Thomas Friedman’s Confusions

Belén Fernández

In his most recent book, Thomas FriedmanNew York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner, presidential adviser – says of the Iraq War that he has ‘nothing but regret for the excessive price that America and Iraq have had to pay in lives and treasure’. The body count seems to be less cause for concern, however, than the fact that China, which has not been distracted from domestic infrastructure projects by pricey wars abroad, can now build a convention centre in approximately the same time it takes for the Washington Metro crew to repair two escalators in Friedman’s local subway station (the book is called That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back). Still, he’s come a long way since May 2003, when he said that the US military had to go ‘house to house from Basra to Baghdad’, wielding ‘a very big stick’ and instructing Iraqis to ‘Suck On This’.

This was necessary, Friedman explained, in order to burst the ‘terrorism bubble’ that had emerged in ‘that part of the world’ and posed a ‘fundamental threat to our open society’. Four months earlier he had said that the real threat to ‘open, Western, liberal societies today’ was not ‘the deterrables, like Saddam, but the undeterrables – the boys who did 9/11, who hate us more than they love life’. Iraq was nonetheless part of the ‘cement mixer that is churning out these undeterrables’, and in case anyone detected any inconsistencies in the argument that fighting a war against deterrables will deter people who cannot be deterred, Friedman later offered the broader assessment that ‘we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could.'

There was also the question of oil. In January 2003, Friedman conceded that ‘any war we launch in Iraq will certainly be – in part – about oil’. By October 2003, he had decided that ‘US power is not being used in Iraq for oil’. A year later, Hummer drivers in the US were somehow still to blame for the deaths of their neighbours’ sons serving in Fallujah – unlike New York Times columnists who sold ‘democratising a fractious Iraq’ by force as ‘the most important task worth doing’.

As for ideology, in April 2003 Friedman said the Iraq war was ‘the war the neoconservatives wanted... the war the neoconservatives marketed’. In October 2003, he said it was a ‘radically liberal war’. In November 2003, he said he was ‘a liberal on every issue other than this war’.

You’d think that someone so committed to exporting democracy would have a solid handle on what democracy means. But in 2005, Friedman praised Tony Blair ‘as one of the most important British prime ministers ever’ for having ‘not only defied the overwhelming antiwar sentiment of his own party, but public opinion in Britain generally’. For the US, too, the Iraq war was a ‘war of an elite’ and ‘not a war that the masses demanded’. Meanwhile, ‘the problem with Saudi Arabia is not that it has too little democracy. It's that it has too much.’

In April 2003 Friedman said that Arab journalists who talked about the US ‘occupation’ of Iraq were guilty of ‘Saddamism’. In August 2003 Friedman wrote: ‘This is an occupation.’

In 2007 he surmised that Iraqis ‘hate each other more than they love their own kids’. In 2009 he hoped that they’d learned from America’s ‘million acts of kindness’ and ‘profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together’.

In 2005 Friedman argued: ‘We have to have a proper election in Iraq so we can have a proper civil war there.’ Earlier this year, he wrote: ‘For all of the murderous efforts by al-Qaida to trigger a full-scale civil war in Iraq, it never happened.’ Since 2003 there have been more than 100,000 documented violent civilian deaths in Iraq; 22 people were killed yesterday by bombs or gunfire.


  • 26 November 2011 at 7:14am
    RobotBoy says:
    Thank you for documenting the terrifying stupidity of Thomas Friedman.

  • 26 November 2011 at 1:56pm
    IanGFraser says:
    Thanks for that. Friedman is one of those writers of puzzling credibility; useful to have all this in one place.

  • 26 November 2011 at 2:40pm
    outofdate says:
    Why beat up on him? I suppose he's got a lot of readers in India and Singapore and places, where they don't mind his colourful English so much, but otherwise he seems a kind of harmless comic figure.

    And really quite sweet: the Irrepressible Hack, forever falling down and forever picking himself up and dusting himself down and pootling off into the sunset; sort of innocently greedy for these worldly honours, and terribly keen to please. Have you seen him on TV? He's like the little overexcited fat boy pushing to the front of the crowd, and people going 'What the...? Oh it's only you, is it? Go on then...'

    • 29 November 2011 at 4:42pm
      Belén Fernández says: @ outofdate
      I'm not sure I quite see the humor in telling the entire nation of Iraq to "Suck on this". Nor would I categorize as "harmless" someone who played a crucial role in selling the Iraq war to the U.S. public and who continues to be consulted by Obama on foreign policy matters.

      He should be irrelevant, but he isn't.

    • 30 November 2011 at 2:28am
      outofdate says: @ Belén Fernández
      Depends who does the telling.

  • 26 November 2011 at 11:33pm
    Pennywhistler says:
    Well, when you take someone who writes several times a week for fifteen years, you're gonna come up with that sort of thing on occasion.

    I'm not saying you're ganging up on him exactly, but it wouldn't be hard to pull ten pieces of brilliant insight from Mr. Friedman either. Yours is a rather selective selection from an awful large body of columns.

    "For the US, the Iraq war was a ‘war of an elite’ and ‘not a war that the masses demanded’". That's pretty darned good, IMHO.

    I kinda like the fact that he keeps thinking things through and changing his mind ... and admitting that he is doing so.

    The alternative is someone like George Will -- who has been wrong about nearly everything for the past 20 years. He never admits his mistakes. He never re-thinks his assumptions. And he thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. Just ask him.

    When the ghosts are in the room, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters?

    • 27 November 2011 at 7:24am
      nechaev says: @ Pennywhistler
      "but it wouldn’t be hard to pull ten pieces of brilliant insight from Mr. Friedman either"

      go ahead then.

      i dare you.

      find 10 pieces of brilliant insight in Friedman's collected outpourings and i'll eat my keyboard

    • 27 November 2011 at 8:37pm
      bilejones says: @ Pennywhistler
      Read any Ron Paul?

    • 7 December 2011 at 10:53pm
      dresslar says: @ Pennywhistler
      Yes indeed. Let's see these pearls of wisdom from The Mustache of Understanding.

  • 27 November 2011 at 4:48am
    gotnotruck says:
    Two comments. How consistent is it, for example, that The Guardian do a switcheroo so that what were bad boys who caused the riots in Britain last summer, are now disadvantaged youths? In the Weekly the week before, there'd been an article on the conditions of African Americans in SE Washington. I suggested, in my impish way, that The Guardian search their archives for what they'd said about similar riots in US cities during the sixties and seventies. Just broke one of my political maxims: "If trying to turn two wrongs into a right were abolished, most political conversations would stop short". So I'll return to poor Thomas Friedman. He does evolve. Recently he had a very good Op Ed on Israel. I.e he agreed with me. Israel is delegitimizing itself, and U.S. with it. (In part. Let me count the ways.) I happen to believe that Israel MUST exist because of antisemitism worldwide. I've seen swastikas and "Juden Rein" in Vienna, swastikas in France, read Tony Judt and Roger Cohen on anti semitism in Britain, in Canada, and heard of swastikas in New York. Two doormen in my building, when they discovered I wasn't Jewish, informed me "The Jews" had done 9/11. None had gone to work that day. I disproved that, with the aid of a Rolling Stone article excerpted in the Guardian. They, one Polish, one Pakistani American, said The Jews had hired the Saudis to do it. (A leftist radio station makes most of its money from 9/11 conspiracies, the latest being that the planes were holograms. Most New Yorkers find them intensely irritating. Sorry, 9/11 makes me puke too.) Anyway, the only thing lacking in Friedman's Op Ed was pointing the finger at AIPAC. According to CMEP's stats, 42% of Americans support a Palestinian State with no U.S veto, 15% are pro Israel no matter what: orthodox Jews and Evangelicals who expect to be raptured up. The rest don't care. Including most young Jews. See The NYRB's "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment", in "assuming that young Jews would check their liberalism at the door of Zionism. Instead they did the reverse". As for the rest, they have no a clue where the middle east is. My brother was forced to give a college intro geography course. A question asked who were the chief protagonists in the middle east. Most answered "The Amish and the Hindus." Before you feel superior, consult "1066 and All That."

  • 28 November 2011 at 12:51am
    vqtilley says:
    Friedman got his entirely undeserved reputation as a columnist when he served as a conduit for Secretary of State James Baker back in the Bush-pere era. Baker, who doubtless chose Friedman on the basis of his prizes, fed some truly interesting foreign policy material into that column and it became a must-read, giving us regular glimpses into Baker's intelligent and often engrossing realist insights. When the relationship ended, Friedman coasted on his by-then-global readership but promptly wandered all over the place analytically, as he actually has no theoretical compass of his own. He still has access, so he sometimes gets the occasional morsel of coffee-shop info, but his lens twists to fit whatever angle comes along. Hence he writes clearly and compellingly if put into the right spot and surrounded by thoughtful people whose ideas he can channel. But nothing is really absorbed: put him somewhere else, around others, and entirely different stuff comes out, as BF ably illustrates.

    The bother is that people think Friedman actually has something to say, and even cite him on Middle East issues, heaven forfend, adding little sparkles of surrealistic glow to the already necrotic horror of US foreign policy 'debates'. Much more could be said about the intellectual vacuity, theoretically un-moored ramblings and self-importance that saturates Friedman's work. But then, his silly photo on Wikipedia (as posted at this writing) says it all.

    • 28 November 2011 at 1:12pm
      Belén Fernández says: @ vqtilley
      Thanks so much for this very eloquent analysis, Virginia.

      A few extra notes on TF’s appointment as conduit for Baker:

      As I discuss in my book on Friedman, he ascended to the position of chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times shortly after decreeing with regard to the Palestinians in 1988: “I believe that as soon as Ahmed has a seat in the bus, he will limit his demands”. Chomsky questioned whether journalists could also achieve promotion to such a post by advocating for a bus seat for Sambo or Hymie.

      Friedman’s promotion is even more intriguing given his description in The Lexus and the Olive Tree of complications that arise during his first assignment covering Baker’s 1989 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate:

      “I am embarrassed to say that since both my B.A. and M.A. were in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, and since I had spent almost my entire journalistic career up to that point covering the Middle East, I really did not know very much about any other parts of the world, and I certainly did not know anything about most of the issues the senators were quizzing Mr. Baker about, such as the START treaty, the Contras, Angola, the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) arms control negotiations and NATO ... I couldn’t keep straight whether the Contras were our guys or their guys, and I thought CFE was a typo and was actually ‘café without the ‘a.’”

      Thankfully, confusion surrounding the issue of Angola is promptly cleared up, enabling Friedman to proclaim in the 1990s that the Angolan civil war is “quite simply, the stupidest war in Africa”.

    • 29 November 2011 at 5:28am
      outofdate says: @ Belén Fernández
      A whole book?

  • 28 November 2011 at 3:38am
    hack6985 says:
    Yawn -- yet another attack on Friedman. He writes for a very general audience and uses no jargon, and people who know jargon hate that. Therefore Friedman gets this treatment multiple times. Hardly a week goes by without a Friedman takedown or a half-hearted attack on Hitchens for being so wrong but also so smart and loud.

    Why not move on from the usual punching bags? Many many pundits got Iraq wrong. Peter Beinart's flawed mea culpa in TNR should get the takedown treatment.

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