Chas Freeman and preemptive cringe

Charles “Chas” Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who is slated to become chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), is being praised by his supporters as a brilliantly “contrarian” analyst. But has anyone gone back to examine the analyses? Here is an example from June 2002:

I’m a very practical man, and my concern is simply this: that there are movements, like Hamas, like Hezbollah, that in recent decades have not done anything against the United States or Americans, even though the United States supports their enemy, Israel. By openly stating and taking action to make them—to declare that we are their enemy, we invite them to extend their operations in the United States or against Americans abroad. There’s an old adage which says you should pick your friends carefully. I would add: you should be even more careful when designating your enemies, lest they act in that manner.

So what has happened over the past seven years? The United States hasn’t budged on its designation of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups. (In September 2002, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage even called Hezbollah “the A-team of terrorism” as compared to the B-team, Al Qaeda.) The United States has boycotted both organizations, and has insisted that others boycott them as well. Above all, it’s supported Israel to the hilt in two wars, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, in which Israel pounded first Hezbollah and then Hamas for weeks with U.S.-supplied aircraft and ordnance. There’s little more the United States could have done, short of bombing Beirut and Gaza City itself, to demonstrate to Hezbollah and Hamas that they’re on America’s wrong side.

Yet here we are, nearly seven years later, and where is the wave of Hezbollah- and Hamas-sponsored international terror in and against the United States? It’s not materialized, for a host of reasons that were already clear back in 2002. Freeman’s warning was a classic example of preemptive cringe—in this case, shying away from merely naming an organization as terrorist for fear it might threaten you.

And this wasn’t the only time Freeman did it. In October that same year, as war with Iraq loomed, he raised the specter of Saddam attacking the United States. This came in response to a cost-benefit analysis of war made by the strategist Anthony Cordesman. Warning that Saddam “would will use every weapon in his arsenal” if attacked, Freeman asked:

Is Saddam so stupid and autistic that he hasn’t noticed that for several years the United States has been declaring our intention to come and get him—especially this president? And if he has noticed, do you think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he has prepositioned retaliation against the United States here in the United States? Inspectors can find and eliminate nuclear programs because they’re bulky, consume a lot of power and the like, and maybe they can do the same with chemical programs, but biological programs can be cooked up in the basement of relatively small houses. So I just wonder again, as we look at the possible benefits—and Tony [Cordesman] has made an eloquent case that, great as the risks are, the benefits are substantial, and waiting increases the risks—do we have a risk that we might experience an attack on our own homeland by unconventional means from this regime as it goes down?

“The problem with this argument is several-fold,” replied Cordesman gently. “First, it means Iraq has to be very confident that its intelligence operations are clever and subtle. But I have never been impressed by the cleverness and subtlety of Iraqi intelligence.” In any case, he added, “the threat of such risks also isn’t a valid argument against going to war,” since “presumably they can make the threat more sophisticated over time”—i.e., an Iraqi terror threat was an argument for U.S. action, not against it.

Of course, Saddam went down without launching an unconventional attack from a basement in America.

All this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow had Freeman warned us in advance of the possibility of a 9/11-style attack coming out of Saudi Arabia—and remember, he’d been U.S. ambassador to that country when the threat began to coalesce. Some “contrarians” did warn, but he didn’t, and he isn’t even credible in explaining the attacks after the fact. (Example: “What 9/11 showed is that if we bomb people, they bomb back.”)

So I don’t see anything realistic about Freeman’s sort of “realism,” and if this is what constitutes “contrarian” thought—conjuring up threats to intimidate ourselves—then we’ll only have dropped preemptive action in favor of preemptive cringe. Washington is teeming with real realists—rigorous thinkers who are independent of foreign billionaires and relatively free of that psychological scarring that induces an obsession with Israel. Is Chas Freeman the best this administration can do?

Update: Terrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn points out that Hezbollah did attack Americans more recently than Freeman allowed in his 2002 quote—to wit, the Khobar bombings, done by the Saudi Hezbollah in 1996 (here is the 2001 indictment). He asks how Freeman—supposed authority on all things Saudi—managed not to know that. It’s an excellent question. Joscelyn also reminds us that Hezbollah has had a hand in attacks on American forces in Iraq. True, but this is not what Freeman had in mind when he warned against designation of Hezbollah. There were no American forces in Iraq yet, so he was cringing over something different: an attack on the homeland or international terrorism against Americans. They haven’t happened.

Pointer: See my previous post on Freeman and 9/11.

Update, late afternoon, March 10: “Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”