The Corner

James Baker on Chas Freeman

The controversy over Chas Freeman’s appointment to head the National Intelligence council doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. Even Chuck Schumer seems concerned about appointing a “savage critic of Israel” to the post, as we judged him in our Wednesday editorial

Given all this, I thought I would see what former Secretary of State James Baker thought of Freeman. Chas Freeman appears twice in the index of James Baker’s book The Politics of Diplomacy.  Both passages relate to Freeman’s insistence that we go easy on the Saudis in terms of seeking their financial support for the Gulf War.

The first instance appears in a passage in which Baker is recounting his visit to Saudi Arabia in September 1990, to build up support for the coalition to expel Saddam from Kuwait:

From the start, they [the Saudis] were always advocates fro the massive use of force. We knew that if it came to war, permission to launch from Saudi bases would be automatic. And we suspected that the King was also willing to bear any burden asked by his American benefactors.  Even so, I was urged by our ambassador, Chas Freeman, to go easy on the numbers. “They’re strapped for money,” he told me before the meeting. “Don’t press for too much right now.”  I disagreed. (p. 289)

Baker asked for a lot and got what he asked for from the Saudis. The next index entry for Freeman appears in connection with discussions in early January 1991, after the decision to attack Saddam’s forces had been made:

Our ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, suggested to me that perhaps we shouldn’t ask quite so much of the Saudis. As a result of their previous commitments to Desert Shield, he said, they had a liquidity shortage that Saud hadn’t wanted to admit to me. It seemed to me to be a classic case of clientitis from one of our best diplomats. “I’m going in front of the Congress and I’m asking them to go ahead and fund this effort,” I said, “and I’ve got to explain that American blood will be spilled. If you think we’re not going to ask the Saudis to pay for this, you’ve got another thing coming.” It was the last I ever heard from him about going easy on the Saudis in terms of the costs of the operation. (p. 373).

I asked a foreign policy expert friend of mine what he makes of the above passages. This was his response:

My own person gloss is that Baker is a class act, and only said “one of our best diplomats” to throw him a bone. The fact that Saudi Arabia is so central to this period — and that the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia appears only twice in the book, shilling for the Saudis both times, and in passages that show Baker flatly disagreed with him, indicates what Baker really thinks of Chas Freeman. “Best diplomat” is just Baker being a great diplomat. 

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