Thomas Friedman on Timeouts

04/10/2013 07:48 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

It's ridiculous to get annoyed at Thomas Friedman. He's resistant to the carping of critics. But every once in a while, you can't help but to succumb to baser instincts. Yes, he may be the World's Greatest Columnist, though that is more a commentary on the pitfalls of popularity than anything else. There are those ubiquitous Friedman tendencies drive you mad: the clichés, the trite phrases, the tortured analogies and grand statements as hollow as a straw. Friedman is always worried. The world is always poised on a precipice, a cliff is always around the bend, dangers are always mounting. He always has answers -- but he is routinely ignored. Friedman is a Paul Revere columnist: Wake up, people, the British are coming! He does that several times a week.

On Sunday in the New York Times, Friedman decided that the last five years have been one long "timeout" from geopolitics, and that if we don't "get our act together as a country -- and if the Chinese, Russians and Europeans don't do the same -- we're all going to regret it." The tone: plaintive chiding. "Think," says Friedman," of the relative luxury we've enjoyed since the Great Recession hit in 2008." We, the Europeans and the world's major powers, had been focused "almost entirely on healing our own economies -- without having to worry about a major war or globe-rattling conflict that would snuff out our fragile economic recoveries or require new defense spending."

Now let's pause and review the clichés. In the first two paragraphs Friedman manages to combine "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste" with this entirely different notion, commonly found in sports or kindergarten. He displays his mastery at cliché conflation: We've wasted a timeout. A timeout is a kind of break in the action (sports) or a cooling off period (childhood). We've spent that period trying to restore our economies, which, if memory holds true, nearly melted down, threatening a second Great Depression and a toxic geopolitical mess. This is mere economics. He labors mightily to separate domestic economies and geopolitics; but in a tightly coupled world, a flat world (to employ an overused Friedmanesque phrase), they're indivisible. Besides, I wasn't aware that we were lolling in even relative luxury (that "relative" being a slippery escape from rigor). If 2013 is a luxury, what was 2006 or 1999 -- paradise?

Over this period, many of the key questions about the state of the globe centered on geopolitics. The U.S. fought in two wars. Europe appeared ready to crack apart. Terrorism loomed. Many of the problems Friedman seems to think we should have tackled -- Syria, Egypt, Iranian nukes, North Korean missiles -- were either closely tied to global economic stresses, existed before 2008 or came out of nowhere, like chubby Kim Jong Un and "Gangnam Style." There are policies designed to cope with every one of these problems; even if you dislike them, it's not as if the Obama administration shut down. Friedman often seems to suggest that everyone has been sitting around playing with their toes, while he's heroically confronting the tough issues.

What would Friedman have us do? Ignore the economy? Obama has managed to disengage from two wars, attempt to cajole the Iranians, cope with an American response to chaos and revolution in the Middle East, deal with remnants of al-Queda and the resurgence of the Taliban. But Friedman seems to believe that "major powers" must rein in unruly nations or remedy civil wars, revolutions and economic dysfunctions. This is a simplistic view of the world, including an overly optimistic take on American power -- not to say Russian, Chinese or European power. Can China stop Kim Jong Un? Perhaps. But it's undoubtedly more complicated than a phone call from Beijing. As for the Europeans, whether you think they're acting wisely or not, the difficulties they face are profound, although perhaps not to Friedman. (Also, you can't scold us for "healing our own economies," and then use something like Cyprus -- one thin red line from Spain, he notes -- as an example of a crisis that was ignored. Cyprus is a domestic problem for Europeans. And you can't worry over Korea and Iran going ballistic, then grumble over the failure to generate infrastructure investment in the U.S. Infrastructure spending falls into the category of a domestic economic policy, and is thus by his own logic a luxury.)

There are no timeouts in the real world, and there are always malign actors on the global stage "with their toes on the red lines." The world is always falling apart -- entropy, I suppose -- and coming together. Not that long ago, various pundits were putting odds on any one or combination of crisis -- the U.S. fiscal cliff, the slowdown in China, the Eurozone mess, Iran - destabilizing our wobbly world. We seemed cooked. Somehow we survived. That's usually the case. That's not to say that disasters don't occur; hell, we got run over by a black swan in 2008. But this notion that we've suddenly emerged from an era of basking on the beach into one of "globe-rattling" danger is absurd.

By the time you get to the end of this Friedmaneque lecture in 20/20 hindsight, you begin to suspect what has happened. Friedman has stumbled upon a nifty cliché, perhaps while watching March Madness, and then tried to fit the world and his own favorite causes around it. To make it work he has to distort the past and exaggerate the present, like a petulant parent. Listen to me! That's not a waste of a timeout; that's a waste of a column. But that's hardly news.