Thomas Friedman Gets It Right

Thomas Friedman has a mixed reputation in the blogoverse. But today he writes a column that explains exactly what I’ve been looking for from President Bush; go read it and understand why we’re fighting, and what I’m talking about when I talk about ‘selling’ the war.

“We are attracting all these opponents to Iraq because they understand this war is The Big One. They don’t believe their own propaganda. They know this is not a war for oil. They know this is a war over ideas and values and governance. They know this war is about Western powers, helped by the U.N., coming into the heart of their world to promote more decent, open, tolerant, women-friendly, pluralistic governments by starting with Iraq … a country that contains all the main strands of the region: Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.


“You’d think from listening to America’s European and Arab critics that we’d upset some bucolic native culture and natural harmony in Iraq, as if the Baath Party were some colorful local tribe out of National Geographic. Alas, our opponents in Iraq, and their fellow travelers, know otherwise. They know they represent various forms of clan and gang rule, and various forms of religious and secular totalitarianism … from Talibanism to Baathism. And they know that they need external enemies to thrive and justify imposing their demented visions.

In short, America’s opponents know just what’s at stake in the postwar struggle for Iraq, which is why they flock there: beat America’s ideas in Iraq and you beat them out of the whole region; lose to America there, lose everywhere.

So, the terrorists get it. Iraqi liberals get it. The Bush team talks as if it gets it, but it doesn’t act like it. The Bush team tells us, rightly, that this nation-building project is the equivalent of Germany in 1945, and yet, so far, it has approached the postwar in Iraq as if it’s Grenada in 1982.

We may fail, but not because we have attracted terrorists who understand what’s at stake in Iraq. We may fail because of the utter incompetence with which the Pentagon leadership has handled the postwar. (We don’t even have enough translators there, let alone M.P.’s, and the media network we’ve set up there to talk to Iraqis is so bad we’d be better off buying ads on Al Jazeera.) We may fail because the Bush team thinks it can fight The Big One in the Middle East … while cutting taxes at home, shrinking the U.S. Army, changing the tax code to encourage Americans to buy gas-guzzling cars that make us more dependent on Mideast oil and by gratuitously alienating allies.

We may fail because to win The Big One, we need an American public, and allies, ready to pay any price and bear any burden, but we have a president unable or unwilling to summon either.” (emphasis added)

That’s what I’m looking for from Bush; to take this war as seriously as I do and as seriously as our enemies do, and to make it clear to the American people – as FDR did, and Churchill did – that this war will take blood, toil, sweat, and tears. And that we will prevail, because we have no choice.

Because we really don’t.


· Porphy comments.

· Cameron over at BeetsWerkin gently hammers Needlenose on selective editing in his Friedman quotes…

· Atrios leads us to Swopa, and the Needlenose blog, who disagrees with Friedman:

Pardon me for suggesting that Friedman doesn’t believe his own propaganda, either, but just a couple of months ago he was telling a quite different story:

The “real reason” for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world.

In other words, as I happened to discuss in a post last Thursday, the war’s goal wasn’t to project American ideas into the Middle East — it was to project American power there. Which, not surprisingly, is a development that Iraq’s neighbors (who will be next on the “hit list”) and anti-Western fanatics throughout the region want very much to derail.

I’m in the attic plumbing this afternoon (after a morning of installing brakes), so a longer response is due. Let me leave you with a medium-length one:

It’s absolutely the case that our task in the Middle East is to break the ‘various forms of religious and secular totalitarianism‘, and that we’re in Iraq because we had to start somewhere, and they were the ‘low-hanging fruit.’ My own words from mid-March:

…I believe the answer is to end the state support of terrorism and the state campaigns of hatred aimed at the U.S. I think that Iraq simply has drawn the lucky straw. They are weak, not liked, bluntly in violation of international law, and as our friends the French say, about to get hung pour l’ecourager les autres…to encourage the others.

Does that make it any clearer?

28 thoughts on “Thomas Friedman Gets It Right”

  1. yeah i read friedman regularly and he has a mixed record with me too. i think he got the top half right today. i liked his last column better. as usual though victor davis hanson gets at the heart and wording of things better.

  2. It was a pretty good column until he got to the predictable crap portion of the argument.

    I am trying to square a what $60 billion increase in defense spending with “shrinking the army”. That and I’m trying to figure out how the post UNR 1441 antics of the French in face of the US returning to the UN when it didn’t have to is “gratuitously” alienating allies. When the French got to the point that they stated they would automatically veto any use of force (this, a mere two months after they suggested a March 15 deadline for use of force), I kind of lost patience for the pissing and moaning about their opinion.

    Otherwise, though, I think that Friedman’s first half is pretty on target.

  3. This column really demonstrates what is wrong with Friedman and why I quit reading him. He gives you the feeling that he knows the right answers but everytime he backs away from them for fear of alienating his NYT constituency.

  4. Simon –

    Just for grins, can you go to Friedman’s column or my post and find the words “U.N.” anywhere except in the description of the building that was blown up??

    And for even bigger grins, how about responding to what I actually say, rather than creating a – dare I say – straw man – and attacking that?

    I do owe an explanation of my views of the U.N.; it’s in the queue.


  5. Robin –

    Yeah, he does change tone a bit, but I have to say that I agree with him.

    I think Bush is doing the military a disservice (cutting benefits and even the pay of those serving in Iraq), and that we erred badly in handling the diplomatic runup. I think there was a third path other than kneeling to France or going it essentially alone.

    We’re seeing it now, as we feel the stress on the forces we’ve got.

    And I think that he’s completely blown it in the way he’s handling it with the American people – I think we would respond well to a call for commitment and sacrifice, and while he’s dancing close to that, I keep hearing the ‘just go shopping’ message in my ears.


  6. We are fortunate to have commentators like Friedman who have the ability to look at U.S. foreign policy, and the Bush Administration’s handling of it, and assess the good and the bad, without making sweeping judgments of blind approval or reflexive condemnation. The purported inconsistency mentioned by Needlenose between Friedman’s June 2nd piece and his piece today is much exaggerated, since the two articles are not dealing with the same issues.

    Friedman’s capacity for perspective along with his flexibility and lack of doctrinaire arrogance are assets rather than failings. Friedman shows that he both understands the objectives in the war on terrorism/war in Iraq while realizing the importance of constant critical assessment of the adaptation of the means to those objectives.

    Madeleine Albright’s just published piece in Foreign Affairs is also excellent in this respect, in particular in its very fair, balanced and realistic critique of Bush Administration policy in Iraq. (

  7. My first reaction to this – I haven’t had time to mull it over – is that you (A.L.) agree with Friedman that we ought to
    1) Raise taxes
    2) Raise more infantry divisions
    3) Get more MP/translators/civil affairs
    4) Make some non-tax economic sacrifices at home (e.g. SUV’s)

    In general, blood, sweat, toil, tears.

    What this describes, in fact, is a total war. A war in which an entire people and economy are mobilized and focused on winning a war. Rationing, the draft, the whole nine yards.

    Is it a good idea? I’ve been thinking on it since 9/11. It would have been easy to implement those measures on Sept. 12, but can we still do it now?

    I think we ought to have done it. We ought to have imposed austerity measures at home, both in oil and other goods. We should have drafted, trained and equipped about 3 mech infantry divisions and ~25 light infantry brigades diverted funds from stupidities like farm subsidies and thw war on drugs. But the opportunity may have passed us by.

    And it’s not right to blame Bush completely, though he ought to have had the guts to ask for these things. Congress could have done all of those things without Bush’s approval. They could have voted these actions without waiting for a green light from Bush. Congress controls the money. Congress has oversight. Congress has the power to declare war and grant letters of marque. (Very underutilized, by the way. Think of the possiblilites with computer hackers.) The Prez proposes, but Conress disposes.

    And the United States Congress is full of weak and foolish Senators and representatives. This, I believe, is due to gerrymandering and the direct election of Senators.

    Yes, congress could have done these things. Indeed the members were eager for action, to show that they were on top of the problem. So what did we get? Transportation Security Administration. Farm Security Act. Patriot Act.

    Damn them all.

  8. Mulling while I write…

    About Friedman in particular: He does have a mixed record. I’m sometimes troubled by the fact that he constantly finds exactly the right quote. And sometimes his excursions into metaphor are baffling.

    And I was truly perturbed by his Prince Abdullah “peace plan” of last year. Just a little bit of flattery was all it took, and suddenly here’s this wonderful peace plan in the New York Times that’s got as much substance to it as Anna Nicole Smith’s frontal lobes.

  9. Pete –

    I completely agree with you; I don’t think, however, that it’s too late.

    We’ll come to a crisis, and at that point we’ll have a choice to make. We all need to make sure it’s the right one.


  10. Friedman correctly perceives that this is the Big One. But he is genuinely wrong when he concludes that “The Bush team … has approached the postwar in Iraq as if it’s Grenada in 1982.” Bush has raised close to 60,000 Iraqi combatants in the last 3 1/2 months and will have mobilized double or treble that before the year is up. Glenn Reynolds is already wondering whether the Administration is being too hasty in reconstituting an Iraqi intelligence service. Doubtless we will hear the same about the new Iraqi army.

    Friedman is honestly mistaken in thinking that we need more European troops, Blue Helmets and NGOs in theater to win this war. Rumsfeld and Abizaid have bet, correctly I believe, that the really critical resource is Iraqi auxiliaries. It’s a no-brainer from a certain point of view. In a war that is largely an intelligence conflict, Iraqis are a far better resource than Danish or Nigerian Blue Helmets. Friedman casts net too narrowly. It is the Big One for freedom-loving Arabs too.

  11. Pete S, right on, mostly.

    Not sure I agree about the draft – the consensus seems to be that the volunteers are more effective. I think if the pay and the benefits were made more equitable and the budget were there, we could raise those divisions without the draft.

    Freidman injects the “gratuitously alienating our allies” etc soundbites to maintain his liberal cred. Not an idiotarian liberal, but not about to let the truth get in the way of a good partisan swipe.

    I’m going to go read Kagan. No I’m not, I’m going to bed…

  12. Ditto guys. Bush has to decide if this is going to be a real war (see WWII or the Civil War) or some lark like Panama or Granada. The only thing worse than war is war fought in a half-assed manner.

    After 9/11 he had the political capital for such a thing, but he’s pretty much spent that all. Lots of people wanted to “do something” after 9/11 and all we got was “go shopping.”

    So. . . this could be turned around but Bush has got to get serious about this. He needs to say:

    1) why are we in Iraq anyway? (um let’s drop WMD for the moment) and
    2) what is going on? and
    3) what are we going to do about it? What’s the plan?

    Even Bush partisans would concede that he’s not exactly a rhetorical Churchill, but he could do a better job.

  13. I second that. The Franco-German interest in Iraq is worse than simply predatory, it’s negative, and this must be driven home again and again as we discuss “internationalizing” the war.

    International? Sure. Let’s get a division from India in theater, and a “we’re sorry” contingent of Turks to send to the Sunni triangle.

  14. Actually President Bush “spent” his political capital from 9/11/01 on moving this country forward in finally resolving the festering issue of Iraq. It cost much political capital because Democrats wished to demogogue it.

    He did not spend that “political capital” on “going shopping” messages.

  15. Here is an interesting question:

    Are the American people too weak to fight a “total war?”

    Please do not assume that I think that we are, in fact, too weak. I am merely asking the question.

    This is a fascinating question.

    Pete S. posits that we should have imposed austerity measures and had a draft. Part of me agrees with this.

    But on the other hand, think of all of the resistance to the war in Iraq. Now imagine that Bush had propsoed to send draftees to fight there. It might have been much, much harder to invade Iraq with draftees.

    Everyone thinks that Afghanistan is an example of a war which enjoyed universal support. The American people understood that we had been attacked, and were therefore foresquare behind the invasion. We were willing to take as many casualties as necessary, the reasoning goes, because the threat to American security was clear. The same people who make this argument often suggest that the opposition to the war in Iraq was a function of the fact that there was no clear threat to American security there.

    I am not sure that I agree with this. The Afghan war was quick and relatively bloodless. The Taliban collapsed in just a few weeks.

    But suppose it hadn’t been. Suppose that the war in Afghanistan had been protracted and bloody, with 5,000 American casualties. Would the American people have been prepared to take an additional 5,000 casualties?

    I’m not sure. Here is what I think might have happend in Afghanistan. First, we’d hear the inevitable cries of “quagmire.” Second, the strategy and tactics employed would have been questioned. This sort of thing is typical; it happens in every war (though I must say that the degree of ignorance among today’s journalists is disgraceful; blow-dried talking heads who know absolutely nothing, repeat nothing, about military weapons, strategy, or tactics don’t seem at all reluctant to give their own uninformed opinions on questions of tactics and strategy, though they’d never dream of doing this in the the context of a criminal trial, a flood, or most any other news story), and it probably wouldn’t lead to an American pullout.

    But then the opponents of the war would start asking other “questions”, and these would trouble the American people. How can you fight an *ideology*, namely islamic fundamentalism, by invading a *country*, they’d ask? How come we’re invading Afghanistan when 14 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, and none were Afghani?

    Opponents of the war would suddenly become experts on the Russian and British invasions of Afghanistan, and would point out how the Russians, who were willing to employ ruthless tactics that we’d never employ, were still unable to prevail there, despite taking many, many more casulaties. What makes us think that we could do any better? (Actually, to be honest, I’m sort of unclear on this one myself. Precision bombing just can’t be the whole reason.)

    We’d hear about how the nation of Afghanistan hadn’t declared war on us, but had only permitted terrorist training camps to be operated in rural, mountainous regions. What’s more, many of the camps which have been chararcterized as “terrorist training” facilities were started in the war against the USSR, and have most recently been used to train soldiers to fight the Northern Alliance, rather than terrorists. We’d probably hear that Mullah Omar knew nothing about September 11, and in fact has cooperated with us from time to time in the past; in fact, March 2001, the State Department approahced him with some kind of deal to work with us against bin Laden, and the details were still being discussed when 9/11 took place. (Don’t know if this is true or not, but I guarantee that this kind of rumor would surface.) If the Taliban were particularly smart, at about this poiunt, they’d offfer to give us bin Laden or a few of his leading flunkies in exchange for a peace treaty, and billions in foreign aid.

    We’d hear about the difficulties of fighting an a strange land, where the people are noted for thier dislike of foreigners and where the resistance fighters can simply “melt into” the mountainous countryside. We’d hear about how the American troops there can’t speak the language, are ignorant of local customs (and therefore are always offending the locals) and generally cause more problems than they solve. We’d hear about how the Taliban govenrment, while alien to us, enjoyed popular support among Afghanis, and while we may find their religious practices strange and distasteful, who are we to judge another culture by our own norms?

    Finally, the “law enforcement” approcach to terrorism would be hearalded as an altenrative to the ill-conceived invasion of Afghanistan. We’d be told that what we really need to do is concentrate on gathering intelligence, cultivating informants, and arresting suspects, rather than invading a faraway nation of illiterate, stone age tribesman who themselves had nothing to do with the hijackings. Besides, the war’s opponents would say, hadn’t the Afghanis leaned their lesson? They’ll never host Al Quaeda fighters again. Also, shouldn’t we be concentrating on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

    In short, I think there is a real possibility that if things had gone badly in Afghanistan, the American people might not have been up to the challenge of seeing the war through. In the end, I think that we would have proven strong enough. However, I’m not sure of this. The above hypothetical scenario might have come to pass.

    In the end, I agree that the American people were willing to make sacrifices in the wake of 9/11. Bush should have called upon us to sacrifice something, anything, even if our sacrifice was purely a token gesture for psychological reasons and actually had no tangible impact on the war on terrorism. I also think that we are willing to take a lot of casualties, should it become necessary, if for no other reason than because a lot of people are afraid of terrorism and are willing to do whatever needs to be done to feel safe. Also, most Americans understand, even if our politcians do not articulate this clearly enough, that the stakes in Iraq are very high.

    But part of me wonders whether the Vietnam generation will ever be

  16. oops…

    the Vietnam generation will ever be able to make sacrifices, even if they are necessary to make us secure. Part of me wonders whether those people haven’t been permanently weakened by their cynicism and anti-Americanism.

  17. Gabriel, I just read a snippet of Maddie’s -and I’m taking a wild leap here because this is what she’s been doing – covering her ass again piece.

    At what price to the US?

    Yeah, she remains convinced if Prince Al had won, NATO would have been along for the ride in Afghanistan.

    As far as I’m concerned, literally, we’re the heavy labor, using US taxpayer-paid for military and *the world* in the form of phrawnce calling the shots. Like they tried to do, remember?

    No thanks.

  18. Gabriel –

    Just finished Albright’s piece, and really, really thought it was terrible.

    Her core assumption is that we can work through the existing international institutions in a ‘business as usual; manner; sorry, that doesn’t cut it. I’m never going to cheer when U.N. staff are killed, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to make our security or foreign policy dependent on them.

    Longer response to follow.


  19. Madeleine Albright had such great success getting the UN to lead the invasion of Kosovo … oops, wrong alternate universe.

  20. Don’t forget how Albright and the rest of the State Department team got the French and Russians to agree to a UN Resolution authorizing force against Saddam in ’98 when Clinton and his team, including Albright, were pointing to the same dangers Saddam posed as Bush and his team have. But Albright managed to get UN Resolutions passed saying there would be “serious consequences” if Saddam didn’t stop violating them. When Saddam didn’t, then France and Russia helped remove Saddam and that’s why we didn’t have to deal with Iraq this year.

    Ooops – same alternate universe.

    Back in the real world, with their “superior” diplomacy they didn’t have any more success. In fact, their failures are what led us to where we are now. It’s interesting to see that the “smart” people, Albright included, never learn anything from experience.

  21. Friedman misses the mark. The Weekly Standard piece is much better about our difficulties in Iraq.

    Friedman uses Iraq as a surrogate issue to poke at Bush on domestic issues. The WS piece doesn’t make those mistakes. Friedman wants the whole Democrat “New Deal/Marshal Plan/New Frontier/Great Society” program application in Iraq because, well, that’s how the NY Times thinks these things get fixed. It’s just more big government programs.

    And the whole puddin’ headed notion that “cutting taxes at home, shrinking the U.S. Army, changing the tax code to encourage Americans to buy gas-guzzling cars that make us more dependent on Mideast oil and by gratuitously alienating allies” has any real impact in Iraq or on the WoT is just obvious partisan rhetoric.

    The economy has been sluggish – we either cut taxes or increase spending to promote growth. Choose your poison – Bush chose letting folks keep their money. Shrinking the Army? When, where, and how? Changing the tax codes to encourage more SUV purchases? Yeah, if you’re a small business and you choose to capitalize your business with a truck. More dependent upon Middle Eastern oil? Yeah, if an extra 0.5% increase in demand really drives up the “hostage to the Saudi’s” quotient. Unless you’re willing to completely embargo oil imports, this point is disingenuous in the extreme. Gratuitously alienating allies? You mean the ones who actively supported Saddam’s defense in the UNSC? Or the ones who balked at lifting the UN sanctions unless the UN could run Iraq’s recovery? Or the allies who want us to destroy our economy by knuckling under to the Kyoto suicide pact? Or the allies who want us to surrender the Constitution by acquiescing to the ICC? Those allies? Seems to me the clear-headed, much better question to ask is why our allies are gratuitously alienating us?

    Neither is the “total war” application other posters have discussed appropriate to this problem. The American people aren’t willing to reinstate the draft (anyone for a 28 million “person” military, just as 10 percent of the population [13 million] was in uniform during W.W.II), rationing or other manifestations of total war. And for those who think this is a good idea, how much worse do you think international support for that approach would be than the one we’re currently taking? You think this isn’t a Christian Crusade against Islam? I agree. But let’s go to total war and this becomes nothing but a Christian Crusade against Islam. We could kiss off the moderate Muslims, for good and for ever.

    The better context for understanding the WoT and Iraq is the Cold War. While not a perfect analogy, Bush understands this is a generational problem, not merely an Administration problem; it’s a security and cultural problem; not a criminal or nationalism problem. We cannot win approaching this like W.W.II or Vietnam; we win in a completely different way. We’ve never been exactly here before, but I think we’re doing much better adapting to our task than the pessimists think.

    Finally, Friedman’s gratuitous insult that Bush is approaching this as if it was Grenada is just over the top.

    I’m confident that Bush understands, even as Friedman apparently does not, that both his presidency and America’s success in the WoT depends upon success in Iraq. For the Dems are wholly incapable of nominating anyone who offers any credibility in both Iraq and the WoT; if Bush fails in Iraq, so probably too does America’s WoT.

  22. I agree with Robin that Friedman’s column was schizoid – the first half read like it wasn’t in the New York Times while the second half did.

    The whole fuss about occupation issues in Iraq is more of the usual from the usual suspects. Things happen in war and not all of them are nice.

    Furthermore almost all of the enemy action takes place in Sunni Arab territory. The occupation’s success will be determined by events in Shi’ite Arab territory. If we secure an alliance with that group (we already have the Kurds), events in Sunni territory mean nothing. The Sunnis will have nowhere to go but the wall in front of the firing squad.

    If you want to know who is winning the occupation struggle, study stories from Shi’ite Arab terrority. And have fun finding those. Good news is not news.

    BTW, those who say that we need allies only use platitudes. Ask them what the purported allies will do and who will pay for it. Those who question American willingness to stay the course blithely ignore the same problems concerning allies. The occupation struggle is a mission for long-term police and intelligence specialists, and additionally requires that any allied force of more than a small group per nationality be fluent in English just to interface with American operations.

  23. Tom,

    People are also thinking far to short term.

    A successful post-Ba’ath Party Iraqi state that America leaves behind will be Shia and Kurd dominated.

    The Sunni will challenge that state because they see the Iraqi state as their tribal patrimony.

    The historical parallel is Nicaragua after Chesty Pullers Marines pulled out. The Samoza Family dominated National Guard killed Sandino and put paid to his movement. The problem is that failure in Middle Eastern tribal power challenging calls for a great deal more blood then Central American “Gunpowder Democracy.” The winning tribe holds the whole losing tribe to be responsible and decimates/ethnically cleanses it at a minimum.

    I can see only two things that America can do to prevent this. Either 1) America suppresses/converts the vast majority of the Sunni before it leaves; or 2) America never leaves.

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