10 of Thomas Friedman's Dumbest "Big Ideas"

In conferring the honor of “Wanker of the Decade” on New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, blogger Duncan Black observed that “truly great wankers possess a kind of glib narcissism, the belief that everything is about them while simultaneously disavowing any responsibility for anything.” The sorry “state of the world is what it is,” Black continued, “in large part because people in positions of great power think this absurd buffoon of man is a Very Serious Person.”

Most readers are presumably familiar with the most prominent theories to have emerged from the brain of Thomas Friedman over the course of his career. To name a few here: 

  1. The world is flat.
  2. Countries that have McDonald’s do not go to war with each other—except when they do, in which case it is preferable if the outcome of the conflict indicates that Serbs “wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo.”
  3. By pure coincidence, the 2011 Arab uprisings were caused by some of Friedman’s own favorite topics: Barack Obama, Google Earth, Israel, the Beijing Olympics, and Salam Fayyad. (See blogger Sarah Carr’s response, in which she notes the additional revolutionary impetus provided by the 2008 Cheese-Rolling Competition near Gloucester, England.)

While conducting research for my book about Thomas Friedman, I had the pleasure of reading 17 years’ worth of biweekly dispatches from the three-time Pulitzer recipient. For the benefit of those who may lead more fulfilling lives, I’ve composed a brief list of lesser-known Friedmanian insights and policy prescriptions.

1. The Clinton administration should have dedicated itself to illegally manufacturing Iraqi currency.

In 1996 Friedman advised the following approach to Iraq: “Print dinars. The U.S. should flood Iraq with counterfeit Iraqi dinars. It would wreak havoc. Because the U.S. has blocked the sale of money-printing presses, ink and paper to Iraq, Washington can already print better Iraqi money than Baghdad can.”

Seven years later, the economic war plan was abandoned in favor of the more physical doctrine “Suck. On. This.”

2. The Cali cartel would have been a valuable partner in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

According to Friedman’s 2001 analysis, the merits of Colombian drug cartels included that “they understand that when we say we want someone ‘dead or alive’ we mean ‘dead or dead.’”

Geographical complications were resolved as follows: “The Cali cartel doesn’t operate in Afghanistan. But the Russian mafia sure does, as do various Afghan factions, drug rings and Pakistani secret agents.”

3.Thanks to NAFTA, Mexico has improved its selection of baby names.

During a 2010 visit to Mexico City, Friedman reported that, despite attempts by anti-NAFTA Mexicans to thwart progress by remaining poor, a promising trend had been detected by economist Luis de la Calle.

Without mentioning de la Calle’s former position as Trade and NAFTA Minister at Mexico’s embassy in D.C., Friedman cited the results of his study of the top 50 Mexican baby names of 2008: “The most popular for girls, he said, included ‘Elizabeth, Evelyn, Abigail, Karen, Marilyn and Jaqueline, and for boys Alexander, Jonathan, Kevin, Christian and Bryan.’” In case anyone had failed to grasp the magnitude of societal advancement, Friedman summarized: “Not only Juans.”

4. If the U.S. lowers its profile in the Arab world, the Arabs will realize that their children are being outperformed academically by the children of their maids.

In the midst of his Iraq war cheerleading campaign in 2004, it occurred to Friedman that “[t]he other way for us to promote reform is to get out of the way so people in the Middle East can see clearly that many of their maids' children—from India, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines—are excelling at math, science and engineering.”

As it turned out, the inverse relationship between a U.S. presence in the region and Arab admiration for the scholastic exploits of the offspring of their domestic servants found corroboration in Islam itself: “Only when the Arabs focus on how their maids’ children are doing in the world, not what the Americans are doing in their region, will they revisit one of the most famous sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: ‘Seek knowledge, even unto China. That is the duty for every Muslim.’”

5. Saudi Arabia suffers from an excess of democracy.

In the same 2003 column in which he confessed to having “a soft spot for the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah,” Friedman explained: “The problem with Saudi Arabia is not that it has too little democracy. It’s that it has too much.”

The homeland of 15 of the 9/11 hijackers received the additional benediction in 2007: “Of course, we must protect the Saudis.” This was approximately four years after the homeland of 0 of the 9/11 hijackers was told to suck on things.

6. Massacres of Muslims are a sign of freedom.

In his response to the 2002 government-incited slaughter of over 2,000 Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat, Friedman determined that the fact that “[t]he rioting didn’t spread anywhere” indicated India was worthy of the subtitle “Where Freedom Reigns.” Continuing impunity for those behind the massacre suggests this may be the case.

As for Friedman’s deceivingly platitudinous postulate according to which Indian Muslims “are, on the whole, integrated into India’s democracy because it is a democracy,” the evidence he supplied—“There are no Indian Muslims in Guantánamo Bay”—raised the possible need for a reconsideration of the democratic credentials of places like Britain and the U.S.

7. The fall of the Soviet Union was propitious for Russian wardrobes.

In a 1995 column that began with a recounting of the story of how Russia’s salvation from communism had prompted the neighbor of a Moscow journalist to cease repetitive singing of Ace of Base songs while drunkenly beating his wife, Friedman noted additional perks to life in the transformed city: “New shops mushroom every day and people now dress in a rainbow of colors, instead of different shades of cement. I ate fajitas at a new chain of Moscow-Mex restaurants, where the menu said: ‘We worship our customers like the ancient Aztecs worshiped their gods.’ (Is that capitalism, or what?)”

8. Jeffrey Sachs is African.

Reporting from Accra in 2001, Friedman informed readers: “Africans themselves will tell you that their problem with globalization is not that they are getting too much of it, but too little.” Aside from the director of Ghana’s Institute for Economic Affairs, the Africans quoted in the column consisted of an Indian trade economist and Harvard’s resident neoliberal shock therapist.

No Africans were meanwhile quoted in Friedman’s 2009 memo datelined Chief’s Island, Botswana, in which he pondered the future of Africa while on safari. Charles Darwin and Dorothy of Kansas merited mentions, however, as did a leopard in a tree—the protagonist of a 121-word description of the demise of an antelope.

9. Karl Marx knew the world was flat.

See The World Is Flat, pp. 233-4.

10. In addition to being part of a neocon strategy and anti-liberal, the Iraq war was the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched. It had nothinga little bit and everything to do with oil.

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