Thomas Friedman, Iraq war booster

The New York Times columnist broke down what the Iraq was really about for Charlie Rose on May 29, 2003.

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So that’s what that was all about?

At the end of May 2003, America was on the verge of one of its longest-running, most expensive wars in Iraq. Yet Iraq war boosters were feeling vindicated by the swift march on Baghdad, which had fallen within weeks, and the swift collapse of the regime.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a fan of the Iraq war, appeared on Charlie Rose to crow about this rousing success on May 29 2003. The brief clip below from that interview (the full interview can be found here) is a fascinating glimpse into the id of Washington insiders like Friedman before the invasion in March of that year and for the first few months, at least, of what was to prove a long occupation.

He appears to still think it was the right choice. He wrote last June, in a column on Syria, that: “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” and “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.”

I don’t ever remember a time in my five years in Iraq where the US was generally seen as a trusted “midwife” by a majority, or even a large minority, of people. Whether or not Iraq might have a found a better, less bloody way out from the shadow of Saddam Hussein without an invasion and occupation, is now something forever unknowable.

(I just made the below transcript from the above clip. I’ve omitted most “uhms” and the like, and may have made one or two errors since the audio is a bit compromised):

Rose: “Now that the war is over and there’s some difficulty with the peace, was it worth doing?”

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Friedman: “I think it was unquestionably worth doing Charlie, and I think that looking back that I now certainly feel I understand what the war was about and it’s interesting to talk about it here in silicon valley because I think looking back at the 1990s I can identify there are actually three bubbles of the 1990s, there was the Nasdaq bubble, there was the corporate governance bubble, and lastly there was what I would call the terrorism bubble, and the first two were based on creative accounting and the last two were based on moral creative accounting. The terrorism bubble that built up over the 1990s said flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, that’s Ok. Wrapping yourself with dynamite and blowing up Israelis in the pizza parlour, that’s Ok. Because we’re weak and they’re strong and the weak have a different morality. Having your preachers say that’s Ok? That’s Ok. Having your charities raise money for people who do these kinds of things? That’s Ok. And having your press call people who do these kind of things martyrs? That’s Ok. And that build up as a bubble, Charlie. And 9/11 to me was the peak of that bubble. And  what we learned on 9/11 in a gut way was that bubble was a fundamental threat to our society because there is no wall high enough no INS agent smart enough no metal detector efficient enough to protect an open society from people motivated by that bubble. And what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically uhm, and, uh, uhm take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it because part of that bubble said ‘we’ve got you’ this bubble is actually going to level the balance of power between us and you because we don’t care about life, we’re ready to sacrifice and all you care about is your stock options and your hummers. And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad uhm, and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t  you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. We could have hit Pakistan,  We hit Iraq, because we could. And that’s the real truth. “

What’s maybe most interesting about this bizarre set of views was that they were so commonplace back then. Al Qaeda has hit the United States, so we must hit back at them. Not just at Al Qaeda, or the people who might have directly assisted them, but a much bigger “them:” A whole civilization who had started to loom in the sight of people like Thomas Friedman as an existential threat to America.

Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. The Iraqi people had had nothing to do with 9/11. Were there people there who were delighted to see the US get a bloody nose from Osama bin Laden? Yes. The previous decade had seen a US-backed sanctions effort targeting Saddam Hussein that crippled the country. Never mind that Saddam brought that upon his people with the invasion of Kuwait. Average people were the ones who suffered the most. In 1999 UNICEF estimated that the mortality rate for children under the age of five had doubled in central and southern Iraq since sanctions were imposed, from 56 dead children per 1,000 between 1984-1989 to 131 per 1,000 between 1994-1999.

I don’t begrudge them their anger, not least because they weren’t doing anything to harm people here in the US. I never understood the terror that seemed to grip so many Americans after 9/11, perhaps because by that point I’d covered small wars and grasping poverty we haven’t seen the likes of in the US for generations across Southeast Asia. A few years prior, I covered the independence of East Timor. The murder of Monitor stringer Sander Thoenes there was what led me to getting picked up by the paper — and he was just one of over 100,000 excess deaths in the tiny country during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation. For comparison, that was one in seven people in East Timor. One in seven Americans dying as the result of war and occupation would be 44 million people.

I had schoolmates who died in the towers, one dear friend who departed from the heights of Tower Two just minutes before it would have been too late, and who struggled with survivor’s guilt about the colleagues who stayed at their desks, for years after (most reckoned the plane that had crashed into the first tower was an accident, not a terrorist attack). It effected me, as it effected almost all Americans.

But it didn’t seem that hard to keep some perspective. And having lived in Muslim majority Indonesia since 1993 and spending the years after 9/11 covering Al Qaeda and aligned militant groups in the region, I’d learned enough to know that a war that could be painted as against Muslims in general would suit Al Qaeda right down to the ground – such a reaction is what they wanted, since they reckoned that would yield them a bonanza of new recruits.

Mr. Friedman has gone from strength to strength in the years since, with handsome speakers fees for him to explain his theories about how the world is changing and evolving. But that brief clip above shows a man whose analysis is easily swayed by emotion, by sentiment.

“What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this” is not the sort of comment that comes from dispassionate, reasoned analysis. It comes from fear.

We learned in a “gut way (that) bubble was a fundamental threat to our society?” That’s not really learning. As horrible as that attack on us was, there was no fundamental threat to our society. We have done a good job in the years since increasing security (to the point that, in some views, we have actually threatened our own open society ourselves) and preventing any further major attacks on our soil. Did the invasion of Iraq and taking out “a very big stick” accomplish that? No.

Finally, even the notion of a “terrorism bubble” in the 1990s was a bit of a myth. The decade that the 9/11 attacks began so horrifically was among the safest ones when terrorism in the skies is considered ever (since supplanted by the last decade). There were 469 fatalities for passengers, crews and passengers for commercial fliers in the 2000s, 256 of those on 9/11. In the 1990s, there were just under 400 fatalities. In the 1980s, there were about 1,400 and in the 1970s, there were just over 800 killed. When total number of commercial flights are included to make apples to apples comparisons, the most dangerous decade was the 1930s, with 616 fatalities per billion passenger flights. The 2000s had 22 per billion flights taken.

If there has been a “terrorism” bubble it appeared to have burst around 1991judging by this graph at the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland with funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Terrorism, though, surged again after 2003, largely with a rise in terrorist incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq associated with the wars being fought in those lands.

At this time of looking back, let’s try to remember the track records and quality of argument presented by people whose views and advice are sought before the wars of our future.

Outsource Thomas Friedman’s column to India

At one point, Thomas Friedman pauses briefly but significantly in The World is Flat, his gushing endorsement for how technology is moving all kinds of American jobs to places like India. He chuckles, a little nervously. “Thank goodness I’m a journalist and not an accountant or a radiologist,” he writes. “There will be no outsourcing for me. . .”

But why not?
* Friedman has failed abysmally as a foreign affairs commentator.
* Accomplished columnists in India who are writing eloquently in English right now could replace him by tomorrow morning.

The New York Times is presumably paying Friedman for his knowledge and experience, but he has been wrong too often and for too long. He is supposedly an expert on the Middle East, but his analysis of the American invasion of Iraq and the calamitous, violent decade since then has been chronically misleading and worthless. Before the 2003 U.S. attack, while the genuine experts counseled diplomacy and caution, he told Americans: “My motto is very simple: give war a chance.” A few months after the invasion, he said that it “was unquestionably worth doing.” Some of his most offensive comments have been immortalized on Youtube, during an outburst in which he used a crude sexual metaphor that insulted people in the Middle East as part of an embarrassing rant that ended: “We hit Iraq because we could. And that’s the real truth.”

Let us set aside the immorality of cheerleading for a war in which nearly 4500 Americans and at least 160,000 (and possibly more) Iraqis have already died. Friedman failed to do his job – which was to accurately explain a far-off, foreign reality to his readers so that they could make informed choices. Among those he let down were: the U.S. voting public; business executives who may have been considering whether to invest in the Mideast; and, quite possibly even young people deciding if they should join the American army.

Friedman is fond of emphasizing that globalization is producing a competitive new world, which has no tolerance for inefficiency. If he worked for one of the big corporations that he likes to glorify, his blunders would have gotten him fired before the Iraq war had dragged into even its second year.

Fortunately, The New York Times would not suffer by losing him. There are newspaper columnists in India who could step right in immediately.

Palagummi Sainath, based in Mumbai, is the rural affairs correspondent for the English-language The Hindu. Sainath, who is one of India’s best known and respected reporters, is an elegant man in his late 50s, with a shock of gray hair. He has spent decades traveling through rural India, giving voice to the poor majority who have been left behind by the economic boom (which Friedman celebrates at every opportunity). Sainath spent part of 2012 in the United States, where he also wrote original columns about America. (His work is readily available on The Hindu’s website.) In today’s flat world, all he needs is his computer terminal, and his columns could be in the hands of his New York Times editors in nanoseconds.

Praful Bidwai, of New Delhi. Bidwai is a bearded bear of a man in his 60s, a tenacious, independent thinker. He spent years at the Times of India, but at present he freelances; thanks to the miracle of globalization, some of his work is instantly accessible at He writes about a broad range of subjects, including his regular indictments of India for developing nuclear weapons. By criticizing New Delhi’s atomic arsenal, he has shown the courage that a great newspaper columnist must have by speaking out about a subject on which the majority of India probably disagrees with him.

Arundhati Roy, of New Delhi. Americans who only know Roy through her remarkable novel The God of Small Things will be delighted to learn that she uses her mastery of the English language in outspoken essays on world politics, human rights, and war and peace. Some of her most effective articles denounced the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in the state of Gujarat, during which the state’s chief elected official stood by in complicit silence as mobs of Hindu extremists murdered 2000 people. (That official, Narendra Modi, is a strong candidate for India’s prime minister in this spring’s’s elections. Friedman’s 635-page-long The World is Flat is full of rejoicing about India’s high-tech industry, but he does not mention Modi and the mass killings once.)

This list of potential replacements for Friedman is only a beginning. Harsh Mander concentrates on hunger in India, which persists despite the much trumpeted economic miracle. Shubhranshu Choudhary spent seven years courageously reporting on the Maoist insurgency in east-central India, an uprising triggered partly by mining companies stealing land from the rural poor.

By replacing Friedman with one of these highly-qualified Indian candidates, The New York Times would not only improve its accuracy. The newspaper could also save money, which Friedman would agree is surely part of its responsibility to its shareholders. Back in 2005, he may have unwittingly composed his own pink slip.

“When the world is flat,” he wrote, “your company both can and must take advantage of the best producers at the lowest prices anywhere they can be found.”