Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gregory Djerejian on Charles Freeman

With the withdrawal of Charles Freeman from consideration as chairman of the National Intelligence Council the pundit class nearly peed its pants in excitement. Having been distracted from matters diplomatique these last few decades I knew nothing about him except what I read in the papers. What I read, though, leads me to believe he's a man after my own heart, in your face, opinionated, sharp as a nail, and not one to suffer fools lightly. Considering how many fools are in our midst, that puts the man at a political, even democratic, disadvantage.

In A Brief (and Belated) Word on Chas Freeman we see that Djerejian hasn't lost his touch. His posts are better than a box of cherry cordials.

...Chas Freeman probably never could have--at least in this far duller era of technocrats climbing up the greasy pole to positions in the NSC and such--gotten a really top slot above things like Ambassador to Riyadh. He was too much an outsize personality, at least in this era of frequently mind-numbing ideological conformity, rife with group-think lick-spittles, ideological litmus tests, and assorted apparatchik-type dullards posings as 'experts'. We are the poorer as a nation for not having him in the job, to be sure, but deep down Freeman will be the richer for it. A small consolation, but I do wish it for him.

Picking a current article at random to get a sample of Washingtonspeak, I came across this good-by-and-and-good-riddance piece by Charles Lane. He ends with this.

Q. “How does one avoid being charged with weakness (defeatism, capitulationism, etc.) if one advocates a measure of accommodation of one's enemies in order to get rid of them?”

Freeman: “Calling our campaign against terrorists a ‘war’ is a transparent deception, intended to ensure that political correctness will preclude questioning about either the conduct of the campaign or the governance of the nation. To an unconscionable extent, this has worked. As a political technique, what the administration has done is not in the least original. Herman Goering testified at his trial: ‘...the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.’”

Ironically, Freeman blames his troubles today on certain people who, he argues, lack patriotism and are exposing the country to danger. Or, as he puts it, “a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government.”

President Obama is well rid of him.

Sounds to me like Freeman said exactly what I (and others) have been saying for the last several years. And I'm not alone. I didn't read closely, but several in the comments thread piled on poor Mr. Lane for his lack of respect as well as a bad attitude.

Readers who want to see what we missed can check out Why Not Let Them Hate Us, As Long As They Fear Us? Remarks to the United States Information Agency Alumni Association, 04 October 2006.

No country was then more widely admired or emulated than ours. The superior features of our society - our insistence on individual liberty under law; the equality of opportunity we had finally extended to all; the egalitarianism of our prosperity; our openness to ideas, change, and visitors; our generous attention to the development of other nations; our sacrifices to defend small states against larger predators both in the Cold War and, most recently, in the war to liberate Kuwait; our championship of international order and the institutions we had created to maintain it after World War II; the vigor of our democracy and our dedication to untrammeled debate - were recognized throughout the world. Critics of our past misadventures, as in Vietnam, had been silenced by the spectacle of our demonstrable success. This, our political betters judged, made the effort to explain ourselves, our purposes, and our policies through public diplomacy an unnecessary anachronism. The spread of global media and the internet, many believed, made official information and cultural programs irrelevant.

Our values were everywhere accepted and advancing, albeit with some lingering resistance in a few out-of-the-way places. Our policies would speak for themselves through the White House and State Department spokesmen. Why not save the money, while simplifying the organization chart?

That was, of course, before we suffered the trauma of 9/11 and underwent the equivalent of a national nervous breakdown. It was before we panicked and decided to construct a national-security state that would protect us from the risks posed by foreign visitors or evil-minded Americans armed with toenail clippers or liquid cosmetics. It was before we decided that policy debate is unpatriotic and realized that the only thing foreigners understand is the use of force. It was before we replaced the dispassionate judgments of our intelligence community with the faith-based analyses of our political leaders. It was before we embraced the spin-driven strategies that have stranded our armed forces in Afghanistan, marched them off to die in the terrorist ambush of Iraq, and multiplied and united our Muslim enemies rather than diminishing and dividing them. It was before we began to throw our values overboard in order to stay on course while evading attack. It was before, in a mere five years, we transformed ourselves from 9/11's object of almost universal sympathy and support into the planet's most despised nation, with its most hateful policies.

Don't hold back, Mr. Freeman. Tell us how you really feel.

Here, in our country, there seem to be three reactions to the collapse of our international reputation and the rise in global antipathy to the United States.

Some, many of whom seem to inhabit the bubble universe created by our media as an alternative to the real world, agree with Caligula and the cult of his followers in the Administration and on the Hill. They think it's just fine for foreigners to hate us as long as we've got the drop on them and are in a position to string 'em up. They're surprised that "shock and awe" has so far proven to be an inadequate substitute for strategy, but they're eager to try it again and again on the theory that, if force doesn't work the first time, the answer is to apply more force.

Others seem to be in denial. That's the only way I can explain the notion of "transformational diplomacy" coming up at this time. Look, I'm all for the missionary position. But, let's face it, it's hard to get it on with foreigners when you've lost your sex appeal. A democracy that stifles debate at home, that picks and chooses which laws it will ignore or respect, and whose opposition party whines but does not oppose, is - I'm sorry to say - not one with much standing to promote democracy abroad. A government that responds to unwelcome election results by supporting efforts to correct them with political assassinations and cluster bombs has even less credibility in this regard. (If democracies don't fight democracies, by the way, what are Gaza and Lebanon all about? But that's another discussion.)

The third reaction is to call for a return to public diplomacy, this time on steroids. This sounds like a good idea but there are at least a couple of difficulties with it.

The first is that, if there is no private diplomacy, there can be no public diplomacy. And as we all know, Americans no longer do diplomacy ourselves. We are very concerned that, by talking to foreigners with whom we disagree, we might inadvertently suggest that we respect them and are prepared to work with them rather than preparing to bomb them into peaceful coexistence. Both at home and abroad, we respond to critics by stigmatizing and ostracizing them. To avoid sending a signal of reasonableness or willingness to engage in dialogue, we do threats, not diplomacy. That's something we outsource to whomever we can find to take on the morally reprehensible task of conducting it.

Usually, this means entrusting our interests to people we manifestly distrust. Thus, I note, we've outsourced Korea to Beijing even as we arm ourselves against the Chinese; we've outsourced Iran to the French and other fuddy-duddies in the officially cowardly and passé "Old Europe;" and we've outsourced the UN to that outspoken international scofflaw, John Bolton, who, despite representing us in Turtle Bay, remains unconfirmable - as well as indescribable in polite company. We can't find anyone dumb enough to take on the Sisyphean task of rolling the Israeli rock up the hill of peace or to step in for us in Iraq so we try to pretend, with respect to both, that the absence of a peace process equates to the absence of a problem. Everything is under control and going just fine.

This brings me to the second difficulty. As our founding fathers understood so well, for public diplomacy to persuade foreigners even to give us and our policies the benefit of the doubt, let alone to support us, we must put on at least the appearance of a decent respect for their opinion. Persuasiveness begins with a reputation for wisdom, probity and effectiveness, but succeeds by showing empathy and concern for the interests of others. Finally, it's easier to make the case for judgments that have some grounding in reality, and for policies that have a plausible prospect of mutually beneficial results, than for those that don't.

I will not dwell on how poorly our current approaches measure up to these standards. Americans are now famous internationally for our ignorance and indifference to the world beyond our borders. We are becoming infamous for our disregard for the fate of foreigners who perish at our hands or from our munitions. Some of our military officers sincerely mourn the civilian Arab deaths their operations and those with whom we have allied ourselves cause; there is no evidence that many other Americans are the least bit disturbed by them.

Not content just to let foreigners - Arabs and Muslims, in particular - hate us, we often seem to go out of our way to speak and act in such a way as to compel them to do so. Consider Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the practice of kidnapping and "rendition," our public defense of torture, or the spectacle a month or so ago of American officials fending off peace while urging the further maiming of Lebanon and its people. Catastrophically mistaken policies based on intelligence cooked to fit the policy recipe have combined with the debacle of Iraq reconstruction and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina to discredit American competence with foreign governments and publics alike. It's hard to find anybody out there who believes we know what we're doing or that we have a sound grasp of our own interests, let alone any understanding or concern for theirs. We have given the terrorists what they cannot have dared dream we would - policies and practices that recruit new terrorists but that leave no space for our friends and former admirers to make their case for us or for our values or policies.

I wanted to parse this piece to make it more palatable for someone in hurry. But it won't work. This is some of the tightest prose I have ever seen. Trying to edit this to be shorter would be like chopping out the middle layer of a wedding cake. The result would be both messy and ugly. Go to the original and treat yourself to a whole box of cherry cordials at one seating.

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