Noting that “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 “antiwar 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 re-branded himself
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 United Nations 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. [For an early warning of the
Iraq disaster, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bay
of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down.”]
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 drives 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.
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
These Americans recognized that Bush’s vision of a
countries 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
'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
“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.” [For the full Solomon column, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Giving
War a Chance.”]
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,
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,
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
The tentative progress in the Israeli-Palestinian
talks resulted from the death of long-time 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. [NYT, Aug.
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
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
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
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
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.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'