Official Washington treats New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman as an oracle on the Middle East, but his commentary is often pedestrian and wrongheaded, as it was disastrously on the Iraq War. But Friedman has now proclaimed what must be done to reverse U.S. failures in Muslim countries, Lawrence Davidson writes.
By Lawrence Davidson
In a March 25 article entitled “A Festival of Lies,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman expressed his frustration with American foreign policy toward Muslim countries in the Middle East. “It’s time to rethink everything we are doing out there,” he proclaimed.
To be sure, Friedman is not the only one frustrated by this situation, but in Friedman’s case it is best to ask just what is it that he finds disconcerting about U.S. behavior?
Actually, Friedman doesn’t formulate a list of his own, but instead latches on to one published in the National Review by historian Victor Davis Hanson (whose specialty is ancient warfare). Friedman tells us that Hanson is correct in all his particulars. So here is what Friedman via Hanson find frustrating about “the various American policy options” toward Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past few decades:
Hanson wrote, “Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.”
Friedman then notes the obvious – that these sort of “policy options” cannot change the Middle East for the better. According to both him and Hanson the region is a perpetual “mix of tribalism, Shiite-Sunni Sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil – oil that constantly tempts us to intervene or to prop up dictators.”
All this might make sense to some readers of the NYT, but it seems superficial and confused to me. And after all I am an historian too. My specialty is the development of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. So what do I find frustrating about Friedman’s frustrations?
To reduce the Middle East to tribalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil is just stereotyping and inappropriate reductionism. You might as well reduce the U.S. to Christian fundamentalism, tea-party fanaticism, south-west-east sectional animosity and gas-guzzling pick- up trucks. Are they there? Yes. Are they the sum total of the U.S.A.? No. It is the same for the Middle East.
It is certainly a very good idea to stop giving so many of the region’s armies American weapons and training (and so stop “propping up” the dictators), but before you go using the savings to build “community colleges across Egypt” as Friedman suggests, you better consider that Egypt and many other nations in the region are awash in college graduates who cannot find employment.
The economies of the Middle East suffer from structural problems, part of which have to do with their ties to a Western-controlled world economy.
I can only imagine what Hanson and Friedman mean by “punitive interference without follow-up” being bad policy. Maybe they mean that when Ronald Reagan put troops in Lebanon in 1982 in support of the minority Maronite Christians’ attempt to subvert the country’s constitution there should have been sufficient military follow-up to decimate their rivals, the majority Lebanese Shiites. Keep in mind that a similar follow-up in Iraq in 2003 killed up to a million people.
Or when George H.W. Bush chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 he should have followed-up with an invasion of the country then and there instead of following through with draconian sanctions that eventually helped kill up to a million Iraqi poor children.
Supposedly these “follow-ups” represent policy options that would have resulted in a better, happier and more American-friendly Middle East. This sounds doubtful to me.
And what about the supposed mistake of “staying clear of maniacal regimes” which, in turn, allows for “nuclear acquisition or genocide – or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.” What the heck does this mean? It was not a “maniacal regime” that launched the 9/11 attacks; the U.S. did not stay clear of the “maniacal regime” of Saddam Hussein but instead sold it the poison gas used against the Kurds; and the Iranians (who are arguably less “maniacal” than the Israelis) have no nuclear weapons program.
As for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem, Friedman only laments that “we silently watch our ally Israel build more settlements in the West Bank that we know are a disaster for its Jewish democracy.”
What all this points out is that Thomas Friedman, one of the most widely read editorial writers in the country, is confused and unreliable when it comes to the Middle East. And, his relying on a conservative military historian venting in the National Review does nothing to sharpen his perception.
What is worse is that none of this prevents Friedman from telling us that the U.S. government, which he has just accused of utter failure for decades, now has the responsibility to tell the people of the Middle East some “hard truths.” And what might they be?
Friedman’s ‘Hard Truths’
1. Tell the Afghans that the Karzai government is corrupt and will be abandoned by most of its troops as soon as we stop paying them. Alas, the Afghans already know this. What Friedman actually should be suggesting is that the U.S. government tell the U.S. people this hard truth.
2. Tell the Pakistanis that they are “two-faced” and the only reason that their military is not “totally against us” is because, again, we pay them. Alas, the Pakistanis know this. What Friedman actually should be suggesting is that the U.S. government tell the U.S. people this hard truth.
3. Tell the Saudis that they are a bunch of Wahhabi religious fanatics and dictators and that we don’t want their oil. But wait, It is not the U.S. that should be telling the Saudis this. It should be the European and Japanese governments because they are the ones who buy Saudi oil. We get most of ours from Mexico and Canada.
4. Tell the Israelis that the expansion of settlements in the Palestinian West Bank will put their (alleged) democracy in danger. But he adds that “we don’t tell Israel the truth because it has votes.” In other words, you must first tell the U.S. Congress to forego the largess of certain special interests, or even better, tell the American people that they must change the lobby-based nature of their government.
Friedman ends by lamenting that the U.S. government has chosen to tell the easy lie, that all is okay, to the Middle Eastern regimes it supports rather than tell them the hard truth. However, he has it wrong.
Sure, the United States hasn’t gone around telling the corrupt, dictatorial, fanatical leaders of those regimes that they have made a mess of the place – largely because we helped them do it. The people of the Middle East know this. It is the people of the U.S. who do not. We have not been lying to the people of the Middle East so much as to ourselves.
And it appears that Thomas Friedman also doesn’t know these hard truths. Hence his contradictory conclusion: “we must stop wanting good government [for them] more than they do, looking the other way at bad behavior.”
It is a contradiction to say that you want good government for this region while simultaneously turning a blind eye to bad governmental behavior that you yourself have underwritten. But the contradiction is there only in Friedman’s version of history. In truth the U.S. has not and does not give a damn for either good government or good behavior in the Middle East. What it cares about are governments that cooperate with the United States in terms of trade, acceptance of Israel and now hostility toward Iran.
One has to wonder about Thomas Friedman. He seems to have periodic problems thinking straight. But in an oblique fashion he is on to something. There are lies aplenty when it comes to U.S. actions in the Middle East. However, they are not lies we tell to others but rather to ourselves. And from that, nothing good can come.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.