Few journalists have greater influence on U.S. foreign policy, particularly regarding the Middle East, than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But his tortured obit of a column this week on the official end of the neocolonialist disaster that has been the Iraq occupation reminds one that the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner often gets it wrong.
Was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which he did so much to encourage, a "wise choice"? Friedman hides behind one of his trademark ambiguities: "My answer is twofold: 'No' and 'Maybe, sort of, we'll see.' I say 'no' because whatever happens in Iraq, even if it becomes Switzerland, we overpaid for it."
Aside from the stunning amorality of assessing the cost of war from the standpoint of the royal "we," Friedman seems wildly optimistic about what the invasion has wrought. On a day when Iraq's prime minister, a Shiite, demanded that the leader of the Kurds arrest the Sunni vice president, Friedman celebrated the unity of the three groups as "the most important product of the Iraq war." He blamed the failure of the U.S. occupation to accomplish more, in roughly equal measure, on "the incompetence of George W. Bush's team in prosecuting the war," "Iran, the Arab dictators and, most of all, Al Qaeda," which he seems surprised to report "did not want a democracy in the heart of the Arab world."
President Bush's argument for the invasion was not based on democratic nation-building but rather on two specific lies that Friedman has long danced around: that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that threatened U.S. security and that it was somehow linked to the 9/11 attacks. Friedman now insists "Iraq was always a war of choice. As I never bought the argument that Saddam had nukes that had to be taken out, the decision to go to war stemmed for me from a different choice: Could we ... tilt it and the region onto a democratizing track?"
That is not quite true, for Friedman had been pushing the notion of an Iraqi nuclear threat as far back as July 7, 1991, when he severely criticized the first President Bush for leaving Saddam in power in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, arguing that "Mr. Hussein has a unique personal incentive to continue trying to obtain a nuclear weapon quickly." Friedman wrote critically of what he considered President Bill Clinton's tepid response to Iraq's supposed WMD threat, with the columnist warning in December of 2002 that "Saddam Hussein was an expert at hiding his war toys and, having four years without inspections, had probably buried everything good under mosques or cemeteries."
Friedman was a particularly harsh critic of the French, who wanted to triple the number of U.N. weapons inspectors and let them finish their work before rushing to war. Friedman in February of 2003 argued that "the inspections have failed not because of a shortage of inspectors. They have failed because of a shortage of compliance on Saddam's part, as the French know. The way you get compliance out of a thug like Saddam is not by tripling the inspectors, but by tripling the threat that if he does not comply he will be faced with a UN-approved war."
Within weeks, the U.S.-directed invasion showed that the French had been right and there were no weapons of mass destruction, just as the dictator had asserted. Nor was any plausible evidence ever produced for the second pillar of Bush's justification for the invasion, which Friedman endorsed, that overthrowing Saddam was a valid response to the 9/11 attacks. Friedman said on the Charlie Rose television program in 2003 that what terrorists worldwide needed to see "was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um, and basically saying, 'Which part of the sentence don't you understand?' You don't think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we're just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth. ..."
Such was the cynical melding of the al-Qaida threat with the justification for the invasion that Friedman again evoked this week in The New York Times: "So, no matter the original reasons for the war, in the end, it came down to this: Were America and its Iraqi allies going to defeat Al Qaeda and its allies in the heart of the Arab world or were Al Qaeda and its allies going to defeat them?" But al-Qaida was not present in the heart of the Arab world until the United States deposed Saddam, the sworn enemy of those religious fanatics.
At the core of Friedman's worldview is the assumption that the most brutal and contradictory applications of U.S.-supplied military power are by definition civilizing because this nation owns the brand defining freedom and democracy. The preservation of that brand, no matter the lengths of deceit required, is for Friedman the inevitably noble end that justifies the most despicable of means.
That Friedman is a skilled obfuscator should no longer come as a revelation. But that his self-serving feints at the truth can still earn him a place of high regard in the world of journalism is a sad commentary on the profession that has rewarded him so lucratively.