Chas Freeman dispute about more than just Israel

Pity the poor readers whose exposure to the Chas Freeman appointment brouhaha was limited to The Times’ March 12 editorial. Not only would they be under the mistaken notion that the entire controversy was a proxy fight between those who “believe that Israel should be immune from criticism” and those more enlightened. They’d also have no inkling whatsoever that many of Freeman’s critics took issue with what the would-be National Intelligence Council chairman has said about two far less liberal countries with nary a kibbutz between them: Saudi Arabia and China.

The Times editorialized: “Vehement objections came from several of Israel’s most loyal supporters in Congress, from some journalists and lobbyists known for their strong support of the Jewish state, and from other members of what some would no doubt call, well, the Israel lobby.” That description leaves out a few people. For instance, a non-insignificant Californian named Nancy Pelosi, who, Newsweek reported, “was incensed about public remarks that Freeman once made that seemed to justify the violent 1989 Chinese government crackdown on democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square.”

What non-L.A. Times-reported remarks were those? Try this: “For myself, I side on this ... with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be.” Bonus points for those who recognize the endorsement of America’s shameful Bonus Army episode.

Freeman and his hyperbolic supporters claimed, lamely, that such quotations were being taken “out of context,” a charge ABC News’ Jake Tapper rightly termed “perplexing,” since “so much of what critics objected to were Freeman’s statements, in full context.” Because the vast majority of this debate took place far away from the august pages of newspapers, hyperlinks to original sources were the rule, not the exception. And as the Washington Post’s Charles Lane observed, reading whole speeches didn’t help. There are only so many times one can stomach praise for Saudi “introspection” juxtaposed to the bashing of American lack thereof without wondering, at minimum, about a man’s analytical skills.

Was this all about “the Israel Lobby,” as Freeman charged in a ranting, paranoiac, post-resignation statement that The Times merely characterized as “blunt”? Ask Human Rights Watch. Or maybe these 87 Chinese dissidents. Or those of us who have been tracking the nauseating commentary from former U.S. ambassadors to Saudi Arabia for quite some time now. It really is possible to object to an individual on an individual basis, without concern for where he stands on the future of East Jerusalem.

By portraying this solely as a debate over the debate over Israel, The Times paradoxically narrows the, well, debate. Readers deserve better.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine.

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