mob scene at 'Tian'anmen' stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action." This is plausible, since it's of a piece with Freeman's referring to an anti-Chinese Tibetan protest as a "race riot," and leaning more toward the Beijing side when it comes to the dispute over Taiwan. And it's perfectly consistent with his long track record of issuing apologia for Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most illiberal countries, with whom he describes himself as a "friend."

"Saudi Arabia needs to make more serious long-term efforts—not just making new friends in the United States but helping its existing friends to be friends," he lamented in a remarkable September 2003 interview with the Saudi-American Forum. "Sometimes it's difficult to be a friend to Saudi Arabia. The current atmosphere brings you no public credit instead it brings you sometimes vicious criticism." Though the position always does manage to pay pretty well.

Speaking as neither neocon nor right-winger nor someone who spends much time even thinking about the state of Israel (sorry!), I can testify that my distaste for Freeman is neither "coordinated" nor emanating out of some secret Elliot Abrams man-love. I just don't fancy the kind of mind that, when asked in 2003 to name factors in the deterioriation of U.S.-Saudi relations, pinpoints as reason numero uno "changes in U.S. visa policy and entry procedures." Who, in the same interview, says this:

I should also say I've been very impressed by the extent to which Saudi Arabia, in the wake of 9/11, has engaged in introspection and taken on some tough problems that it had avoided addressing for many decades. […]

I'm sorry to say that I do not see the same level of introspection and consideration by Americans of what it is we might do to reduce friction with countries and peoples in the Middle East. […] Actually, I think we could learn a lot from the Saudis in terms of facing up to the need to take a good hard look at ourselves and our behavior.

It is possible to believe fervently that America should not exert its will onto the rest of the world, without crossing into a fantasy land wherein a country with no real press freedom, no elections, and no legal culture even allowing for anything resembling "introspection" is held up as an intellectual example from which the United States needs to learn. This is the definition of clientitis; it exhibits not a "startling propensity to speak truth to power" but rather a startling propensity to lob bouquets at dictators. Like, for instance, these Freeman remarks at the 2006 SAIS China Forum:

Mao Zedong had a force and energy which none but men of equally great spiritual conviction could withstand. His animal appetites, we now know, matched his intellectual vigor. He was an object of adulation to his subjects and of mingled admiration and dread to his subordinates and intimates. While Mao lived, the brilliance of his personality illuminated the farthest corners of his country and inspired many would-be revolutionaries and romantics beyond it.

Few indeed loved Chairman Mao's style of governance, but all but a few of those who despised it most loved the People's Republic he had founded more and hated him less than they feared him.

This is a man with warped judgment, and I'd rather not pay his salary, let alone have him screening important national intelligence. If that's the modern hate-fiction definition of "neocon," then perhaps it's time for a new definition.