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NYT's Tom Friedman and the Pundits Will Blame Us for Iraq

As the political class and the media establishment wake up to the nightmare in Iraq they are going to start looking for someone to scapegoat -- and it looks like they are going to blame the American people.
 
 
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"Secretary of State Rice said it was like Germany after World War II. I would say it was like Germany, but Germany of 1648, before it was a modern state, rather than Germany in 1948... We were able to rebuild Germany and Japan after WWII, but there are real differences with Iraq. We defeated them with large numbers of troops and we imposed an effective occupation. We never defeated the Sunnis of Iraq and we never imposed an effective occupation controlling the country. Moreover, Germany and Japan had a tradition of democracy and free markets that we could build on. Iraq had very little." -- New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman has been subdued lately. I get the feeling that he's taken some of the criticism of his nutty metaphors (I'm only one of a great many people who've been on him about this) to heart and decided to chill out, which in a way is kind of a shame. He's still an arrogant, wrong-headed prick, but he's no longer a walking literary time bomb like he used to be. I often feel now, like I did on the day Red Auerbach died, that the world has lost one of its leading lights.

I had high hopes a few weeks back when Friedman officially penned his five hundredth "Russia is finally turning the corner, because the middle class is really emerging there" piece. Russia and its middle class first started turning the corner during Clinton's first term. Anyway, the piece began it with the sentence, "Russia today is a country that takes three hands to describe. ..."

For three short paragraphs after that, the old magic came back. It was like watching Nolan Ryan's last no-hitter -- for one glorious day, the fastball went back up to 99 again. On the one hand, Friedman said, Putin's Russia can no longer be called democratic. On the other hand, Boris Yeltsin's version of democracy was a failure. This is the sentence that came next -- emphasis is mine:

And on the third hand , while today's Russia may be a crazy quilt of capitalist czars, mobsters, nationalists and aspiring democrats, it is not the totalitarian Soviet Union.

Even in remission, genius is genius. How do you get around the natural mathematical limitations of the construction, "On the one hand ... but on the other hand ..."? After all, we humans only have two hands. You or I would never have thought of it, but Friedman knew instinctively -- just add another hand !

But aside from that, the pickings have been slim in Friedman-land. That doesn't mean, of course, that he hasn't been wrong and stupid lately -- it just means he's been avoiding figures of speech. Most of what he's been doing since he got back from Russia is write columns complaining about the various unpredictable annoyances that are preventing the war in Iraq from being the smashing success it by all rights ought to have been. Last week, for instance, he wrote a piece called "The Silence The Kills" bemoaning the widespread failure of Arab cultures to condemn suicide bombers. The rhetorical crux of the piece rests upon the curious moral calculus that has defined the Bush presidency, a calculus I think is most easily expressed in haiku form:

The war in Iraq
A problem of perception
Terrorists are worse!

Friedman's haiku didn't scan -- it read like this: "Mr. Bush is losing a P.R. war to people who blow up emergency wards. Europeans are mute, lost in their delusion that this is all George Bush's and Tony Blair's fault."

What's amazing to me is that conservatives have been pushing this line of reasoning for five, six years now, and some people are apparently still buying it. Okay, yes, I jammed my own head up my ass -- but I didn't really, because look at how despicable the terrorists are! Why, they blew up a children's hospital! How could my own head be up my ass if terrorists can blow up a children's hospital? And the headless body points, gesticulates, etc.

Friedman, a former enthusiastic war apologist (for months before the invasion he applauded the crazy, nonsensical audacity of the war plan, likening it to a football Hail Mary pass -- "The Long Bomb," as he put it), went through his Hillary Clinton-like "Mistakes were made" about-face on the war issue last summer, in an impressively shameless column called "Time For Plan B." The piece was one of the most defiantly convoluted non-apologies in op/ed history, making sure to re-list at exhaustive length all the unassailably noble reasons Friedman supported the war ("Yes, I believe it was and remains hugely important to try to partner with Iraqis to create one good example in the heart of the Arab world of a decent, progressive state, blah blah blah ...") while also leaving no doubt whose fault it was that this excellent initiative foundered ("Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it is not happening").

I bring this up because Friedman's latest column, "Don't Ask, Don't Know, Don't Help," is yet another "the war should have worked" piece, and it's of a sort we're likely to see quite often in upcoming years.

What we have to remember about America's half-baked propaganda machine is that, dumb as it is, it always keeps its eye on the ball. The war in Iraq is lost, everyone knows that, but there are future wars to think about. When a war goes wrong, the reason can never that the invasion was simply a bad, immoral decision, a hopelessly fucked-up idea that even a child could have seen through. No, we always have to make sure that the excuse for the next war is woven into the autopsy of the current military failure. That's why to this day we're still hearing about how Vietnam was lost because a) the media abandoned the war effort b) the peace movement undermined the national will and c) the public, and the Pentagon, misread the results of the Tet offensive, seeing defeat where there actually was a victory.

After a few decades of that, we were ready to go to war again -- all we had to do, we figured, was keep the cameras away from the bloody bits, ignore the peace movement, and blow off any and all bad news from the battlefield. And we did all of these things for quite a long time in Iraq, but, maddeningly, Iraq still turned out to be a failure.

That left the war apologists in a bind. If after fixing all of the long-held Vietnam excuses Iraq could still blow up in our faces, that must mean that we not only misjudged Iraq, but we were wrong about why Vietnam failed, too. Now, if we're ever going to pull one of these stunts again, we're going to need to come up with a grander, even more outlandish excuse for why both wars were horrible, bloody failures. Who could come up with such an excuse? Well, a man who counts on three hands sure can. Here's Friedman quoting author Robert Hormats:

"In every major war that we have fought, with the exception of Vietnam, there was an effort prior to the war or just after the inception to re-evaluate tax and spending policies and to shift resources from less vital national pursuits to the strategic objective of fighting and winning the war," said Mr. Hormats, a vice chairman of Goldman Sachs (International). He quotes Roosevelt's 1942 State of the Union address, when F.D.R. looked Americans in the eye and said: "War costs money. ... That means taxes and bonds and bonds and taxes. It means cutting luxuries and other nonessentials. In a word, it means an Œall-out‚ war by individual effort and family effort in a united country."

Ever heard Mr. Bush talk that way? After Pearl Harbor, Mr. Hormats noted, Roosevelt vowed to mobilize U.S. industry to produce enough weapons so we would have a "crushing superiority" in arms over our enemies. Four years after the start of the Iraq war, this administration has still not equipped all our soldiers with the armor they need.

In other words, both Vietnam and Iraq failed not because they were stupid, vicious occupations of culturally alien populations that despised our very presence and were willing to sacrifice scads of their own lives to send us home. No, the problem was that we didn't make an effort to "re-evaluate tax and spending policies" and "shift resources" into an "all-out" war effort.

The notion that our problem in Iraq is a resource deficit is pure, unadulterated madness. Our enemies don't have airplanes or armor. They are fighting us with garage-door openers and fifty year-old artillery shells, sneaking around barefoot in the middle of the night around to plant roadside bombs. Anytime anyone dares oppose us in the daylight, we vaporize them practically from space using weapons that cost more than the annual budgets of most Arab countries to design. We outnumber the active combatants on the other side by at least five to one. This year, we will spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined -- more than six hundred billion dollars . And yet Tom Friedman thinks the problem in Iraq is that we ordinary Americans didn't tighten our belts enough to support the war effort.

Friedman should be hung upside down and have holes drilled in his skull for even suggesting this, of course. We're talking about one of the richest men in media, a guy who in recent years got still richer beating the drum for this war from his $9.3 million, 11,400 square-foot mansion in suburban Maryland. He is married to a shopping mall heiress worth nearly $3 billion; the Washingtonian says he is part of one of the 100 richest families in America. And yet he has the balls to turn around and tell us that the pointless, asinine war he cheerleaded for failed because we didn't sacrifice enough for it. Are you reaching for the railroad spike yet?

This being tax season, I want you all to think about this Friedman column as you prepare your returns, because I'll bet anything he's surfing ahead of a trend here. If the next president is John McCain, or even if it isn't, you can be damn sure that we're going to hear a lot about how we blew Iraq because there weren't enough troops or resources shifted into Iraq.

You're going to hear that we didn't have money to pay for body armor, when the reality is that the reason troops didn't have body armor in recent years is that congressmen robbed the operations and maintenance accounts of the defense budget to pay for earmarks/pork projects (they took $9 billion in pork and earmarks out of the O&M allotment in 2005, for instance). They robbed the part of the budget that paid for ordinary soldiers‚ gear so they wouldn't have to touch the F-22 Raptor, the CVN(X) aircraft carrier, or any of the other mega-expensive and mostly useless weapons programs. I mean, think about it -- how else can you spend $600 billion dollars on the military every year and not have body armor for the soldiers deployed at war? Somewhere, someone who doesn't need it has to be sucking up that money.

But trust me, the myth is going to be that you didn't cough up enough for the war. It's your fault we failed, not Tom Friedman's. So put all three of your hands in your pockets and dig out that change you're holding back. We'll need it for his next great idea.

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone .

 
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