Today's New York Times contains a new editorial by columnist Thomas Friedman, returning from a long leave of absence devoted to a new book project. In his first post-leave column Friedman returns to a theme on which he has expounded for much of the past two years: Iraq. On this score he cuts to the chase quickly, declaring dramatically that "we're in trouble in Iraq," that the Bush administration has "hugely mismanaged" the conflict, and that "as a result the range of decent outcomes in Iraq has been narrowed and the tools we have to bring even those about are more limited than ever." I can find very little in this assessment with which to take issue. However, as a long time reader of Mr. Friedman's column I can only wonder whether or why this state of affairs would come as a surprise to him.
In today's same column Friedman declares, "Being away has not changed my belief one iota in the importance of producing a decent outcome in Iraq, to help move the Arab-Muslim world off its steady slide toward increased authoritarianism, unemployment, overpopulation, suicidal terrorism and religious obscurantism." Again few could critique Friedman's professed goals. But one could well ask why anyone, especially someone as knowledgeable as Thomas Friedman, would ever believe that the achievement of these goals could be aided through the application of U.S. military power.
Later in the same paragraph Friedman sounds another note that will have become familiar to his readers, "...my time off has clarified for me, even more, that this Bush team can't get us there." This seems to be the consistent crux of Friedman's perspective- invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but it was unfortunately done in the wrong way by the wrong people. Reading his column one senses an implicit argument being made: in a Friedman Presidency the U.S. would have invaded Iraq, but it would have been done "correctly," so that all the bright promise tragically discarded by the Bush regime would have been redeemed.
I must confess my shock to find such a perspective coming from someone so knowledgeable about the history and culture of the Middle East. It would seem self-evident to any educated observer that Iraq is a society deeply divided along ethnic, regional, social, ideological, and sectarian lines. No one could reasonably excuse the mad excesses of Saddam Hussein's regime, but it would be equally unreasonable to deny that some part of its violence and brutality reflected the powerful centripetal forces always militating to tear Iraq apart. The notion that the U.S. could keep those forces in check after forcibly removing the lynchpin that had held Iraq together should have been a very tenuous and controversial one for any knowledgeable policy critic. Anyone who has studied the recent history of Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, the Balkans, and any number of other cases should have been intensely skeptical of the United States' ability to even hold a post-Saddam Iraqi nation together, much less to bring about significant gains in human rights, political liberalization, and other "progressive" agendas. Given what appears to me as the clarity of the message to be read in the historical record, I am deeply surprised and disturbed to see how much legitimacy Thomas Friedman has given to recent U.S. policy through his constant advocacy of even the theoretical wisdom of invading Iraq.
The case of Thomas Friedman is, I must admit, an object lesson that stands counter to my own personal philosophy and the central perspective of this weblog. My guiding principal in this forum is (and shall remain): "politics can not be conducted in the ignorance of the history and culture of foreign nations." Thomas Friedman can not, by any fair relative measure, be called ignorant of the history and culture of foreign nations. Even so, I would judge his political perspective and advice, at least with respect to Iraq, deeply flawed. The lesson? Knowledge of the history and culture of foreign nations is no guarantee of wise policy. Conceeding this fact, I would still defend the central proposition of this blog. While knowledge may not guarantee wise policy, ignorance does guarantee foolish and even destructive policy. The case of Thomas Friedman notwithstanding, I would contend that our current situation in Iraq is far more the product of ignorance of history and culture than the opposite.