Part one of my interview with Chas Freeman, the retired diplomat who served in senior posts at State and Defense over a career spanning 30-plus years, considered topics ranging from the Middle East to the role and workings of the National Security Council. Our conversation yielded what I had hoped when I telephoned Freeman last summer to arrange an interview: a seasoned insider’s view of the foreign-policy process, an honest voice in a milieu not noted for its tolerance of them.
As I worked through part two of our conversation, I wondered whether it might be even more exceptional than the first half. Here Freeman offers a thorough critique not only of various policies—notably but not only in East Asia—but also of the psychology prevalent among our policy cliques. There is much talk about how Washington thinks, or—more to the point—so often refuses to do so. If such a thing is possible, Freeman gave me rational explanations of prima facie irrational policy outcomes; fatal flaws not readily apparent to most of us came to the surface. It was refreshing to hear someone of Freeman’s professional background speak plainly, clearly, and directly of matters that careerists prefer to leave unsaid.
When I finished what amounts to an exceedingly light edit, one thought stayed with me more than any other, and here I share it: This interview is perfectly of its time. It is what a nation in its late-imperial phase would sound like were it frankly to acknowledge its place in history. I doubt Ambassador Freeman would put the point in such terms. But in what follows we have a primer of what those who think through and execute American foreign policy will eventually have to consider if we are to proceed into the 21st century at all coherently.
Once again, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for his careful work transcribing a very lengthy audio recording.
Returning to something that came up earlier, we seem to share an assessment about long-term decline in the American foreign-policy process as it relates to the State Department. My perspective derives from a long time in Asia as a correspondent. Policy was very plainly militarized if one looked at all closely at it: I found this very sadly evident as a newspaperman out there. It brings to mind Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s thought at the conclusion of his memoirs: “Diplomacy is for weak nations. The strong have no need of it.” [Secretary general at the United Nations from 1992 to 1996, Boutros-Ghali published Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga in 1999.] I relate this in large part to the Pentagon’s assumption of primacy in the policy process, and I wonder what you have to say, either in agreement or correction.
It’s correct that the military has assumed the lead. There are many reasons for that. One is the growth of a philosophy—always here in some form in the United States—that goes beyond having low expectations for government and denigrates government as “the problem.” Therefore, it does not look to government as the solution. You get what you pay for.