Part I – Thomas Friedman’s Frustrations
In a piece entitled “A Festival of Lies” published in the New York Times on the 25th of March, editorialist Thomas Friedman expressed his frustration with American foreign policy in the Middle East. “It’s time to rethink everything we are doing out there” he proclaimed. To be sure he is not the only one frustrated by this situation, but in Friedman’s case it is best to ask just what it is he finds disconcerting about U.S. behavior?
Actually, he doesn’t formulate a list of his own, but instead latches on to one put together by the historian Victor Davis Hanson (a military historian whose specialty is ancient warfare) and published in the National Review. This is neither here nor there because Friedman tells us that Hanson is correct in all his particulars. So here are some examples of what Friedman via Hanson find frustrating about U.S. policy in the region:
1. Giving all that military assistance (when we really should be helping the Arabs build schools)
2. Mounting punitive attacks (but then letting the results fade away because we “fail to follow through”)
3. “Keeping clear of maniacal regimes” (which then allows these regimes to either acquire nuclear capabilities, commit genocide, or create “16 acres of rubble in Manhattan”)
4. Propping up dictators (which is “odious and counterproductive”)
Friedman notes the obvious: 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 speciality is the development of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. So what do I find frustrating about Friedman’s frustrations?
Part II – Frustrating Frustrations
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 Christian 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 perhaps when that same president (darling of all neo-cons) attacked the home of Muammar Gaddafi in 1986, killing the man’s adopted baby daughter and setting in motion a chain of events that allegedly led two years later to the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie Scotland, he should have immediately followed through with a full scale invasion of Lybia.
– Or when George Bush Sr. chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 he should of 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 all of 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.
4. 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.
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?
Part III – 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 they are a bunch of Jewish fundamentalist fanatics who are putting their (alleged) democracy in danger with all that settlement building on the West Bank. Before you can tell the Israelis that, you will have to 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.
Part IV – Conclusion
Friedman ends by lamenting that the U.S. government has chosen to tell the easy lie that all is OK to the Middle Eastern regimes it supports rather than tell them the hard truth. However, he has it wrong. Sure we haven’t gone around telling the corrupt, dictatorial, fanatical leaders of those regimes [deleted] 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 us 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.