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Tom Friedman as Midwife

This piece appeared at Jacobin magazine.

In the aftermath of Pulitzer champ Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times offering, “Syria Is Iraq,” commentators have begun to question whether Friedman himself has not discovered the joys of Friedman-parodying.

As Matt Taibbi remarked at Rolling Stone: “This column today is so crazy I have to think Friedman is kidding.”

To put it in Friedman-speak, this is a Friedman column on steroids, a distilled cornucopia of his signature journalistic maneuvers. In the first two paragraphs we learn:

[T]he lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America.

The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics. My gut tells me that Syria will require the same to have the same chance.

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New Left Project: Review of The Imperial Messenger

David Wearing of New Left Project has written a brilliant review of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. The following is an excerpt:

Why, in the midst of a historically severe depression caused by a crisis in the least regulated part of the private sector, is the political class of the global north prioritising an assault on the free-market bogeyman of “big government”? Why, after a decade of military disasters in Western Asia, are so many prominent voices advocating a military response to the non-existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iran? One answer is that the material interests of class and state power are reinforced by an intellectual culture which advocates policies that serve those interests, irrespective of “externalities” such as the costs to the non-powerful. Power and wealth use the louder voice they can afford to drown out dissent and hardwire a set of assumptions, a conventional wisdom, a conceptual framework into the political discourse, which will tend to produce the same answers irrespective of the question, or the facts. It follows then, for those of us who choose to challenge power, that undermining, critiquing and disrupting that conventional wisdom is a vital task – a prerequisite to persuading the general public that another world is possible.

Few single voices play a greater role in propagating the dogmas of neoliberalism than Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and leading columnist on international affairs for the world’s leading English-language newspaper, the New York Times. In his articles and books, Friedman articulates a world view firmly grounded in the core assumptions of the dominant ideology. Corporate-dominated capitalism is seen as a progressive force for the general good, Western civilisation is taken to be obviously superior, and Western military power is viewed as a benign actor, securing and extending the reach of that civilisation. What Edward Said described as the “comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas” is unavoidable. But so too, unfortunately, is their reach and significance. In engaging with Friedman’s body of work, and subjecting it to forensic critical analysis, Belén Fernández has produced a book that is sometimes entertaining, sometimes horrifying in what it exposes, always readable, always thought-provoking, and of clear political importance.

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10 of Thomas Friedman's Dumbest "Big Ideas"

The following is an excerpt from my piece for AlterNet on 10 lesser-known Friedmanian gems.

In conferring the honor of “Wanker of the Decade” on New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, blogger Duncan Black observed that “truly great wankers possess a kind of glib narcissism, the belief that everything is about them while simultaneously disavowing any responsibility for anything.” The sorry “state of the world is what it is,” Black continued, “in large part because people in positions of great power think this absurd buffoon of man is a Very Serious Person.”

Most readers are presumably familiar with the most prominent theories to have emerged from the brain of Thomas Friedman over the course of his career. To name a few here:

  1. The world is flat.
  2. Countries that have McDonald’s do not go to war with each other—except when they do, in which case it is preferable if the outcome of the conflict indicates that Serbs “wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo.”
  3. By pure coincidence, the 2011 Arab uprisings were caused by some of Friedman’s own favorite topics: Barack Obama, Google Earth, Israel, the Beijing Olympics, and Salam Fayyad. (See blogger Sarah Carr’s response, in which she notes the additional revolutionary impetus provided by the 2008 Cheese-Rolling Competition near Gloucester, England.)

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The Foibles of Thomas Friedman

The following is Max Ajl‘s review for Jadaliyya of my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work.

A researcher once carried out an informal study to try to find out whether or not people actually read the books on bestseller lists. To find out, he put envelopes in the reputedly high-selling books. In each envelope was a note saying that if those who found the envelopes were to send them to a designated address, the researcher would send them five dollars. According to the story, the response rate was zero. After readingThe Imperial MessengerBelén Fernández’s treatment of the life’s work of Thomas Friedman, one can only hope for the sake of American intellectual culture that some of the books included in that experiment were Friedman’s.

Fernández’s book, part of Verso’s Counterblasts series, in which leftist writers take on the leading lay-preachers of the right, is organized around three themes: Friedman commenting on America and the economy; Friedman commenting on the Middle East; and Friedman commenting on the Special Relationship between America and Israel. Cataloging the stumbles of a man who can barely take a step before tripping over another fact was clearly a trying task. There is something altogether manic and dulling about reading the careful pairing of one Friedman statement with another that neatly negates it, again and again.

It cannot have been thankful labor, and it is clear that Fernández set to work with great diligence: reading all of his collected columns and books since 1995, crosscollating them for topicality, and juxtaposing them for their contradictions and inconsistencies.

The results, as befit the crown prince of American nincompoop commentators, are ridiculous. One week will see Friedman calling for US aggression against Iraq so as to “create a free, open, and progressive model in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world to promote the ideas of tolerance, pluralism, and democratization.” The previous week would have seen him announcing that “we can invade Iraq once a week and it’s not going to unleash democracy in the Arab world,” while a third reflection has him describing the invasion as “the most important task worth doing and worth debating,” even though it “would be a huge, long, costly task—if it is doable at all, and I am not embarrassed to say that I don’t know if it is.” This tangled skein and dozens like it that Fernández extracts from Friedman’s nearly endless production attest to a mind that displays total indifference to the consistency of the thoughts and words it commits to paper.

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Deconstructing Thomas Friedman: Book review by IPS

From yesterday’s review of my book by Sandra Siagian for Inter Press Service:

NEW YORK, Dec 6, 2011 (IPS) – A new book on the influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman sets out to debunk his hawkish, neoliberal views, accusing him of overt racism, factual errors and skewed judgments on issues ranging from the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Deconstructing one of the country’s highest-paid journalists, Belen Fernandez’s “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work” presents a comprehensive overview of the man – and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner – she describes as “characterised by a reduction of complex international phenomena to simplistic rhetoric and theorems that rarely withstand the test of reality”.

Fernandez, 29, admits that prior to 2009 she wasn’t too familiar with the work of the foreign affairs columnist. It wasn’t until that summer she decided to analyse Friedman’s work after reading “a sequence of ridiculous articles”.

Finding it difficult to “cram all of that incompetence into a concise book”, Fernandez divided the content into three issues that “most enraged” her, analysing his work along with a brief examination of the shortcomings of the U.S. media.

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Doug Henwood interview: The Imperial Messenger

I was recently interviewed about my new anti-Thomas Friedman book by the great Doug Henwood for his program “Behind the News”. The show aired this morning on Berkeley’s KPFA 94.1.

The first guest was Michael Dorsey, professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth, who was speaking from the annual climate summit currently underway in Durban, South Africa.

My part begins at minute 27.10 with a wonderfully relevant introductory song.

Henwood has also included the recording of Friedman’s infamous “Suck. On. This” performance on Charlie Rose on behalf of the Iraq war effort. Remarks Henwood in response: “It’s like junior high school, only with automatic weapons and high explosives”.

Listen to the interview at the Left Business Observer or click below:

Thomas Friedman’s Confusions

The London Review of Books blog has just published my very short piece on Thomas Friedman’s Iraq war crimes, which begins:

In his most recent book, Thomas Friedman – New York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner, presidential adviser – says of the Iraq War that he has ‘nothing but regret for the excessive price that America and Iraq have had to pay in lives and treasure’. The body count seems to be less cause for concern, however, than the fact that China, which has not been distracted from domestic infrastructure projects by pricey wars abroad, can now build a convention centre in approximately the same time it takes for the Washington Metro crew to repair two escalators in Friedman’s local subway station (the book is called That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back). Still, he’s come a long way since May 2003, when he said that the US military had to go ‘house to house from Basra to Baghdad’, wielding ‘a very big stick’ and instructing Iraqis to ‘Suck On This’.

Click here to read the rest of the piece at the LRB blog.