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Thomas Friedman

Where in the World is Thomas Friedman?

NYT Op Ed: A Long List of Suckers

Oh Thomas Friedman, your mad lib-worthy editorials are the stuff of legend. I don’t begrudge his success, but it does bother me that the guy who is arguably the most famous Op Ed writer on the Times’ staff is a pretty lousy writer, all things considered.  He’s also like that obnoxious Facebook friend who posts things like “JFK -> LHR -> SVO -> SHA -> NRT -> SFO  -> JFK” to their walls.  We get it: you take elaborately plotted flights around the world and have a consulting job no one envies.  That doesn’t have anything to do with Friedman, but he references his travel itineraries in every piece like clockwork, just so you don’t forget how jet set he is.

Yesterday, he posted an article (from India, apparently) broadly referring to the Great Game, which is what military historians (and historical militarians) call the seemingly never-ending conquest for Afghanistan by Russia and the UK.  Now, I’ll be honest: everything I know about the Great Game I learned from Wikipedia and Flashman novels, but I nevertheless feel qualified to parse through Friedman’s armchair political sociology.  Join me?

Agra, India

Last week, I toured the great Mogul compound of Fatehpur Sikri, near the Taj Mahal.

 How interesting!  Can’t wait to read an article about this great Mogul compound!  (NB: this article has nothing to do with Fatehpur Sikri, the Taj Mahal, or India.  Friedman was jus’ sayin’.)

My Indian guide mentioned in passing that in the late 1500s, when Afghanistan was part of India and the Mogul Empire, the Iranian Persians invaded Afghanistan in an effort to “seize the towns of Herat and Kandahar” and a great battle ensued.

Did your Indian guide happen to mention in passing his name?  Like, when he introduced himself to you?  Or do you not bother to remember details like that about anyone whose name you can’t drop at an Urban Haute Bourgeoisie cocktail party?

I had to laugh to myself: “Well, add them to that long list of suckers — countries certain that controlling Afghanistan’s destiny was vital to their national security.”

I don’t doubt for a second that this is exactly what Friedman’s internal monologue looks like (the fact that he qualifies it as a laugher just makes it seem all the more authentic).  Like Friedman, I’m no expert on this area of history, but for all either of us knows, the Persians weren’t particularly focused on “controlling Afghanistan’s destiny” per se.  Nor would they have necessarily been wrong in so thinking, should they have thought that, for all we know.  This is typical Friedman: chuckling to himself about meaningless platitudes (is there any other kind?) when it’s not even certain he’s clear on the subject.

There were already plenty on that list before, and there have been even more since.

Who was on that list before?  Were they wrong to think so?  The whole folly of fighting for Iraq and Afghanistan (Friedman, unlike his British Imperialist forbears, apparently treats the two as linked) forms the crux of Friedman’s eventual argument and he doesn’t even establish whether or not every historical aspirant for control of Afghanistan was wrong to covet it.

As America now debates how to extract itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worth re-reading a little Central Asian history and recalling for how many centuries great powers — from India to Persia, from Britain to Russia, and now from America to Iran, Turkey and Pakistan — have wrestled for supremacy in this region, in different versions of what came to be called “The Great Game.”

If you had read and understood that history, you’d see that these conflicts, generally speaking, have little to do with one another.  Besides, the entire history of the world can be understood as powers wrestling for supremacy somewhere (wow, that was Friedmanesque in its generality) – why is it especially noteworthy here?  Are we repeating the mistakes of our forbears?  Are these mistakes political or militaristic?  How does the geography of Afghanistan impact conquering bids?  If you’re not even remotely interested in this stuff, why bother bringing it up?

One can only weep at the thought of how much blood and treasure have been expended in this pursuit and how utterly ungreat this game has been in retrospect.

One can only weep at the thought of people taking intellectual cues from your articles and how utterly ungreat their analysis must be.

No one ever wins for long, and all they win is a bill.

One only wins a bill?  Good thing it’s not for long!

It is with this bias that I think about the debate following President Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, on schedule, at the end of this year

So as people are debating whether or not pulling out of the region is in our long-term best interests, you’re thinking about the fact that blood has been shed in the region over the past 500+ years (this distinction can also be applied to just about EVERY SQUARE INCH OF PLANET EARTH) and that the wars fought over it have always been costly.  In other words, ignoring the unique contexts of historical and current events but tying them altogether anyway because they happen to have happened in the same region.  Got it.  It’s really too bad you’re not in the Oval Office, advising on these matters.  What would you say about funding space exploration?  “Apollo 13 was a disaster!” or “Don’t do it, Amelia Earhart and Ferdinand Magellan never came back from unrelated voyages!”

 — a decision that has been greeted with much huffing and puffing from hawkish Republicans about how Obama will be remembered for losing Iraq to Iran.

Who cares what Republicans claim to think about Obama’s decision-making?  Why even ask them?  We’d might as well ask Friedman’s Indian guide what he thinks of Friedman’s name-remembering skills.

Iraq will now fall under Iran’s “influence,” they proclaim, and none of us will ever be able to sleep well again.

Who proclaims?  Republicans?  Altogether?  Really?  Evidence?  Just kidding, evidence isn’t necessary when Friedman waxes philosophic into his laptop from his Agra, India hotel room.  It’s only the New York Freaking Times, after all.

Please put me down in the camp that thinks Obama did the right thing and that Iran’s mullahs will not be the winners.

Read: I’m going to gloat about this if I’m right.  Read: “put me down in the camp” is an absolute butchering of elegant idiomatic expression.

Why? Well, for starters, centuries of history teach us that Arabs and Persians do not play well together. Yes, Iraq has a Shiite Muslim majority and so does Iran. But Iraqi Arab Shiites willingly fought for eight years against Persian Iranian Shiites in the Iran-Iraq war.

I had to check that this wasn’t co-written by someone else, since this looks like empirical support for a claim, but it looks like Friedman was the only author.  Jinkies!  However, just for the record, please put me down in the camp of people who thinks it’s kind of weird that Friedman is apparently looking forward to a period of Iraqi/Persian conflict.

Moreover, I am certain that in recent years America’s lingering troop presence in Iraq actually gave Iran greater influence in Baghdad.

More relative to the US?  Sure, but only because it totally shot our credibility in the region.  I seriously doubt many Iraqi observers started looking to Tehran for guidance because they were sick of our presence.  Wait, let me Friedmanize that:  No Iraqis started looking to Tehran for guidance because they were sick of our presence.

The U.S., however well intentioned, became a lightning rod that absorbed a lot of Iraqis’ frustrations with their government’s underperformance, and the U.S. “occupation” drew all attention away from Iran’s shenanigans inside Iraq.

All attention.  It drew away ALL attention.

Iraqis are a proud people.

“We Iraqis are a proud race!  They must pay for their intrusion!”

Any sentence that looks like “X = a proud people” makes me sick for two reasons.  One: it’s incredibly offensive in that it presupposes that we assumed the subject in question wasn’t a “proud people.”  Two: what does that even mean, to be a “proud people?”  As opposed to a not proud people?  Not proud temporarily or as a rule?  Has there ever been a culture that flourished despite a sustained lack of pride in itself?  Even Germany and Japan got over the post-WW2 dumps.

Once our troops are gone, Iraqi Arabs will surely focus entirely on their own government’s performance and on any Iranian or other attempts to try to be the puppeteer of Iraqi politics.

SURELY.  But that’s an awful lot for members of a fledgling future-former-democracy to focus on at once – they’ll need to alternate.  Shouldn’t we be worried about Iranian agents slipping in there while the Iraqi electorate is worried about the sort of wonkish minutiae they’re no doubt excited to obsess over in their new role as free citizens of an American pseudo-suzerainty?  SURELY?

Any Iraqi leader seen as Tehran’s lackey will have problems.

Oh, I bet the Op Ed pages of the New Baghdad Times are going to really let ‘em have it!

Indeed, once we’re gone, I actually think the dominant flow of influence will be from Iraq toward Iran — if (and it is still a big if) — Iraq’s democracy holds.

Since you failed to provide any evidence to support your claim that Iran influenced Iraq, I have no idea how to evaluate the validity of this claim.

If it does, Iranians will have to look across the border every day at Iraqis, with their dozens of free newspapers and freedom to form any party and vote for any leader, and wonder why these “inferior” Iraqi Arab Shiites enjoy such freedoms and “superior” Iranian Persian Shiites do not.

But Iranians can look at democracies around the world every day and wonder why these “inferior” everyone-elses enjoy such freedoms and “superior” Iranian Persian Shiites do not.  But yeah, probably wouldn’t really foment any sort of national soul-searching until American troops get out of Iraq and their neighbors start pumping out newspapers and getting bogged down in a two-party system.

“Iran’s interests were served by the Arab status quo ante — ideologically bankrupt regimes brutalizing disenfranchised populations,” argues Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “The more representative governments there are in the Middle East, the more it highlights the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a salmon swimming upstream against the current of history.”

Friedman used his name!  Because he’s not just some dude but an expert at the Carnegie Endowment!  Maybe he should have written this editorial instead of Friedman and we might have actually learned something!

Some say Iran was the geopolitical winner of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. I’d hold off on that judgment, too.

Did you not just say that Iran benefitted immensely from the US intervention in Iraq?  Like, two paragraphs ago?  Do you even re-read the things you write, or do you just stand there by your hotel room window, speaking extemporaneously into a dictaphone while watching the sun set over some foreign land that has nothing to do with the subject matter of your piece and then send it off to some copy editor for transcription?

“The Iranian regime is at its lowest moment of influence in the region — 14 percent popularity in the latest Zogby poll,” remarked Abbas Milani, who teaches Iranian politics at Stanford. What you see today if you look underneath the Islamic revolutionary facade in Iran, added Milani, “is a flourishing of painting, films and music, driven by technology. It is a society seeking its own bottom-up blend of Islam and modernity. The regime has no role in this.”

Cool.  No idea what that has to do with your whole “America’s current involvement in the region is remniscent of historical conflicts which are sometimes known as ‘The Great Game’” thesis, but I at least appreciate the fact that I seem to learn something useful every time you quote anybody who isn’t you.

Just as I don’t buy the notion that we need to keep playing The Great Game in Iraq, I also don’t buy it for Afghanistan.

OK, this is too much to bear.  The “Great Game” referred to a series of proxy conflicts between the UK and Russia in Afghanistan.  It was a “game” between two imperial powers who were really fighting over India and, other than arguments for the difficulty of Afghanistan’s terrain, it has absolutely nothing to do with current American military involvement in the region (and the “Great Game” moniker never had anything to do with Iraq).  You have not once attempted to defend your decision to use this moniker in the article, nor have you effectively used historical conflicts in the region as a lens through which to view our current situation.  But I’m neither a professor at Stanford nor a fellow at an institute, so what do I know?

“If the U.S. steps back, it will see that it has a lot more options,” argues C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, in New Delhi. “You let the contending regional forces play out against each other and then you can then tilt the balance.” He is referring to the India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and Northern Alliance tribes in Afghanistan. “At this point, you have the opposite problem. You are sitting in the middle and are everyone’s hate-object, and everyone sees some great conspiracy in whatever you do. Once you pull out, and create the capacity to alter the balance, you will have a lot more options and influence to affect outcomes — rather than being pushed around and attacked by everyone.”

Please put C. Raja Mohan down in the camp of people who seem infinitely more qualified to be writing on this topic than Friedman.  However, I think Mohan makes “tilt[ing] the balance” seem a little bit too easy, here.  This also highlights a reason why the British got involved in Afghanistan in the first place: Russia is in India’s and Afghanistan’s geographical sphere of influence.  Just another reason why the “Great Game” motif doesn’t make ANY SENSE HERE.

America today needs much more cost-efficient ways to influence geopolitics in Asia than keeping troops there indefinitely. We need to better leverage the natural competitions in this region to our ends. There is more than one way to play The Great Game, and we need to learn it.

The ultra penultimate sentence is a strange place to introduce the concept of cost-efficiency, but whatever.  So finally, in the last paragraph, Friedman gets to his point: we’re better off leveraging the natural competitions in the region than we are maintaining a military presence.  I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case and is a claim that needs to be defended.  Perhaps the editors of the New York Times might encourage their mercurial star to open his articles with his claims and then spend the editorial defending them, as opposed to rambling and meandering through idioms, metaphors and lazy analysis until getting to a claim that is only barely supported by the preceding text.

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