Laughing and Crying with Thomas Friedman

I often laugh and cry at the absurdities of Thomas Friedman, the New York Times' arch-liberal columnist that we love to hate. Recently Tom wrote that he sometimes both laughs and cries too, as he did at an Onion satire that had Rudy Giuliani running for "president of 9/11." But Tom's anti-Rudy passion turned him serious and inspired him to actually write something really intelligent:

"Since 9/11, we've become "The United States of Fighting Terrorism." ... Our government has been exporting fear, not hope." Tom even confessed that he bears some of the blame for our plunge ever deeper into fear: "Our reaction to 9/11 -- mine included -- has knocked America completely out of balance ... We don't need another president of 9/11. We need a president for 9/12 ... who will unite us around a common purpose, not a common enemy."

Coming after a string of thoughtful environmentalist columns, this piece made me wonder if Tom had really converted to the party of common sense. So I was prepared to laugh along with him yesterday at his own satire, cleverly explaining why the Republicans resist Democrat David Obey's plan for a special tax to fund the war in Iraq: Republicans know that the tooth fairy pays for wars. She borrows the money from China and leaves it under Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's pillow. And what a big pillow it is!

I was still chuckling as I read further on that Obey doesn't really expect his tax plan to become law. He's offering it as a piece of political theater, to dramatize the point that the American people don't want to pay for this war. They want the war to end.

But my laughter turned to tears, and my hope for Tom's political soul faded, as he returned to his usual neo-liberal form. The war in Iraq is just a sideshow, he sternly reminded us. "The struggle against radical Islam is the fight of our generation. We all need to pitch in."

Tom, is this how you think we'll "get things right again" and "unite around a common purpose, not a common enemy"? Don't you see that your "struggle against radical Islam" is just as much a theatrical production as Bush's war or Obey's tax proposal? The only difference is that Obey's script can inspire a small ray of hope, just as your "president for 9/12" column did.

But when you fall back to mouthing the old platitudes of the "global war on terrorism," you are just mounting another horror show. Or perhaps it's a classic Western, where the guys in the white hats have to keep shooting until all the black hats bite the dust. Did you forget that just a week ago you told us so eloquently why these kinds of shows are really bad for us all?

(By the way Tom, since words are the only tools you have for earning a living, you ought to be careful with them. There is indeed "radical Islam," which wants to transform the roots of Islam to lead it in more progressive directions. But that's not the enemy you want us to fight. Your villain is "reactionary Islam," the kind that wants to pretend the challenges of modernity have never happened. For dramatic purposes, though, you can just call it "bad Islam." The audience will get the point. )

Friedman's vacillating words matter because he is perhaps the most widely read and (pardon me while I choke) best respected foreign policy pundit in the nation. More importantly, he's a bellwether of the (pardon me while I choke again) more liberal wing of the Democratic elite.

If a Democrat becomes president in '09, he or she will get advice from a broad spectrum of foreign policy advisors. Some will be liberal hawks, of the kind Tony Judt condemned on the same page as Friedman's "fight of our generation" warning. The hawks will urge the president to show America's toughness at every turn. The only buffer against their muscular policy will be the more "moderate" liberals of the Friedman and Judt variety.

What policies will these "moderates" urge? They'll surely continue to live by Friedman's famous motto: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas." They may just advise brandishing that fist a bit less often.

Judt illustrates the point when he argues that the hawks who cheered us on in Iraq have done untold harm because, after a miserably failed war, "United States military intervention in urgent cases will be much harder to justify and explain in future." Apparently that's a shame.

Judt's example of an "urgent case" is Kosovo in 1998, where "there was a demonstrable and immediate threat to rights and lives." The threat that upset him came from Serbs responding to the violence of U.S. - backed Albanians. Judt does not say whether there was any urgency after the Albanians took over and ethnically cleansed the Serbs, while the U.S. conveniently looked the other way.

Judt does inform us that "war should always be the last resort," though the source he cites to endorse this view is a curious one: Britain's fierce war leader, Winston Churchill, who would have made the ideal 9/11 president. Judt agrees with Churchill that there really are bad guys out there who understand only the fist. But he leaves us to grapple on our own with the question of when a case is so urgent that the U.S. should brandish that selectively-hidden fist.

With advisors like these on the left hand to balance the hawks on the right, a Democratic president is likely to be another 9/11 president, staging yet another production of the GWOT Show, talking much about common purpose but still uniting us around a common enemy, talking much about hope but still exporting fear.

There is still a glimmer of real hope, though. If Tom Friedman could see the light, even on just one day, and explain so clearly the need for a radically new direction for U.S. policy and political culture, perhaps he will see that light again, and again. Perhaps others in the liberal foreign policy elite will begin to see that light too. Tony Judt surely understands the point, even if he's not ready to fully endorse it.

That's a good enough reason to vote for the Democratic candidate for president, whomever it is. The lesser of two evils is still lesser. It's also a good enough reason to keep pressuring the Dems everywhere and every way we can to read, re-read, and ponder deeply Friedman's confession. Since 9/11 he, and all of them, have been following Bush and Cheney down the road of fear and despair. Republicans are incapable of taking the other road. Perhaps Democrats can at least catch a glimpse of it.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

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