Ambassador Charles “Chas” W. Freeman Jr. is a former United States diplomat who served on behalf of the US Foreign Service and State Department in Saudi Arabia, India, Thailand, and China. Fluent in Arabic and Mandarin, he acted as US President Richard Nixon’s main interpreter during the latter’s historic 1972 trip to China.
Among his other prominent positions within Washington’s elite policy-making and influencing circles, Freeman has also served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, is a Distinguished Fellow at both the US Institutes of Peace and Defense Department-funded Institute of National Security Studies, and a lifetime Director at the Atlantic Council.
He was selected to chair the National Intelligence Council under the administration of US President Barak Obama, but withdrew from consideration when he came under scorching attacks by the US’s “Israel lobby.” I have often thought I would never have had the fortune to meet Chas Freeman had it not been for that very-public calamity. Freeman is one of those rare statesmen who, freed from the restraints of official service, will bowl you over with his candor, depth of knowledge, and searing logic. Agree with him or not, you will not leave one of his eloquent lectures or read one of his books without thinking the US could have reached its potential with more Freemans at its helm.
Without further ado, here is Chas Freeman, speaking to The Cradle:
The Cradle: First of all, we’re not the ‘Middle East’ anymore. We are now ‘West Asia’ for various strategic, historically accurate, and post-colonial reasons. More of us are using this term every day – it is a hard rule at The Cradle, for instance. Do you get why, and is Washington capable of making this switch?
Freeman: The term ‘Middle East’ was coined by the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, but reflects a Eurocentric view of the world. West Asia and North Africa is how the region is described in places like China, where western terminology didn’t take hold. The United States hasn’t been able to adopt the metric system. Why should anyone expect us to be able to adopt a ‘wertfrei’ geographical terminology?
The Cradle: I’m interviewing you from Beirut, Lebanon right now. The country is effectively under a US economic siege – no international loans, critical infrastructure builds, open border crossings, or vital commodity imports allowed until Washington says so. I’d estimate that up to 20 percent of the public here are keen to get on the US’s good side, with whatever restrictions and hoop-jumping that necessitates; another 30 percent are hellbent on moving eastward, and the remaining 50 percent don’t care where the assistance comes from; they just want relief. Which way do you think things will go, and why?
Freeman: I have no idea at all where Lebanon is headed, but hope that is decided by Lebanese rather than others. Lebanon is clearly a failed state. The role of Israel’s archenemy, Hezbollah, in its governance has made the country a pariah in American eyes, which almost automatically follow Israeli perspectives. Left unaddressed are fundamental issues like the obsolescence of Lebanon’s confessional constitutional arrangements and its status as a political battleground in the Saudi-Iranian and Saudi-Syrian proxy wars. Something will have to give. But what?
Unlike the Trump administration, which treated Lebanon like an Iranian-aligned enemy, the Biden administration has increased support for the Lebanese army. Sadly, this appears to be a move that is directed at Hezbollah rather than at stabilizing Lebanon. As in Syria, the United States is pursuing an Israeli-inspired agenda in Lebanon. The tragedy for Lebanon is that the United States, which is home to such a large Lebanese diaspora, has few, if any, direct interests of its own in the country and its future.
The Cradle: The Biden administration has not shown the Trump ‘love’ that the Israelis, Saudis, and Emiratis had become accustomed to. What’s on Biden’s mind as he looks at the region these days? And does it have anything to do with his eye being on China?
Freeman: For better or ill, the United States has become obsessed with what it calls ‘great power rivalry.’ This is the notion that the world can be understood and foreign policy can be formulated by reference to struggles with China and Russia, with middle-ranking and smaller powers reduced to the status of impotent bystanders. Add to this is the politically appealing but ill-founded assertion that the world is engaged in an epic contest between democracy and an imagined but nonexistent ideology of ‘authoritarianism.’ Neither conviction is backed by evidence, but ‘the Middle East’ fits into neither strategic framework. So, American interest in the region is receding, helped along by war fatigue, disillusionment with Zionism, strategic narcissism, and paranoid fixations with China.
The Cradle: Your expertise on the Persian Gulf Arab states runs deep, especially in regard to Saudi Arabia. Post-Trump, how do you see these states recalibrating their regional policies and objectives? And what are their chances of success?
Freeman: I have argued elsewhere that events in West Asia and North Africa are now driven by the countries there, rather than, as in the past, in large part by external great powers. The age of Euro-American global ascendancy is past. Every country in the region, whether aligned with or against the United States, is now seeking to adjust to this reality by diversifying its international relationships. Some are trying to work out their own solutions to long standing disputes that they were able to dismiss as insoluble but tolerable when the Pax Americana prevailed. As the US recedes from the region, the countries in it will have to find their own regional balances to sustain stability and development. In the meantime, none take direction from any external great power or even pretend to defer to one.
The Cradle: What are your views on Israel’s current regional predicament and its increasingly knee-jerk aggressions? What war options do the Israelis have left? And how far can Tel Aviv take its not-so-stealthy ship battle with Iran before something gives and/or the US gets dragged in?
Freeman: There is growing disillusionment with Israel among American Jews and other former knee-jerk supporters of the Zionist state. American and Israeli values diverged long ago. American and Zionist strategic interests are no longer congruent. There is no interest in the United States in a war with Iran, which Israel keeps plumping for. I do not believe that the Biden administration, despite its strong residual identification with Zionism, will allow itself to be dragged into the low-intensity conflict between Israel and Iran.
Israel has essentially exhausted its military options. It can do more of the same but more of the same will not bring it peace. Only a reconciliation with the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors can do that. In this context, it must be said, the so-called Abraham accords are a diversion, not a path to peace. Despite the opposition of Israel’s Arab partners to Iran, they do not wish to be caught in the crossfire of a war between Israel and Iran.
The Cradle: Do you see genuine prospects for normalization of Arab states with Israel? Especially the UAE, which is taking the lead on these efforts?
Freeman: Formal ties are one thing. Relationships are another. The public in the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco is able to see the Realpolitik arguments for cooperation with Israel. Among other things, as long as the US Zionist lobby holds sway, this secures American support even as it buttresses the American stand against Iran. It also facilitates the transfer of technology and the purchase of equipment relevant to the maintenance of Arab police states. But Israel’s blatant cruelty to its captive Arab populations makes any relationship with it beyond that dictated by raison d’état deeply unpopular and sets a natural limit to cooperation with it.
The Cradle: What’s it going to take to conclude the Saudi/US/UAE-led war on Yemen?
Freeman: Saudi Arabia will have to admit defeat and withdraw. The Houthis will not let it retreat without exacting a significant degree of humiliation in return.
The only stake the United States has had in Yemen, other than a desire to curb terrorist attacks from its territory, has been to demonstrate continuing support for Saudi Arabia to offset the decline of other aspects for the US–Saudi relationship. But there is no popular support and much opposition in the United States to helping the Saudis continue their misadventures in Yemen. American diplomacy on the war is largely ineffectual. Lacking a relationship with Tehran, the American mediation effort cannot address the contest between it and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. And Washington is not seen as a valuable interlocutor by the Houthis.
The Cradle: What’s your personal timeline on the removal of US military forces from Iraq, and what bearing will that have on the remaining US troops in Syria?
Freeman: The presence of US forces in Iraq has become a focus of Iraqi nationalist resentment that buttresses Iranian influence in Baghdad. The sooner the US forces are withdrawn, the sooner Iraq will be able to adopt a more balanced relationship with Iran. When the US withdraws from Iraq, it is difficult to see how logistical support for the troop presence in Syria can be maintained. If the Biden administration’s professions of a desire to return to constitutionality and legality are sincere, removing the unconstitutional and internationally illegal US military outpost in Syria will be essential. But there are no signs of concern about this in Washington at present, where Israel’s interest in perpetuating the anarchy and crippling the government in Syria continues to direct policy.
The Cradle: Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran – the US looks to be on the most public losing streak in all of human history. How does Biden spin that, and isn’t he really fulfilling what Trump promised?
Freeman: I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s true that lots of chickens are coming home to roost and it seems clear that the administration has bungled its negotiations with Iran. ‘America First that speaks French’ – as someone has described the ‘Biden doctrine’ – is neither an improvement nor a viable policy in the ‘Middle East’ or anywhere else for that matter.
US allies were alienated by the unilateralism of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the focus of US military commanders on force protection rather than the evacuation of civilians that dishonored NATO and produced the fiasco at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Nobody’s talking about Syria, but the US has disengaged from its minor role in Yemen. The Iraqis will end the US military presence there in the near future. Iran is entering an entente with Russia and China in a bid to become part of a post-dollar-dominated world. It may now emulate Israel by clandestinely developing nuclear weapons as the Israelis have expected it to do.
The Cradle: Please explain the current state of the US–Turkish relationship to us. Erdogan is complicated, but he is your NATO ally, after all. Yet he bought the Russian S-400s, which represents (on paper, at least) a critical route on China’s Belt and Road Initiative from West Asia to Europe; he flirts with SCO membership, organizes Syrian de-escalation with Moscow and Tehran, and spars with Europe all the time. What’s left for Turkey in NATO? For that matter, what’s left of NATO?
Freeman: Turkey was an ally against the Soviet Union in the Cold War but the Cold War is long past. Turkey’s centuries-long bid to attach itself to Europe has ended. It is now reasserting a West Asian and Central Asian identity. Ankara remains in NATO because it gains influence and leverage from this but its commitment to the alliance is greatly attenuated. NATO went ‘out of area’ to avoid ‘going out of business.’ It may yet become a cooperative security organization spanning Europe but its days as a collective security organization acting beyond Europe are over. I expect NATO to be increasingly dominated by European states rather than America, and Europe no longer includes Britain as a surrogate American voice. Europe’s middle-ranking powers are about to become more assertive on European security issues and to adjust their relationships with the great powers (China, Russia, the United States) outside Europe. But it is too early to make detailed predictions of when and how this will shape up.
The Cradle: Why did CENTCOM move its troops from Qatar to Jordan?
Freeman: Perhaps it reflects no more than the sudden inclusion of Israel in its ‘area of responsibility’ (AOR). The removal of stored military equipment from Qatar to Jordan makes it less vulnerable to attack from Iran. Qatar, by geopolitical necessity, seeks to maintain good relations with Iran. Jordan does not feel comparable pressure to do so. This potentially provides the US military with options against Iran that it could not exercise from Qatar.
The Cradle: To what extent have US foreign policy ‘snafus’ in West Asia paved the way for China’s easy entry into this region, and do you expect China’s future here, with investment, infrastructure builds, strategic partnerships, to be as smooth-sailing as it looks?
Freeman: China is being drawn into the region not by a desire to emulate the United States or past European politico-military dominance but by demands from the countries of the region for its goods, services, and presence. Beijing has been careful not to become embroiled in the numerous disputes that divide the region. This has not changed. But, as China’s economy expands and its technology advances, it is gradually displacing other external powers in regional markets and becoming the primary market for the region’s oil, gas, and other minerals.
Countries in the ‘Middle East’ want Chinese capital and construction services as well as weaponry. China is now active in the region’s arms market but makes its sales without any military commitment to the purchasers, as has been the case with US, Russian, and other vendors. China’s relationship with Iran is being driven by American hostility to both. The abuse of dollar sovereignty to impose unilateral sanctions is generating a common interest with Iran, Russia and others in finding alternatives to dollar-based banking, though this process is probably years away from fruition.