The Madness of NYT’s Tom Friedman

Exclusive: Looking back at the Iraq War and other disastrous U.S. foreign policy choices, you might wonder about the sanity of American leadership. But if you read star columnist Thomas L. Friedman, you’ll learn that it’s the rest of the world that’s crazy, as Robert Parry explains.

By Robert Parry

When ranking which multi-millionaire American pundit is the most overrated, there are, without doubt, many worthy contenders, but one near the top of any list must be the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman – with his long record of disastrous policy pronouncements including his enthusiasm for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Friedman, of course, has paid no career price for his misguided judgments and simplistic nostrums. Like many other star pundits who inhabit the Op-Ed pages of the Times and the Washington Post, Friedman has ascended to a place where the normal powers of gravity don’t apply, where the cumulative weight of his errors only lifts him up.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman.

Indeed, there is something profoundly nonsensical about Friedman’s Olympian standing, inhabiting a plane of existence governed by the crazy rules of Washington’s conventional wisdom, where – when looking down on the rest of us – Friedman feels free to cast aspersions on other people’s sanity, like the Mad Hatter calling the Church Mouse nuts.

Friedman describes every foreign adversary who reacts against U.S. dictates as suffering from various stages of insanity. He accepts no possibility that these “designated enemies” are acting out of their own sense of self-interest and even fear of what the United States might be designing.

In last Sunday’s column, for instance, Friedman airily dismissed the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea, China and Russia as all operating with screws loose, either totally crazy or fecklessly reckless. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was a “boy king … who seems totally off the grid.” In Friedman’s view, China is enabling North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship and “could end the freak show there anytime it wants.”

Russia is aiding and abetting both the violence in Syria and the supposed nuclear ambitions of Iran. Friedman asks: “Do the Russians really believe that indulging Iran’s covert nuclear program, to spite us, won’t come back to haunt them with a nuclear-armed Iran, an Islamist regime on its border?”

To Friedman, Bashar al-Assad is simply “Syria’s mad leader,” not a secular autocrat representing Alawites and other terrified minorities fearing a Sunni uprising that includes armed militants associated with al-Qaeda terrorists and promoting Islamic fundamentalism.

You see, according to Friedman and his neoconservative allies, everyone that they don’t like is simply crazy or absorbed with mindless self-interest – and it makes no sense to reason with these insane folks or to propose power-sharing compromises. Only “regime change” will do.

Who’s Detached from Reality?

But the argument could be made that Friedman and the neocons are the people most disconnected from reality – and that the New York Times editors are behaving irresponsibly in continuing to grant Friedman some of the most prestigious space in American journalism to spout his nonsensical ravings.

Looking back at Friedman’s history of recommending violence as the only remedy to a whole host of problems, including in places like Serbia and Iraq, you could reasonably conclude that he’s the real nut case. He’s the one who routinely urges the U.S. government to ignore international law in pursuit of half-baked goals that have spread misery over large swaths of the planet.

In 1999, during the U.S. bombing of Serbia, Friedman showed off his glib warmongering style: “Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.”

Before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Friedman offered the witty observation that it was time to “give war a chance,” a flippant play on John Lennon’s lyrics to the song, “Give Peace a Chance.”

Yet, even amid his enthusiasm to invade Iraq, Friedman was disappointed by Bush’s clunky rhetoric. So, he hailed the smoother speechifying of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and dubbed himself “a Tony Blair Democrat.” Today, it might seem that anyone foolish enough to take that title – after Blair has gone down in history as “Bush’s poodle” and is now despised even by his own Labour Party – should slink away into obscurity or claim some sort of mental incapacity.

But that isn’t how U.S. punditry works. Once you’ve risen into the firmament of stars like Tommy Friedman, you are beyond the reach of earthly judgments and surely beyond human accountability.

When the Iraq War didn’t go as swimmingly as the neocons expected, Friedman became famous for his repetitious, ever-receding “six month” timeline for detecting progress. Finally, in August 2006, he concluded that the Iraq War wasn’t worth it, that “it is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are babysitting a civil war.” [NYT, Aug. 4, 2006]

At that point, you might have expected the New York Times to drop Friedman from its roster of columnists. After all, the Iraq War’s costs in lives, money and respect for the United States had become staggering. You might even have thought that some accountability would be in order. After all, advocacy of aggressive war is a war crime as defined by the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II.

Yet, 12 days after his admission of Iraq War failure, Friedman actually demeaned Americans who had opposed the Iraq War early on as “antiwar activists who haven’t thought a whit about the larger struggle we’re in.” [NYT, Aug. 16, 2006] In other words, according to Friedman, Americans who were right about the ill-fated invasion of Iraq were still airheads who couldn’t grasp the bigger picture that had been so obvious to himself, his fellow pundits and pro-war politicians who had tagged along with Bush and Blair.

As I noted in an article at the time, “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.”

Instead of a well-deserved dismissal from the Times and journalistic disgrace, Friedman has continued to rake in big bucks from his articles, his books and his speeches. Meanwhile, his record for accuracy (or even sophisticated insights) hasn’t improved. Regarding foreign policy, he still gets pretty much everything wrong.

‘Crazy’ Enemies

As for the supposed madness of America’s “designated enemies,” Friedman refuses to recognize that they might see defensive belligerence as the only rational response to U.S. hostility. After all, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi both accepted U.S. demands for disarmament and both were subsequently attacked by U.S. military force, overthrown and murdered.

So, who in their right mind would accept assurances about the protections of international law when Official Washington and Tommy Friedman see nothing wrong with invading other countries and overthrowing their governments? In view of this recent history, one could argue that the leaders of Iran, Syria and even North Korea are acting rationally within their perceptions of national sovereignty – and concern for their own necks.

Similarly, Russia and China have searched for ways to resolve some of these conflicts, rather than whipping up new confrontations. On the Iranian nuclear dispute, for instance, Russia has worked behind the scenes to broker a realistic agreement that would offer Iran meaningful relief from economic sanctions in exchange for more safeguards on its nuclear program.

It has been the United States that has vacillated between an interest in a negotiated settlement with Iran and the temptation to seek “regime change.” Recently, the Obama administration spurned a Russian push for genuine negotiations with Iran, instead favoring more sanctions and demanding Iranian capitulation.

It should be noted, too, that the Iranian government has renounced any desire to build a nuclear weapon and that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, since 2007, that Iran ceased work on a nuclear weapon in 2003, a decade ago. Friedman could be called irrational – or at least irresponsible – for not mentioning that fact. And you might wonder why his Times’ editors didn’t demand greater accuracy in his column. Is there no fact-checking of Friedman?

Seeking ‘Regime Change’

Of course, the Times and Friedman have a long pattern of bias on Iran, much as they had on Iraq. For instance, the newspaper and its star columnist heaped ridicule on Turkey and Brazil three years ago when those two U.S. allies achieved a breakthrough in which Iran agreed to ship about half of its low-enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for some medical isotopes. To Friedman, this deal was “as ugly as it gets,” the title of his column.

He wrote: “I confess that when I first saw the May 17 [2010] picture of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms — after their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program — all I could think of was: Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?

“No, that’s about as ugly as it gets.”

Though Friedman did not call Lula da Silva and Erdogan crazy, he did insult them and impugned their motives. He accused them of seeking this important step toward a peaceful resolution of an international dispute “just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table.”

In the column, Friedman also made clear that he wasn’t really interested in Iranian nuclear safeguards; instead, he wanted the United States to do whatever it could to help Iran’s internal opposition overthrow President Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Islamic Republic.

“In my view, the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran is the most important, self-generated, democracy movement to appear in the Middle East in decades,” Friedman wrote. “It has been suppressed, but it is not going away, and, ultimately, its success — not any nuclear deal with the Iranian clerics — is the only sustainable source of security and stability. We have spent far too little time and energy nurturing that democratic trend and far too much chasing a nuclear deal.”

Just three years later, however, it’s clear how wrongheaded Friedman was. The Green Movement, which was never the mass popular movement that the U.S. media claimed, has largely disappeared.

Analyses of Iran’s 2009 election also revealed that Ahmadinejad did win a substantial majority of the vote. Ahmadinejad, with strong support from the poor especially in more conservative rural areas, defeated the “Green Revolution” candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi by roughly the 2-to-1 margin cited in the official results.

For instance, an analysis by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes concluded that most Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad and viewed his reelection as legitimate, contrary to claims made by much of the U.S. news media. Not a single Iranian poll analyzed by PIPA – whether before or after the election, whether conducted inside or outside Iran – showed Ahmadinejad with less than majority support. None showed Mousavi, a former prime minister, ahead or even close.

“These findings do not prove that there were no irregularities in the election process,” said Steven Kull, director of PIPA. “But they do not support the belief that a majority rejected Ahmadinejad.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Ahmadinejad Won, Get Over It!”]

Bias Over Journalism

During the Green Movement’s demonstrations, a few protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police (scenes carried on CNN but quickly forgotten by the U.S. news media) and security forces overreacted with repression and violence. But to pretend that an angry minority – disappointed by election results – is proof of a fraudulent election is simply an example of bias, not journalism.

One can sympathize with those who yearn for a secular democracy in Iran – as you may in other religiously structured states including Israel – but a journalist is not supposed to make up his or her own facts, which was what the Times and Friedman did in 2009 on Iran.

Friedman’s contempt for the Turkey-Brazil deal in 2010 also looks pretty stupid in retrospect. At the time, Iran only had low-enriched uranium suitable for energy production but not for building a nuclear weapon. If Iran had shipped nearly half that amount out of the country in exchange for the medical isotopes, Iran might never have upgraded its reactors to refine the uranium to about 20 percent, what was needed for the isotopes and which is much closer to the level of purity needed for a bomb.

There are other relevant facts that a serious analyst would include in the kind of column that Friedman penned last Sunday, including the fact that the United States possesses a military force unrivaled in world history and enough nuclear bombs to kill all life on the planet many times over.

Also relevant to the Iran issue, Israel possesses a rogue nuclear arsenal that is considered one of the world’s most advanced, but Israel has refused to accept any international oversight by rejecting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed and insists it is living by.

An objective – or a rational – observer would consider the unbelievable destructiveness of the U.S. and Israeli nuclear stockpiles as a relevant factor in evaluating the sanity of the supposedly “crazy” leaders of Syria, Iran and North Korea – and their alleged accomplices in Russia and China.

But Friedman operates on a plane of impunity that the rest of us mortals can only dream about. Apparently once you have achieved his punditry status, you never have to say you’re sorry or acknowledge countervailing facts. All you have to do is say that everybody else is crazy.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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31 comments on “The Madness of NYT’s Tom Friedman

  1. Mr. Lexus and the Olive Tree married into big money. That alone evidently gains one entree as a scribe for the powerful…

  2. News Nag on said:

    Okay, I’m Jewish. I’m not a Zionist. I’m not pro-terrorist. I’m a human being who wants fairness and justice in this world for everyone. So when I say Jewish this and Jewish that, I’m addressing only the aspect of Jewishness that helps explain why Thomas Friedman is, has been, and will be the most influential New York Times columnist. Now then, ahem, I believe that Tom Friedman is the Jewish cipher, stand-in, and Golem for the New York Times’ Jewish ownership in a large Jewish population city in a country whose spiritual mythology superstitiously embraces the Jewish religion as kind of the kernel within the nutshell of Christianity while shrewdly utilizing Jewish Israel as its biggest most strategic military base in the most strategic oil- and gas- producing region in a world that runs on oil and gas. New York is Tom’s town! And you’ll notice I haven’t otherwise mentioned bankers!

  3. Great analysis. Too bad this article didn’t make it to the NYT’s editorial page. You need more “air time”.

    • Seedee Vee on said:

      Hi Ann,

      Much as I like to hear differing opinions — the “as often right as he is wrong” standard is pretty bad.

      Should one of the world’s most (least) respected newspapers be running opinions from someone who is “wrong” half of the time? If you think the NYTimes is just there to propagandize, then yes. If they are there to inform and educate, then no.

  4. Ann Willis Scott on said:

    I don’t have to like Thomas Friedman and neither do you. What we do have to admire, though, is an op-ed policy in the New York Times that encourages diverse opinions, educated guesses and tight writing. Thomas Friedman is hyper active, witty, cranky and as often right as he is wrong. Thank God for opinions that still get “set” in type. I can stand just so many talking heads on the telly.

    • Steve Salman on said:

      Have to agree with Ann Wiliis Scott comments. Friedman often off the mark politically, but on the other hand, who else has done such a good job of helping us to understand globalization and other trends of our times? His columns often make a person THINK, which is not a bad thing by any means. He also has an understanding of what global warming and our misuse of the environment is doing to the future of our planet–see for example his recent columns promoting a carbon tax (printed in my local newspaper 3/19) or opposing the Keystone XL pipeline (printed 3/12). Unlike so many other mainstream/right wing pundits (Krauthammer, Milbank, Will, Samuelson, et.al.), Mr. Friedman often imparts some REAL information.

  5. incontinent reader on said:

    Bob, how refreshing finally to read an article that deflates this pontificating gasbag who usually gets it wrong. You’re in good company with two other respected journalists, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, who have also made mincemeat of Friedman and his commentary.

  6. Paul G. on said:

    Excellent interweaving of a critique of Friedman with that of US foreign, particularly Mid East policy. To paraphrase Mad Magazine’s approach, Cheer up Tommy your can always serve as a bad example. Noting his biography, he is absolutely in love with Israel. Might he be a mouthpiece for Netanyahu.

    Another thing, for someone who is so fond of war he never served in the military. His mother would be in a more honorable position from this point of view, she served in the Navy in WWII. Like most of these neo-cons he is a “chicken hawk”. I don’t understand how these people can look in a mirror in the morning; I suppose that is the advantage of profound arrogance and self-importance.

  7. When I read your work Bob it really makes it obvious how much we NEED real journalism again. What we now have is a joke and sadly, without an informed citizenry we cannot even pretend to be a democracy.
    Interestingly, a Plutocracy needs its citizens to be ignorant and tends to control the media/message….Hmmmmmmm

  8. Rebecca Casstevens on said:

    thanks for your critical piece on friedman’s hawkism. one of my biggest gripes about him has been his assessment of the real estate bust/credit seizure which finally hit in the fall of 2008 — he declined to recognize the bankers’ singular horrific guilt; instead he tried spreading the responsibility around to include the average americans who were duped into mortgage fine-print doomed deals.

  9. joshua on said:

    And now Friedman has turned his fatuous talents to selling online learning, perpetuating the myth that education leads to earning power and jobs (instead of huge numbers of unemployed PhDs). I suspect that there’s a conflict of interest here, involving his billionaire wife’s investments, but such ethical transgressions, as Parry notes, mean little to the Times. Indeed, in a just world Friedman would be in prison for war crimes, no doubt torturing other prisoners with his bombastic stupidity.

  10. Winston Smith on said:

    He also counts as a war criminal.

    PROPAGANDA DESIGNED TO SUPPORT OR OBTAIN A WAR OF AGGRESSION.

    It’s the Julius Streicher and Die Sturmer case – it was held its propaganda incited a War of Aggression.

  11. rosemerry on said:

    I am surprised nobody mentioned Belen Fernandez’s marvellous book on Friedman. How she could read and analyse all his articles amazes me, but the book is great.

    As for surprise at his NYT star status, I find it typical of the warped news in the “paper of record”, though there are other op-eds from time to time which do not slavishly support the Zionist/exceptionalist USA line.

  12. Otto Schiff on said:

    It is unfortunate that one always has to be either on one side or the other.
    There are other aspects to consider. The Iranian prime minister (I cant spell his name)may not be building nuclear bombs but has other bad habits.
    For example, he is a noisy holocaust denier.This does not make Friedman correc
    but there are many things to consider.t

    • Masood on said:

      Have you ever heard of freedom of speech? What is wrong if he denies holocaust? It is really amazing that you could deny the existene of God but can’t deny holocaust. By the way, the man you are referring is the President of Iran not the Prime Minister.

  13. vicarvic on said:

    Sounds like the real enemy is Islam for him.

  14. Salt Miner on said:

    Back during the height of the Iraqi civil war, I use to have this recurring dream. It was – Tommy F. was captured by insurgents while roaming around Iraq. They gave him a dual-warheap thermobaric round from an RPG-29 and told him, “here Tommy suck on this”.

    • What a truly lovely dream. Lets add Pearl/Wolfowitz/Rumsfeld/Bush/Obama, the whole of the Tel Aviv controlled Senate and Hill to our dream!

  15. No, Masood, one cannot deny the Holocaust. It is historic fact. Hitler was a bad guy. Germany is still trying to make up for it. without denying that the Holocaust took place. As for the existence of God, or Allah, many people believe in it but there is no historic proof.

    • Mahbub H on said:

      Who are the Holocaust denier ? The people who have grown insensitve towards Palestinians suffering are the real holocaust deniers. They are using holocaust to immunize Israel and its crime.
      Tom Friedman is the poster boy of the Neo Holocaust Deniers.

      • Which holocaust??? The Zionists brainwashed the world, and more specifically USrael, into spouting this “THE holocaust” nonsense for well nigh 70 years. During WWII 50 million Russians/Ukrainans were murdered by Stalin. The Americans went for wholesale killing of millions upon millions of people, starting with Japan, Korea, continuing with Vietnam/Cambodia, practically the whole of Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan and the list goes on for ever. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were murdered by Mao alone, countless millions by the black tribal warlords – usually with US help!!!
        Why should we kowtow to the Holocaust Industry, with its never ending blackmail, memorial days that are shoved down people’s throats, and the instant punishment of all who dare to question the “one and only holocaust” suffered by the Jews.
        Methinks the real world outside of the US is fed up to the back tooth with this never ending fairy tale. The constant repetition of this brainwashing achieved one unintended result. Any mention of holocaust and/or anti-Semitism, sends most of us into uncontrollable laughter.

        Alas the draconian media censorship by its the Jewish owners ensures that not one mainstream media outlet will ever print anything other than almighty lies, disinformation and Zionist propaganda. Friedman is just one of hundreds of scribblers, faithfully serving the AIPAC cause.

        Accordingly the US sheeple still hasn’t the foggiest just how they are being used and manipulated.

  16. M Henri Day on said:

    A man who never saw a war of imperialist aggression he didn’t like – at least until it turns so sour that even the home front starts to react….

    Henri

  17. S.Rhee on said:

    the holocaust denial accusation against Ahmedinejad appears to have originated with the remark referring to the holocaust as “…if it happened”, in a later interview concerning the holocaust he conceded “… let’s say it happened…”. Holocaust denial is not a position of the Iranian government, other Iranian spokespeople have not been known for doubting this historical fact. Anyhow it would seem much more contemptible for Europeans steeped in a tradition of antisemitism to deny or even doubt the holocaust, than for Iranians who have no such tradition.

  18. ghouri on said:

    We had also in Germany Friedman in Teltalk shows in 2001 who was pleadind to destroy every Muslim country and america must attack. Thank God German politicians are not so mad as the americans then he was removed from talk shows. He has created too much hatred against Muslims.
    Jews will never learn from the history. They are expert in concipacies like 9/11 who are directly responsible of 9/11 which has destroyed america economically and can,t rise.

  19. Ekbal Uddin on said:

    There is a witty, incisive and absorbing book on Thomas Friedman by Belen Fernandez, “Imperial Messenger”, sub-titled, Thomas Friedman At Work”. Matt Taibbi also has a few hilarious articles, on his blog, on Friedman that I found highly entertaining.

  20. Jef Simpson on said:

    “the larger struggle we’re in.” Interesting how closely the rhetoric of modern state propagandists like Thomas Friedman mirrors that of their Nazi counterparts

  21. Charles Everett on said:

    Of course Friedman would attack those who don’t toe the US line. He was an intern at the CIA during his college years. Once CIA, always CIA!

    The NY Times got all huffy when that cozy relationship with the Agency was exposed.

  22. “But the argument could be made that Friedman and the neocons are the people most disconnected from reality – and that the New York Times editors are behaving irresponsibly in continuing to grant Friedman some of the most prestigious space in American journalism to spout his nonsensical ravings.”

    Sorry Robert Perry, but the NYT has always acted under orders from AIPAC.
    I would not call that irresponsible, just slavishly obedient to “his masters’s voice”.