Chas Freeman’s somber look at U.S. Middle East policy

    I am happy to be able to publish here– with his permission– the text of the presentation that Amb. Chas W. Freeman, Jr., made at a conference on the Middle East held at Tufts University, October 14-15. Freeman’s book America’s Misadventures in the Middle East is, of course, the first title to be published by my new publishing company, Just World Books.
    Two days before the Tufts event, Freeman launched the book at a swanky lunch organized by the international affairs committee of the Cosmos Club, in Washington, DC. I have audio of the book launch that I am about to put up onto the JWB website. Not surprisingly, he made many of the same points at the two events. (So you will have the choice of either reading them here, or listening to him delivering them in his wonderful, gravelly voice, over there.)
    They were very important points to make. He invited his American audiences to engage some serious empathy, and to imagine how they (we) would feel if our country had been subjected to the kinds and scales of wounding that our government’s policies have inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan– and have helped to bring about in the Israeli-Palestinian theater, especially among Palestinians– over the past decade.
    He also made some very important arguments about the damage that the policies pursued by Washington in the Middle East over the past decade has inflicted on our country: the huge losses inflicted in terms of human lives, money– and the assault on so many of our key values that Washington’s endless warmongering has caused.
    The very last argument he makes in the text below is central, I think.
    But let me let him speak for himself.

Remarks to the Fares Center Conference,
Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts,
October 15, 2010
by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

As an American, I look at the results of U.S. policies in the Middle East and they remind me of the T-shirt someone once gave me. It said: “Sinatra is dead. Elvis is dead. And me, I don’t feel so good.”
The Middle East is a constant reminder that a clear conscience is usually a sign of either a faulty memory or a severe case of arrogant amorality. It is not a badge of innocence. These days, we meticulously tally our own battlefield dead; we do not count the numbers of foreigners who perish at our hands or those of our allies. Yet each death is a tragedy that extinguishes one soul and wounds others. This deserves our grief. If we cannot feel it, we may justly be charged with inhumanity.
All that is required to be hated is to do hateful things. Apparent indifference to the pain and humiliation one has inflicted further outrages its victims, their families, and their friends. As the Golden Rule, common – in one form or another – to all religions, implicitly warns, moral blindness is contagious. That is why warring parties engaged in tit for tat come in time to resemble each other rather than to sharpen their differences.
War is in fact not the spectator sport that the fans who watch it on television or on big screens in theaters imagine. Nor is it the “cakewalk” that its armchair advocates sometimes suggest it might be. War is traumatic for all its participants. Recent experience suggests that 30 percent of troops develop serious mental health problems that dog them after they leave the battlefield. But what of the peoples soldiers seek to punish or pacify? To understand the hatreds war unleashes and its lasting psychological and political consequences, one has only to translate foreign casualty figures into terms we Americans can relate to. You can do this by imagining that the same percentages of Americans might die or suffer injury as foreigners have. Then think about the impact that level of physical and moral insult would have on us.
Consider, for example, the two sides of the Israel-Palestine struggle. So far in this century – since September 29, 2000, when Ariel Sharon marched into the Al Aqsa mosque and ignited the Intifada of that name, about 850 Israeli Jews have died at the hands of Palestinians, 125 or so of them children. That’s equivalent to 45,000 dead Americans, including about 6,800 children. It’s a level of mayhem we Americans cannot begin to understand. But, over the same period, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 6,600 or so Palestinians, at least 1,315 of whom were children. In American terms, that’s equivalent to 460,000 U.S. dead, including 95,000 children. Meanwhile, the American equivalent of almost 500,000 Israelis and 2.9 million Palestinians have been injured. To put it mildly, the human experiences these figures enumerate are not conducive to peace or goodwill among men and women in the Holy Land or anywhere with emotional ties to them.
We all know that events in the Holy Land have an impact far beyond it. American sympathy for Israel and kinship with Jewish settlers assure that Jewish deaths there arouse anti-Arab and anti-Muslim passions here, even as the toll on Palestinians is seldom, if ever, mentioned. But, among the world’s 340 million Arabs and 1.6 billion Muslims, all eyes are on the resistance of Palestinians to continuing ethnic cleansing and the American subsidies and political support for Israel that facilitates their suffering. The chief planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, testified under oath that a primary purpose of that criminal assault on the United States was to focus “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people . . . .” The occupation and attempted pacification of other Muslim lands like Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the shocking hate speech about Islam that now pervades American politics lend credence to widening Muslim belief in a U.S. crusade against Islam and its believers.


No one knows how many Iraqis have died as a direct or indirect consequence of the U.S. invasion and the anarchy that followed it. Estimates range between a low of something over 100,000 to a high of well over 1 million. Translated to comparable proportions in the United States, that equates to somewhere between 1 and 13 million dead Americans. Over two-and-a-quarter million Iraqis fled to neighboring countries to escape this bloodbath. An equal number found shelter inside Iraq. Few Iraqis have been able to go back to Iraq or to return to their homes. In our terms, that equals an apparently permanent flight to Canada and Mexico of 24 million Americans, with another 24 million driven into homelessness but, years later, still somewhere inside the country. I think you will agree that, had this kind of thing happened to Americans, religious scruples would not deter many of us from seeking revenge and reprisal against whoever had done it to us.
The numbers in Afghanistan aren’t quite as frightful but they make the same point. We’re accumulating a critical mass of enemies with personal as well as religious and nationalistic reasons to seek retribution against us. As our violence against foreign civilians has escalated, our enemies have multiplied. The logic of this progression is best understood anecdotally.
I am grateful to Bruce Fein (a noted constitutional scholar in Washington, DC) for calling attention to the colloquy of convicted Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad with United States District Judge Miriam Cederbaum. She challenged Shahzad’s self-description as a ‘Muslim soldier’ because his contemplated violence targeted civilians,
“Did you look around to see who they were?”
“Well, the people select the government,” Shahzad retorted. “We consider them all the same. The drones, when they hit …”
Cedarbaum interrupted: “Including the children?”
Shahzad countered: “Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war, and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims.”
Later, he added: “I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people. And, on behalf of that, I’m avenging the attack. Living in the United States, Americans only care about their own people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.”
No amount of public diplomacy, no matter how cleverly conducted, can prevail over the bitterness of personal and collective experience. The only way to reverse trends supporting anti-American violence by the aggrieved is to reverse the policies that feed it. That means finding alternatives to military intervention as the principal instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and it means returning to the American tradition of respect for the sovereignty and ways of life of other nations.
That perspective was best stated by John Quincy Adams in his speech to the U.S. House of Representatives of July 4, 1821. Adams said, with pride, that:

    America . . . has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, [even] when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart . . . She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

In my view, Adams was right in both his prescription and his prognosis.
We are now a nation with unmatched military capabilities. Perhaps that is why we are the only country in the world to have proclaimed that our conflict with terrorists is a “war,” or to have dismissed civilian victims of our violence as “collateral damage.” Other nations have joined us in Afghanistan to demonstrate their solidarity with us, not because they see the piecemeal pacification of the Muslim world as the answer to the extremist non-state actors in its midst. It is not simply that terrorism is a tactic, not a cause against which one can wage war. Weapons are indeed tools with which to change men’s minds, but to do this they must be employed with care, otherwise they can entrench animosity and justify reprisal against the nation that wields them. No other people has so powerful a military establishment that it could even begin to persuade itself, as many Americans have, that guns can cure grudges or missiles erase militancy.
If you view the world through a bombsight, everything looks like a target. Yet the lesson of 9/11 is that if you drop bombs on enough people – even on people with no air force – the most offended amongst them will do their best to bomb you back. Security challenges far from our shores now challenge domestic tranquility. The lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that there are some problems for which invasion and occupation are not appropriate or effective responses. Far from demonstrating the irresistible might of the United States, as their neo-conservative champions intended, these wars have revealed the considerable limits of American power. Over-reliance on military instruments of statecraft has become a major problem for us. It is one we need to address.

15 thoughts on “Chas Freeman’s somber look at U.S. Middle East policy

  1. Yann

    Hi Helena,
    Please, what do you think of this view?
    Max Ajl :
    “you don’t need a PhD in colonial history to know that the “American tradition of respect for blablabla” is a fantasy fit (…)
    I’ve always thought it was a little off to embrace a warmed-over racist like Freeman (…)”
    http://www.maxajl.com/?p=4289

  2. Helena

    I think Max Ajl is young and doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. Where does he get off, calling Chas Freeman a “warmed over racist”? This is just name-calling of the most juvenile (and, as it happens, slanderous) kind. He provides no evidence for the charge– because there is none. Doesn’t he realize that silly, baseless name-calling is exactly the m.o. of the rabid Likudniks whom he claims to oppose?
    As I said, childish and silly in the extreme.

  3. Max

    Good argument Helena. Way to not engage with (1) the elision of the genocide of the Native Americans and (2) the fact that Freeman’s argument is about the fact that we bleed from bleeding our victims–not, of course, that we have no right to interfere in other people’s lives. (3) This would be libel and not slander if it were either; (4) I don’t oppose Likudniks but the whole Zionist project; (5) you have called me “young..childish and silly” without engaging with my argument because I’ve apparently violated some-or-another piety. I just repeated the argument. It’s about ignoring (racistly) the genocide of the American Indians and asserting implicitly that we have the right to restructure other people’s societies. Try engaging with that argument. good night.

  4. Helena

    Freeman, who proudly talks about the native-American part of his own heritage, did not speak here about the multiple harms, including genocides, inflicted on native Americans. But the simple fact that he did not do so on this one occasion does not ipso facto make him a racist. (Anyway, what kind of a racist would that make him? Maybe not a racist at all but a self-hating descendant of native Americans? Ah, you seem to know so little about him and the world that you feel quite able to throw your ugly labels around quite freely… )
    Also, go re-read– or perhaps, read closely for the first time?– the John Quincy Adams excerpt that he quoted while expressing explicit approval of it. Freeman’s argument is not, in the main, “about” the fact that Americans also suffer when we inflict harms on others. It is about the need– mainly on prudential but also on moral grounds– for not throwing American military weight around in other people’s countries– because they are just as human as we are:
    “each death is a tragedy that extinguishes one soul and wounds others. This deserves our grief. If we cannot feel it, we may justly be charged with inhumanity.”
    Could he be any clearer than that?

  5. J K

    Yes, calling Freeman a “warmed over racist” from that speech is silly. Max Ajl needs to grow up a little. With equal lack of generosity, and similar rhetorical gymnastics, one could just as well criticize anything that anyone has ever written as racist.
    Chomsky’s quote there has always struck me as foolish, distinguishing between “not murdering” and “not interfering”, when one is a subcategory of the other. Murder is the ultimate, most important way of interfering, and non-murderers are quite a bit morally better than murderers. It is not morally elevated principles that we need to abide by or preen ourselves on holding, but elementary ones. What is needed is not moral regeneration, but accurate perception and understanding of the world and one’s actions, implicit in the non-elevated principle he criticizes, and from which all else follows.

  6. Yann

    Helena,
    Max Ajl updated his post on Freeman a couple of days ago.
    “Freeman is not dis­avow­ing empire. He is saying, tone it down a bit–don’t use it as the “principal instru­ment” of American foreign policy. He goes on to write, “Weapons are indeed tools with which to change men’s minds, but to do this they must be employed with care”; not carpet-bombing civilians or taking out Pakistani tribesmen with remote-controlled drones, but gingerly and carefully using violence to achieve our aims, and when possible, using other means of coercion–the supposed carrot of Clin­ton­ian glob­al­iza­tion, behind which always stood the stick of the American military, a point well-made during the inter­ven­tion in Kosovo. Freeman notes that “Over-reliance on military instru­ments of state­craft has become a major problem for us. It is one we need to address”; the problem is not mil­i­ta­riza­tion or reliance on using bombs to change other’s societies, let alone a recog­ni­tion that other societies aren’t there waiting for American inter­fer­ence in their affairs. The problem is an over-reliance on violence. This is a call for a toned-down liberal impe­ri­al­ism, not a call for a generally de-militarized foreign policy, let alone a real principle of non-interference. The dif­fer­ences between full-bore violent inter­ven­tion, scaled-down violent inter­ven­tion, and other modal­i­ties of inter­ven­tion are real, and we shouldn’t make light of them, while at the same time being fully aware that what Freeman is calling for is a re-deployment of empire, not its cessation. Part of that re-deployment will perhaps involve a res­o­lu­tion of the Israel-Palestine conflict–hence, J Street’s call for a two-state solution.”
    http://www.maxajl.com/?p=4289#idc-container
    I think it’s quite convincing.
    Will you allow your readers to participate in a fair and democratic debate on that, please?

  7. annie

    weiss says freeman is ‘a fabulous writer’ and i agree. it’s thrilling listening to a brilliant thoughtful person w/so much personal style, humor and class.
    i just love him. thanks helena.
    this cracks me up:
    Will you allow your readers to participate in a fair and democratic debate on that, please?
    debate? w/you? no thanks.

  8. Yann

    Helena,
    Will you please allow Max to comment on this blog and not delete his messages?
    I’m sure the conversation will therefore be constructive.
    I read both of you and appreciate very much your views and your commitment.
    Thank you.

  9. Yann

    Helena,
    My precedent message did not appear…
    I ask you this simple question:
    Will you allow Max Ajl to send messages on your blog?
    If not, why, please?
    You always say Hamas won “fair and democratic” elections. So even if one does not agree with it, it should not be sidelined.
    Max Ajl argumented his opinion on Freeman so why should he be sidelined by you?
    I feel this situation is very odd…
    Should not transparency always be favored?
    Ethics links thought to action.
    I know you are great person.

  10. Max Ajl

    A couple days ago I pointed out that Chas Freeman’s much-circulated Tufts speech, when parsed carefully, still endorsed an embrace of empire. An embrace of empire means killing brown people. I concluded that a policy that inexorably leads to the murder of brown people is racist. But Gabriel Ash of Jews Sans Frontieres very helpfully pointed out that the terms need clarification. Chas Freeman does not run around spitting at Arabs, supporting anti-miscegenation laws, or garbed in a white-hooded cloak. He is of American Indian ancestry. He probably is very lightly, if at all, prejudiced in his personal life. I’m sure he considers African-Americans worthy of full citizenship in America, doesn’t like the Minute Men carrying out vigilante border-keeping on the US-Mexico frontier, and supports affirmative action. He is not, as Gabriel pointed out, afflicted with “racism, the theory and conscious belief of racial superiority, exclusivity and primacy, and the practices that follow intentionally from applying these beliefs.” Instead, he accepts “racism, a system of assumptions, habits of mind, knowledge, etc., that supports unequal relations of power between racially constructed groups and that helps to both naturalize and invisibilize the domination of one group over another.”
    That is absolutely clear in his call for a toned-down liberal imperialism, one that should refrain from spectacular violence both on the grounds of the damage that it does to us as well as the damage it does to the victims, occluding a third option: that we have no right to interfere in other people’s societies. When “we” are white and “they” are brown, this is racism, type two. These types are connected: when Freeman unconsciously, thoughtlessly, automatically, erases the genocide the American Indians and a myriad of colonial slaughters and replaces them with that saccharine abstraction, “our American traditions,” this erasure is somewhere on the spectrum between racism, type one, and racism, type two: to erase colonial massacre is to erase the humanity of the victims. When that occurs over racial lines, that is racist, and it’s not an unmerited attack to point that out.
    (Editorial snip. Max, could you please read the guidelines against discourse-hogging before you post again. Actually, all the guidelines would be good. You have your own space where you can vent all you please. Thanks! ~HC.)

  11. ugg boots

    I know this is really boring and you are skipping to the next comment, but I just wanted to throw you a big thanks – you cleared up some things for me!

  12. Max Ajl

    Helena,
    My previous comments, which you censored, were in line with your posting rules. To call someone racist and make an argument for it is not discourteous, even if it is unpleasant. You did not like the argument so you censored them. Please do not elide that from your readers’ knowledge. I didn’t bother re-writing fresh commentary and just copy-pasted from my blog because that was easier. And please stop condescending to me with words like “vent” and “childish.” If you wish an open debate on something, have at it. I am ready.

  13. Yann

    Helena,
    As you know, my latest message was not published.
    I only asked you if you would let Max Ajl comment on your blog.
    I do really dislike the way you “managed the debate”.
    That’s not fair nor democratic.
    Never mind. It’s a good lesson.

Comments are closed.