The Tom Friedman disease consumes Establishment Washington
Someone e-mailed me several days ago to say that while it is fruitful and necessary to chronicle the dishonest historical record of pundits and political figures when it comes to Iraq, I deserve to be chastised for failing to devote enough attention to the person who, by far, was most responsible for selling the war to centrists and liberal "hawks" and thereby creating "consensus" support for Bush's war -- Tom Friedman, from his New York Times perch as "the nation's preeminent centrist foreign policy genius."
That criticism immediately struck me as valid, and so I spent the day yesterday and today reading every Tom Friedman column beginning in mid-2002 through the present regarding Iraq. That body of work is extraordinary. Friedman is truly one of the most frivolous, dishonest, and morally bankrupt public intellectuals burdening this country. Yet he is, of course, still today, one of the most universally revered figures around, despite -- amazingly enough, I think it's more accurate to say "because of" -- his advocacy of the invasion of Iraq, likely the greatest strategic foreign policy disaster in America's history.
This matters so much not simply in order to expose Friedman's intellectual and moral emptiness, though that is a goal worthy and important in its own right. Way beyond that, the specific strain of intellectual bankruptcy that drove Friedman's strident support for the invasion of Iraq continues to be what drives not only Tom Friedman today, but virtually all of our elite opinion-makers and "centrist" and "responsible" political figures currently attempting to "solve" the Iraq disaster.
In column after column prior to the war, Friedman argued that invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam was a noble, moral, and wise course of action. To Friedman, that was something we absolutely ought to do, and as a result, he repeatedly used his column to justify the invasion and railed against anti-war arguments voiced by those whom he derisively called "knee-jerk liberals and pacifists" (so as not to clutter this post with long Friedman quotes, I'm posting the relevant Friedman excerpts here).
But at the same time Friedman was cheering on the invasion, he was inserting one alarmist caveat after the next about how dangerous a course this might be and about all the problems that might be unleashed by it. He thus repeatedly emphasized the need to wage the War what he called "the right way." To Friedman, the "right way" meant enlisting support from allies across Europe and the Middle East for both the war and the subsequent re-building, telling Americans the real reasons for the war, and ensuring that Americans understood what a vast and long-term commitment we were undertaking as a result of the need to re-build that country.
Only if the Bush administration did those things, argued Friedman, would this war achieve good results. If it did not do those things, he repeatedly warned, this war would be an unparalleled disaster.
Needless to say, the Bush administration did none of the things Friedman insisted were prerequisites for invading Iraq "the right way." And Friedman recognized that fact, and repeatedly pointed it out. Over and over, in the months before the war, Friedman would praise the idea of the war and actively push for the invasion, but then insert into his columns statements like this:
And so I am terribly worried that Mr. Bush has told us the right thing to do, but won't be able to do it right.
But: Despite the Bush administration's failures to take any of the steps necessary to wage the war "the right way," Friedman never once rescinded or even diluted his support for the war. He continued to advocate the invasion and support the administration's push for war -- at one point, in February, even calling for the anti-war French to be removed from the U.N. Security Council and replaced by India, and at another point warning that we must be wary of Saddam's last-ditch attempt to negotiate an alternative to war lest we be tricked into not invading -- even though Friedman knew and said that all the things that needed to be done to avert disaster were not being done by the administration.
Put another way, these are the premises which Friedman, prior to the invasion, expressly embraced:
(1) If the war is done the right way, great benefits can be achieved.
(2) If the war is done the wrong way, unimaginable disasters will result.
(3) The Bush administration is doing this war the wrong way, not the right way, on every level.
(4) Given all of that, I support the waging of this war.
Just ponder that: Tom Friedman supported the invasion of Iraq even though, by his own reasoning, that war was being done the "wrong way" and would thus -- also by his own reasoning -- create nothing but untold damage on every level. And he did so all because there was some imaginary, hypothetical, fantasy way of doing the war that Friedman thought was good, but that he knew isn't what we would get.
To support a war that you know is going to be executed in a destructive manner is as morally monstrous as it gets. The fact that there is some idealized, Platonic way to fight the war doesn't make that any better if you know that that isn't what is going to happen. We learn in adolescence that wanting things that we can't have -- pining for things that aren't real or possible -- is futile and irrational. To apply that adolescent fantasy world to war advocacy is the hallmark of a deeply frivolous and amoral person.
And it is exactly that sickness that is still -- almost four years later -- the most pervasive syndrome when it comes to our war debates. Greg Sargent and Atrios, among others, have been documenting one instance after the next of serious, sober political "leaders" who (a) recognize that our current course is a failure, (b) acknowledge that no real alternative exists, but nonetheless (c) lack the courage and integrity to advocate withdrawal. John McCain is the worst and most glaring example, as he expressly argues:
(1) It is immoral to stay in Iraq if we don't send in more troops.
(2) We are not going to send in more troops.
(3) I oppose withdrawal and think we should stay in Iraq.
Friedman himself continues to play the same repugnant game, arguing: (1) If we don't do X, we should not stay in Iraq; (2) X is impossible or unrealistic; (3) I do not advocate withdrawal. David Frum has made the same argument -- we will lose in Iraq and create far worse damage if we don't send more troops, which we don't do; nonetheless, we must remain in Iraq.
The reason for this is as transparent as it is despicable -- "withdrawal" is a prohibited belief in Establishment Washington. You can pretty much advocate any course of action other than that. Why is the Baker Commission filled with people who supported this invasion in the first place? Shouldn't it be dominated by -- or, at the very least, be substantially composed of -- people who opposed the war from the beginning, i.e., the people who demonstrated foresight and wisdom and judgment?
Establishment Washington is concerned right now with only one thing - saving their own credibility and reputation. The reason why The Washington Post's David Ignatius said recently that Chuck Hagel was "right about Iraq and other key issues earlier than almost any national politician, Republican or Democratic" -- even though Hagel favored the invasion and many "national politicians" opposed it from the beginning -- is because the Washington Establishment still thinks that those who opposed the war from the beginning don't count, that they're still the unserious, know-nothing losers who should be ignored.
Howard Dean is still a leftist lunatic who is "soft" on national security, as are the Congressional Democrats who voted against the war resolution. Tom Friedman and John McCain and Condoleezza Rice and Charles Krauthammer are the credible, serious foreign policy geniuses.
It is not merely the case that having been pro-war doesn't count as a strike against anyone. That is accurate. But far worse, the opposite is also true. It is still the case in Establishment Washington that having been pro-war in the first place is a pre-requisite to being considered a "responsible, serious" foreign policy analyst. And having been anti-war from the start is the hallmark of someone unserious. The pro-war Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are serious national security Democrats but Russ Feingold, Nancy Pelosi and Jack Murtha are the kind of laughable losers whom Democrats need to repudiate.
Establishment Washington really is not interested in how to end this horrendous and despicable debacle we unleashed in Iraq. They are not interested in how to maximize U.S. interests. They are only interested in how to find a way to bring this disaster to some sort of slow resolution that looks as though it is a respectable and decent outcome -- anything that makes it seem like it wasn't a horrendous mistake in the first place. That is what the Baker-Hamilton Commission is about and it's what all of these Beltway analysts are doing by endorsing these premises:
(1) Things in Iraq are disastrous and our current policy there is a total failure.
(2) Our troop presence is not improving the situation; things have gotten steadily worse.
(3) There may be goals that, if theoretically met, would improve things, but those goals can't and won't be met -- either because we lack the resources or because they are just not achievable.
(4) No matter what, we absolutely cannot begin withdrawing, and those who want to do so are radical and unserious.
So what is being done now is exactly what Tom Friedman did before the war -- we continue to endorse a policy (staying in Iraq) even though we consciously know that no good can come from it and that it will produce nothing but bad results, and we justify that based on the fantasy that we could, in theory, improve things. Tom Friedman is a morally bankrupt narcissist whose only devotion is to the self-love of his own genius. He emphatically advocated the war beforehand but included every caveat possible so that, no matter what happened, he could claim to have been right, which is exactly what he has been doing.
But tragically, there is nothing unique about Tom Friedman. What drives him is the same mentality that enabled the administration's invasion of Iraq and, so much worse, it is the mentality that is keeping us there and will keep us there for the indefinite future. We stay in Iraq in pursuit of goals we know are fantasies, because to do otherwise requires the geniuses and serious establishment analysts to accept responsibility for what they have done -- and that is, by far, the most feared and despised outcome.
The invasion of Iraq was a huge mistake. But the behavior of our political and media leaders after that, and now, reveal that they are not just bereft of judgment but entirely bereft of character.
UPDATE: In comments, J makes an insightful and important point about people like Friedman who always think that their particular criticism of the administration, the war and other similar matters defines the outermost limit of what constitutes acceptable, responsible and permissible dissent. To be unserious, irresponsible, shrill, etc., means to transgress the limits definitionally established by their views.
UPDATE II: Hilzoy, via e-mail, directs my attention to this article from TAP's Harold Meyerson regarding pundit responsibility for Iraq, in which he says:
“I have to admit I’ve always been ﬁghting my own war in Iraq,” Friedman wrote in the summer of 2003. “Mr. Bush took the country into his war.” Was it too much to ask the nation’s most important foreign-policy journalist to focus on Bush’s war -- particularly because, well, it was Bush, and not Friedman, who was president?
It's amazing enough that people like Tom Friedman failed to understand that point. But what is more amazing still -- and truly both infuriating and tragic -- is that they still don't seem to be able to digest it.