Richard Just asks a question of me, Matt Yglesias and Bob Dreyfuss:

I am genuinely curious to know what they think of Freeman’s views on how authoritarian governments should treat their own people–a topic they don’t seem to want to engage. For my part, I am horrified by the idea that someone with such a dim view of those who essentially risked their lives for liberalism (i.e. the Tiananmen protesters) would now serve in a liberaladministration. (Imagine if an appointee had made similar comments about 1960s civil rights protesters in the south; we liberals would be justly enraged.)… Instead, why don’t we liberals just stop and answer the question: Are Freeman’s views on Tiananmen acceptable to us or not? And if not, shouldn’t we all be equally appalled by his selection?

Set aside for a moment, because Richard does, the question of the investigation of Freeman for his foreign ties, which strike me as the strongest case that can be made for getting rid of him. As best as I’m aware, the origin of the question of Freeman’s Tiananmen views comes from emails to a private listserv that the Weekly Standard published. You can read one of them here and a longer one here.

Anyone with experience on private email listservs knows that you think out loud on them, so I take these emails in that spirit. The first email the Standard printed is indeed troubling from a human-rights perspective. I don’t see how it can be justified to say that the Chinese government’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square protesters is an example of "overly cautious behavior." On the second email, I’d say read it in full and judge for yourself the degree to which it’s actually an apology for the Chinese government. There I’m not convinced. For instance, there’s this: "Certainly, China continues to fall far short of our minimal expectations for human and civil rights in many respects but it has made very significant progress on many levels. To deny this is primarily to raise questions about the extent to which one has been able to observe readily observable reality." The tone is a bit obnoxious — not being familiar with the culture of that listserv, it’s hard to know whether that’s par for the course of what — but it seems reasonable to assert that China in 2005 (when Freeman wrote the email) is better than China under, say, the Cultural Revolution from a human-rights perspective, while still falling short of our minimal human rights expectations. Freeman’s concern about that strikes me as rather balanced — if not necessarily where I’d calibrate the precise balance.

So then comes the question of whether we should be appalled as liberals by the selection of someone who’d write these emails to chair the National Intelligence Council. There I’d suggest Richard is somewhat overheated. The job of the NIC chairman is to frame discussion for long-term analysis and — with the caveat that this could change under Dennis Blair– supervise the writing of community-wide estimates. Again with the caveat that this could change under Blair, the NIC chairmanship is a weak position relative to the actual National Intelligence Officers who take charge of the debate/writing process of the estimates. (It has no role in short-term or immediate-term intelligence, such as the president’s daily brief.) In short, Freeman is more likely to push against other people’s perspectives in an intelligence debate than to actually assert his own views in a policy debate.

But let’s say he does. There I wonder if there isn’t, counterintuitively, a benefit for human-rights advocates in Freeman’s place on the NIC. After all, some of the most innovative human-rights theorists of the age serve in the Obama administration. Susan Rice is the ambassador to the United Nations. Samantha Power has the multilateral-affairs portfolio in the National Security Council. All sets of principles carry the danger of hardening into dogma, which is why all of us have to be careful to confront assessments that challenge what we believe. And all administrations want to strike a balance between protecting American interests abroad and promoting American values. (In this administration, the human-rights-revolution advocates have arguably the most power they’ve ever had in any administration.) Power and Rice aren’t crimped ideologues, and they’d probably be well served as a result by confronting a piece of long-term intelligence analysis that, for instance, explored the prospects for the global human-rights movement in 2025 along the lines of their favored policies. That’s the sort of thing that results in better policy, no matter what you might write on an email listserv.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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