In Defense of Chas

Jon Chait really has it in for Chas Freeman, Obama’s presumptive head of the National Intelligence Council:

The most extreme manifestation of Freeman’s realist ideology came out in a leaked e-mail he sent to a foreign policy Internet mailing list. Freeman wrote that his only problem with what most of us call “the Tiananmen Square Massacre” was an excess of restraint:

“[T]he truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than — as would have been both wise and efficacious — to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, 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. . . .

“I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be. Such folk, whether they represent a veterans’ ‘Bonus Army’ or a ‘student uprising’ on behalf of ‘the goddess of democracy’ should expect to be displaced with despatch [sic] from the ground they occupy.”

This is the portrait of a mind so deep in the grip of realist ideology that it follows the premises straight through to their reductio ad absurdum. Maybe you suppose the National Intelligence Council job is so technocratic that Freeman’s rigid ideology won’t have any serious consequences. But think back to the neocon ideologues whom Bush appointed to such positions. That didn’t work out very well, did it?

I’m kind of flabbergasted by this characterization of Freeman’s arguments (full text of the Tiananmen email here). Granted, it’s not popular to come out against spontaneous mass movements (this decidedly mixed episode comes to mind), but has it occurred to Chait that Freeman’s views might actually be informed by a fairly nuanced evaluation of the Tiananmen massacre? Nascent democratic revolutions are always chancy propositions, so why is it beyond the pale to suggest that certain countries simply aren’t ready for popular self-government?

I’m in no position to evaluate the merits of Freeman’s assesment of Tiananmen, but the argument itself is quite defensible: the prospects for a smooth democratic transition in China circa 1989 were not bright, and nipping the Tiananmen protests in the bud would have averted significant loss of life without incurring any lasting political cost.

Had China been on the verge of transforming into a mature liberal democracy in 1989, Freeman’s views would indeed seem short-sighted. But of course that’s not the case, and the actual text of the e-mail shows that Freeman weighed the costs and benefits of the Chinese government’s decision to allow the Tiananmen protests to reach critical mass before responding and concluded that intervening earlier would have resulted in significantly less bloodshed.

Most observers will undoubtedly ignore the logic of Freeman’s position and conclude that anyone opposed to self-determination, democracy, and student protest is unworthy of serious intelligence-gathering. Personally, I think we could do with less buzzword-driven policy and more hard-headed analysis.

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