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Why Does Tom Friedman Still Have a Job?

Friedman botched the biggest foreign-policy story since the Cold War but those who got it right are naïve?
 
 
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New York Times foreign policy analyst Thomas L. Friedman finally has come to the conclusion that George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq -- which Friedman enthusiastically supported with the clever slogan "Give war a chance" -- wasn't such a good idea after all.

"It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are babysitting a civil war," Friedman wrote. "That means 'staying the course' is pointless, and it's time to start thinking about Plan B -- how we might disengage with the least damage possible." (NYT, Aug. 4, 2006)

Yet, despite this implicit admission that the war has unnecessarily killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 2,600 U.S. soldiers, Friedman continues to slight Americans who resisted the rush to war in the first place.

Twelve days after his shift in position, Friedman demeaned Americans who opposed the Iraq war as "anti-war activists who haven't thought a whit about the larger struggle we're in," presumably a reference to the threat from Islamic extremism. (NYT, Aug. 16, 2006)

In other words, according to Friedman, Americans who were right about the ill-fated invasion of Iraq are still airheads when it comes to the bigger picture, while the pundits and politicians who were dead wrong on Iraq deserve pats on the back for their wise analyses of the larger problem.

The rabbit hole

At times, it's as if Official Washington has become a sinister version of Alice in Wonderland. Under the bizarre rules of Washington's pundit society, the foreign policy "experts," who acted like Cheshire Cats pointing the United States in wrong directions, get rewarded for their judgment and Americans who opposed going down the rabbit hole in the first place earn only derision.

As for Friedman, despite botching the biggest foreign-policy story in the post-Cold War era, he retains his prized space on the New York Times op-ed page, which, in turn, guarantees that his books, even ones with obvious and pedantic themes, such as "The World Is Flat," jump to the top of the bestseller lists.

Friedman, who once liked to call himself a "Tony Blair Democrat" (before the British prime minister was unmasked as one of Bush's chief enablers), now positions himself closer to formerly pro-war Democrats who have triangulated their way to positions critical of Bush's execution of the Iraq war but not the invasion itself.

In other words, Friedman has rebranded himself as what might be called a "Hillary Clinton Democrat." He also has begun promoting as a favorite new theme something that was obvious to many Bush critics years ago: that one pillar of a sane Middle East policy would be to aggressively confront America's addiction to oil.

Some readers might praise Friedman for his belated second thoughts on Iraq and for his new enthusiasm for energy independence. But is it fair for Friedman to keep disparaging Americans who were prescient about the Iraq fiasco -- and who have urged a less violent approach to the Islamic world?

Many Iraq war critics, from former Vice President Al Gore to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who took to the streets in early 2003, proved they had a more reasonable strategy on Iraq -- letting U.N. inspectors finish their search for Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction -- than did Bush's war council and his cheerleaders in the U.S. news media.

As for the larger concern about reducing Islamic extremism, many Bush critics point to the traditional advice of counterinsurgency experts who warn against an over-reliance on force to quell unrest, because excessive violence tends to alienate a country's population and drive them toward rebellion rather than toward peace.

To win hearts and minds, more subtle strategies are required, targeting the root causes of popular resentments, offering realistic options for a better life, and then systematically isolating die-hard extremist elements.

In the Middle East, such a strategy would demand an equitable settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, steady support for political reform, and expanded economic opportunities for the region's common people, not just the wealthy elites. A sensible U.S. energy policy -- less desperate for oil -- would help, too.

Violent outbursts

Given the bitterness felt by many Arabs over what they see as their decades of humiliation by the West and for the corruption of U.S.-backed Arab leaders, there also must be some forbearance for outbursts of violence.

Overreaction to provocations by small bands of Islamic extremists may be understandable from an emotional viewpoint, but tit-for-tat violence can be counterproductive in stopping the region's cycles of violence. Indiscriminate counterterrorism plays into the hands of the terrorists.

Many Americans understood this reality in 2001-2002, supporting targeted attacks against al-Qaeda in retaliation for 9/11 while opposing Bush's strategy of using military force to remake the Middle East.

They recognized that Bush's vision of Americans' being either "with us or with the terrorists" was simplistic and dangerous; his one-sided approach to backing all Israeli policies was harmful both to Arabs and Israelis by eliminating the key U.S. role as "honest broker"; and his crypto-racist rounding up and imprisoning of Muslims on the flimsiest of evidence was destructive to America's reputation for justice and equality.

In this view, Bush's black-and-white reaction to a world of grays was a recipe for disaster. But this reasonable opinion was largely excluded from the national debate.

Yet, while major news outlets turned mostly a deaf ear to these voices, influential pundits like Friedman preached the glorious benefits of war, from the Op-Ed pages to the TV studios. Indeed, Friedman has been among the highest-profile foreign-policy analysts who have advocated the use of U.S. air power, especially against Iraq.

Give war a chance

As media critic Norman Solomon wrote in March 2002, Friedman's pro-bombing influence stretched from his Times op-ed column to regular segments on PBS news programs, not to mention appearances on "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation" and even the David Letterman show.

Solomon wrote:

Friedman has been a zealous advocate of "bombing Iraq, over and over and over again" (in the words of a January 1998 column). Three years ago, when he offered a pithy list of prescriptions for Washington's policymakers, it included: "Blow up a different power station in Iraq every week, so no one knows when the lights will go off or who's in charge."

Solomon continued:

In an introduction to the book "Iraq Under Siege," editor Anthony Arnove points out: "Every power station that is targeted means more food and medicine that will not be refrigerated, hospitals that will lack electricity, water that will be contaminated and people who will die."

But Friedman-style bravado goes over big with editors and network producers who share his disinterest in counting the human costs. Many journalists seem eager to fawn over their stratospheric colleague. "Nobody understands the world the way he (Friedman) does," NBC's Tim Russert claims.

Sometimes, Friedman fixates on four words in particular. "My motto is very simple: Give war a chance," he told Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America."

Seeking vindication

Though the disastrous consequences of these cavalier recommendations became apparent fairly soon after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Friedman instead searched for slivers of vindication amid the carnage.

Finally, in early 2005, he penned a column entitled "A Day to Remember," calling himself "unreservedly happy" about the Iraqi national election and declared "you should be, too." (NYT, Feb. 3, 2005)

A few weeks later, Friedman was adding tentative progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and Lebanese demands for a full Syrian withdrawal as further evidence of the wisdom of invading Iraq. Friedman hailed the three developments as historical "tipping points" possibly foreshadowing "incredible" changes in the Middle East. (NYT, Feb. 27, 2005)

Four days later, Friedman added a touch of self-pity to his sense of vindication. "The last couple of years have not been easy for anyone, myself included, who hoped that the Iraq war would produce a decent, democratizing outcome," he wrote. (NYT, March 3, 2005)

But the reality was never as Friedman presented it. The Iraqi election was a means for pro-Iranian Shiite parties to consolidate their dominance over the previously powerful Sunni minority, setting the stage for more sectarian violence, not some democratic national reconciliation.

The tentative progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks resulted from the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, not as a consequence of the Iraq war. Indeed, a post-Arafat election in the Palestinian territories led to a Hamas victory and to the latest round of Israeli violence against Palestinians in Gaza, now including Israel's arrest of Deputy Prime Minister Nasser al-Shaer and more than two dozen Hamas cabinet members and legislators.

As for Lebanon, Bush's encouragement of Israel to launch a heavy assault against Hezbollah strongholds in south Lebanon -- echoing his "shock and awe" strategy in Iraq -- has left much of Lebanon's economic infrastructure in ruins and has elevated the status of Hezbollah guerrillas in the eyes of many Lebanese and across the Middle East.

Catching the wave

In other words, few of Friedman's assessments have turned out to be either thoughtful or accurate. Rather than anchoring his work in objective fact and unbiased analysis, he seems instead to have mastered the skill of catching the wave of Washington's latest "conventional wisdom."

While that ability has proven very profitable for Friedman, it has hurt U.S. foreign policy and contributed to the deaths of 2,600 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians in the Middle East.

But Friedman is not alone. Many major news organizations fill their opinion columns and their on-air commentary with well-paid pundits who also cheered on the Iraq war.

The Washington Post 's editorial section offers up nearly the same line-up of columnists who ran with the pro-war herd from 2002 through 2005. Some, like David Ignatius, have slowly begun to retreat from their enthusiasm for invading Iraq; others, like Charles Krauthammer, remain true believers in the neoconservative cause.

Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt stays ensconced, too, despite admitting that his pre-war editorials shouldn't have treated the alleged threat from Iraq's WMD as a "flat fact" instead of an allegation.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen -- who like Friedman presents himself as a slightly left-of-center thinker -- is another pundit who admitted misjudgments on Iraq without really accepting blame or showing remorse.

"Those of us who once advocated this war [in Iraq] are humbled," Cohen wrote in a column on April 4, 2006. "It's not just that we grossly underestimated the enemy. We vastly overestimated the Bush administration.

"Victory in Iraq is now three years or so overdue and a bit over budget," Cohen wrote. "Lives have been lost for no good reason -- never mind the money -- and now Bush suggests that his successor may still have to keep troops in Iraq."

It may be positive news that the likes of Friedman and Cohen have finally acknowledged realities long apparent to many other Americans. Still, the halfhearted mea culpas -- often combined with continued slights against those who were right -- fall far short of the accountability that the deaths and maiming of so many people would seem to justify.

Under principles of international law applied from Nuremberg to Rwanda, propagandists who contribute to war crimes or encourage crimes against humanity can be put in the dock alongside the actual killers.

Though such a fate may not await America's pro-war pundits, Friedman and other commentators who helped ease the way to Bush's unprovoked invasion of Iraq, and thus contributed to the ongoing slaughters in the Middle East, might at least have the decency to admit their incompetence and resign.