The Corner

Contrarian Views and Freeman

James Fallows encapsulates a new line of defense on Freeman: when he writes “So to the extent this argument is shaping up as a banishment of Freeman for rash or unorthodox views, I instinctively take Freeman’s side — even when I disagree with him on specifics.”

Freeman is certainly contrarian; hence his admiration for Mao.

But are Fallows and other supporters of this line of argument consistent?  Certainly, outside-the-box thinking should be encouraged.  Why then do so many of Freeman’s defenders who embrace raising contrarian views condemn Vice President Cheney for asking ‘contrarian’ questions at the Central Intelligence Agency? Why condemn ‘neoconservatives’ for challenging the conventional wisdom of realists and, nowadays too many progressives, that achieving stability through a support of authoritarian rulers is good.  Why condemn those who question the extent to which global climate change is manmade or, if so, whether the costs of rectifying it are well spent?

Contrarian views are healthy, as in all the above examples. Washington is full of contrarian views—this is what creates a healthy policy debate.  The CIA should be able to defend its analysis to policymakers.  But being contrarian is not a substitute for being a good analyst or being wise.  One can say the world is flat.  That may be contrarian, but it is also stupid.  One celebrate Tiananmen; that too is wrong.

The sad fact is that when journalists say Freeman should be lauded, they are simply celebrating a man because they agree with him.  When like Stephen Walt or Matthew Yglesias, supporters of Freeman condemn Freeman’s critics on the basis of straw man arguments or hidden motives, they are making a mockery of the principles upon which they claim to adhere.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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