Thomas Friedman: Hooked on War

Reading his “Letter From Baghdad” column in the New York Times on Sept. 5, you’d never know that Thomas Friedman has a history of enthusiasm for war. Now he laments that Iraq is bad for the United States — “everyone loves seeing us tied down here” — stuck in the “madness that is Iraq.” And he concludes that the good Americans who have been sent to Iraq will not be deserved by Iraqis “if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids.”

The column, under a Baghdad dateline, is boilerplate Friedman: sprinkled with I-am-here anecdotes and breezy geopolitical nostrums. For years now, the man widely touted as America’s most influential journalist has indicated that his patience with the war in Iraq might soon run out. But, like the media establishment he embodies, Friedman can’t bring himself to renounce a war that he helped to launch and then blessed as the incarnation of virtue.

On the last day of November 2003 — eight months after the invasion — Friedman gushed that “this war is the most important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan.” He lauded the Iraq war as “one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad.”

But the assumptions built into a Friedman column are murky outside the context of his worldview. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” Friedman wrote approvingly in one of his explaining-the-world bestsellers. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

Those words appeared in Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, but the passage first surfaced (with a few tweaks of syntax) in the New York Times Magazine on March 28, 1999, near the end of a long piece adapted from the book. Filling almost the entire cover of the magazine was a red-white-and-blue fist, with the caption “What The World Needs Now” and a smaller-type explanation: “For globalism to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is.”

The clenched graphic could be seen as the “hidden fist” that “the hidden hand of the market will never work without.” While the cover story’s patriotic fist was intended as a symbol of the globe’s need for multifaceted American power, the military facet had been unleashed just as the magazine went to press. By the time the star-spangled cover reached Sunday breakfast tables, NATO air attacks on Yugoslavia were underway; the U.S.-led bombing campaign would last for 78 straight days.

Writing columns and appearing on broadcast networks to assess the war, Tom Friedman was close to gleeful. (The man was widely viewed as a liberal, whatever that meant, and “the liberal media” provided Friedman with many platforms that often seemed to double as pedestals.) Interviewers at ABC, PBS and NPR ranged from deferential to fawning as they solicited his wisdom on the latest from Yugoslavia.

Even when he lamented the political constraints on the military options of the 19-member NATO alliance, Friedman was upbeat. “While there are many obvious downsides to war-from-15,000-feet,” he wrote after bombs had been falling for more than four weeks, “it does have one great strength — its sustainability. NATO can carry on this sort of air war for a long, long time. The Serbs need to remember that.”

So, Friedman explained, “if NATO’s only strength is that it can bomb forever, then it has to get every ounce out of that. Let’s at least have a real air war. The idea that people are still holding rock concerts in Belgrade, or going out for Sunday merry-go-round rides, while their fellow Serbs are ‘cleansing’ Kosovo, is outrageous. It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted.”

He added: “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….”

The convenience marbled through such punditry is so routine that eyebrows rarely go up. The chirpy line “Let’s at least have a real air war,” for instance, addressed American readers for whom, with rare exceptions, the “real air war” would be no more real than a media spectacle, with all the consequences falling on others very far away. As for rock concerts and merry-go-rounds, we could recall — if memory were to venture into unauthorized zones — that any number of such amusements went full throttle in the United States during the Vietnam War, and also for that matter during all subsequent U.S. wars including the one that Friedman was currently engaged in cheering on.

If the idea of civilians trying to continue with normal daily life while their government committed lethal crimes was “outrageous” enough to justify inflicting “a merciless air war” — as Friedman urged later in the same column — would someone have been justified in bombing the United States during its slaughter of countless innocents in Southeast Asia? Or during its active support for dictators and death squads in Latin America? For that matter, Friedman could hardly be unaware that for several weeks already American firepower had been maiming and killing Serb civilians, children included, with weaponry including cluster bombs. Today, Iraqi civilians keep dying from the U.S. war effort and other violence catalyzed by the occupation; meanwhile, of course, not a single concert or merry-go-round has stopped in the USA.

When righteousness moved Friedman to call for “lights out in Belgrade,” he was urging a war crime. The urban power grids and water pipes he yearned to see destroyed were essential to infants, the elderly, the frail and infirm inside places like hospitals and nursing homes. Targeting such grids and pipes would seem like barbarism to Americans if the missiles were incoming. Any ambiguity of the matter would probably be dispelled by a vow to keep bombing the country until it was set back 50 years or, if necessary, six centuries. But Friedman’s enthusiasm was similar to that of many other prominent American commentators who also greeted the bombing of Yugoslavia with something close to exhilaration.

The final paragraph of Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times on April 23, 1999, began with a punchy sentence: “Give war a chance.” It was a witticism that seemed to delight Friedman. He repeated it, in print and on national television, as the bombing of Yugoslavia continued. A tone of sadism could be discerned.

* This article is adapted from Norman Solomon’s new book Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State, which just came off the press. For more information, go to:

Norman Solomon is co-founder of and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He writes the Political Culture 2013 column. Read other articles by Norman, or visit Norman's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on September 7th, 2007 at 9:34am #

    Norman, calling Zionist/propagandist, Tom Friedman, is too kind. Accessory to Murder is much more precise.

    Here is Tommy boy beating his tom-tom for the Lobby on video.

    Tom cares about America’s dependence on Arab oil, alright.

  2. gerald spezio said on September 7th, 2007 at 9:39am #

    Norman, calling Zionist mouthpiece Tom Friedman a sadist is much too kind.
    Accessory to murder would be more precise.

    Here is Tommy boy beating his Israeli tom-tom on video.

    As you can see, Tom agonizes about America’s addiction to Arab oil and he wants to set America free of it!

  3. gerald spezio said on September 8th, 2007 at 8:43am #

    If anybody has viewed the video of Tom Friedman , Woolsey, etc; please let me know on this blog. Grazi.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 8th, 2007 at 5:31pm #

    The endless sadism of Zionists like Friedman, their ‘Christian Zionists’ allies and their neo-con friends is the greatest danger the world has ever seen. You neglected to mention that the so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kosovo was a lie. The ethnic cleansing did occur, but later, under NATO occupation and it was of Serbs, not Albanians, as was the ‘cleansing’ of over 200,000 Serbs from Krajina in the early ’90’s. That ethnic cleansing was a ‘good’ one, the victims ‘unworthy’, as it was committed by Croat fascists, friends and allies of the US, Germany, in reward for its loyalty during WW2 and The Vatican, which provided assistance during the Ustashi genocide of the ’40’s, and then helped criminals like Pavelich and Artukovich to escape. Moreover in Kosovo the terrorist gang the KLA was aided both by al Qaeda and its creator, the US Government, in close alliance. Ironic, no? Friedman et al are, in my opinion, cynical, arrogant and vicious racists. They enjoy seeing untermenschen suffer, and even make little jokes over it. They have had a field-day since that ‘holy fool’ Gorbachev surrendered, for the understandable reason that he realised the ‘fanatic mindset’ of the Reaganites included first-strike nuclear war. Unfortunately he believed ‘taking away your enemy’ would somehow rob the US of a reason for its cruelty, and aggression. He seems not to have realised, but apparently does now, that you cannot make deals with people who believe they are God’s elect, and who revel in murder and destruction.

  5. Lila Rajiva said on September 9th, 2007 at 6:37am #

    Thomas Friedman’s punditry probably did more than anyone else’s to legitimize the Iraq war. It comes off on the surface as bland and even good-natured — which is precisely why it is so dangerous and deserving of thorough deconstruction:

    Some quotes:

    [the Iraq war is] “the most important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy building project since the Marshall Plan.”

    “Nurturing is our real goal in Iraq.”

    “The U.S. and France are now at war.”

    “We need an Office of Evil…”

    And of course, the most famous:

    “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas… And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”

    Enough said.

  6. gerald spezio said on September 9th, 2007 at 9:30am #

    Lila & Mulga, please click to the referred site above showing Tom on video nodding dutifully to the Israeli propaganda. It is classic.

  7. Max Shields said on September 9th, 2007 at 1:11pm #

    What makes Friedman so dangerous is that he hides behind a faux-liberalism and is allowed a large and frequent platform without rebuttal.

    Perhaps a campaign to demand equal time, or a debate of his failed ideas should be the route those of us who have found his influence to far beyond the pale.

    I’d say Chomsky or Finkelstein, but Friedman is such a light weight that the mere hint of opposition would collapse him. He’s intellect is soft and flabby – out in round one.