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March 20, 2009

The Pillorying of Charles Freeman and America's Loss


by Leon Hadar

Washington has been riveted for a few weeks by one of those inside-the-beltway political spectacles that usually doesn't get much attention in the world press: Charles ("Chas") Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former deputy chief of mission in Beijing, was named last month as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC).

Citing Mr. Freeman's "diverse background in defense, diplomacy and intelligence," the new director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, noted that the retired ambassador would be ideally suited to serve in a position involving the collection and analysis of intelligence from 16 US agencies and compiling them into National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). Mr. Freeman, it was noted, was the principal interpreter during President Richard Nixon's first visit to China in 1972. But then all hell broke loose.

Reports of Mr. Freeman's nomination were met with an avalanche of condemnation from a number of commentators, including neoconservative bloggers who alleged that Mr. Freeman had personal and business ties in China and Saudi Arabia and questioned his ability to produce objective intelligence estimates on issues relating to US policy in East Asia and the Middle East.

Leading Chinese dissidents wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reconsider Mr. Freeman's appointment. House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reported to be "incensed" by Mr. Freeman's alleged comments that excused the behavior of the Chinese government during of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. She reportedly urged President Obama to reconsider the selection.

Mr. Freeman explained that the remarks had been taken out of context and that his words had represented "his assessment of how Chinese leaders had seen things."

Unmoved, Republican Representative Frank Wolf wrote in the Washington Post: "For me, the warning flags about Charles Freeman went up when I learned of his questionable associations and inflammatory statements about China and Tibet." Mr. Wolf noted that Mr. Freeman had served on the advisory board of the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), receiving US$10,000 a year for his service for four years. Mr. Freeman had also chaired the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based research organization that has received some financial assistance from Saudi Arabia.

In the event, following the nasty campaign orchestrated by several pro-Israeli lawmakers and columnists, Mr. Freeman decided to withdraw his nomination from consideration last week. His decision deprived President Obama of the services of a very original thinker who could have provided his administration with balanced creative ideas about global affairs.

But what is no less disturbing is the notion that having business ties with the Chinese (or the Saudi) companies or receiving money from the Chinese (or the Saudi) government somewhat "compromises" and disqualifies one from serving in a top position in the US government.

That criteria would certainly make it impossible for many leading American business executives who trade with, and invest in, China (and Saudi Arabia) as well as top academics and other professionals who have been invited as guests by the Chinese (or Saudi) government from joining the US government.

Moreover, Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Wolf and other critics of the Freeman nomination should perhaps take into consideration the fact that the huge economic stimulus and Wall Street bailout packages that Congress has approved recently are going to be financed by the US dollars that the Chinese (and the Saudis) are investing in ever-growing American debt.

Ironically, on the same week that Mr. Freeman was being criticized for his ties with China, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was expressing concern about the safety of China's US$1 trillion investment in US Treasury bonds and other debt, the world's largest such holding. Mr. Wen urged the US to provide assurances that Beijing's investment would keep its value in the face of a global financial crisis.

Mr. Wen's comments may have been politically timed, being made following a well-publicized naval game of chicken between a US vessel and several Chinese boats in the South China Sea. But that doesn't change the fact that the ailing American economy remains alive and well partly thanks to the infusion of money from China (and Saudi Arabia). And, by the way, Israeli government agencies and private companies do a lot of business in China.

It takes a lot of chutzpah on the part of American politicians and pundits to try to burnish their credentials as world class humanitarians at a time when they show up with their battered tin cup as first-class beggars asking for donations.

Copyright © 2009 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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