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At State Dinner, Did Tom Friedman Tell Anyone to 'Suck on This'?

5 years ago
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I was reviewing the guest list for President Obama's first state dinner -- held to honor Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- and it was full of interesting picks: Ari Emanuel, Rahm Emanuel's brother and a notorious Hollywood power-agent; Gayle King, Oprah's BFF; Greg Craig, the soon-to-be-ex White House counsel; Michael Bloomberg, the barely re-elected mayor of New York City; Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor left out of Obama's Cabinet; M. Night Shyamalan, the "I see dead people" film director; moguls Spielberg, Geffen and Katzenberg; and news anchors Katie Couric and Brian Williams. Also on the list was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. And that reminded me: I am miffed at Friedman.

Friedman recently won extra media notice for an appearance on "The Charlie Rose Show," in which he dumped on the American political system, fretting that it cannot deal with the serious challenges at hand:
What worries me about America today, Charlie, is that we are producing sub-optimal solutions to all our big problems. Whether it's called health care, whether it's called financial regulation, whether it's called debt, whether it's called energy and climate . . . our system isn't working. We are paralyzed today. . . . The forces of paralysis are just weighing [Obama] down.
Friedman blamed this paralysis on the obvious factors: the pervasive influence of money in politics, cable television that "really fractures the political system and really empowers some of the loudest and most extreme voices," and the Internet's ability to spread "extremist ideas." After Rose asked what is to be done, Friedman replied, "It's all I'm thinking about now." Yet the only concrete recommendation he offered was this: "We need better citizens."

I don't disagree with this pessimistic view. Some of us have been decrying money in politics for years (or decades) before it became the ground zero of Friedman's hot, flat and crowded world. But this jeremiad about "sub-optimal solutions" seemed odd coming from a leading member of the commentariat who hailed the invasion of Iraq as a necessary demonstration of the United States' ability to invade Iraq.

During a May 2003 interview with Rose, Friedman defended the war and explained that the United States had had no other choice in dealing with the terrorism that led to 9/11:
What we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world . . . and take out a very big stick. . . . And there was only one way to do it. . . . 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, you know, we care about our open society? . . . Well, suck on this, okay?' That, Charlie is what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia [because it supported terrorists] . . . could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth.
Was this the sort of optimal decision-making that is lacking today? Friedman was essentially saying, We had to whack somebody to prove we could -- without serious regard for the actual target of the war? Reality check: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

Over the years, Friedman has had a difficult time with his position on Iraq. A month before the invasion -- when the Bush -Cheney administration was beating the WMD drum -- he wrote, "The way you get . . . compliance out of a thug like Saddam is not by tripling the [WMD] inspectors, but by tripling the threat that if he does not comply he will be faced with a U.N.-approved war." But a year later -- when there were no WMDs to be found -- Friedman claimed, "The stated reason for the war was that Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction that posed a long-term threat to America. I never bought this argument. . . . The WMD argument was hyped by George Bush and Tony Blair to try to turn a war of choice into a war of necessity." Then why had he depicted the war as a justifiable response to Saddam's dealings with WMD inspectors?

Okay, it's SOP for a pundit to reposition himself; hindsight is a columnist's friend. But for someone who was skeptical of Bush's war and who at the time called for a deliberative national discourse tethered to realistic assessments of what was known and what wasn't -- challenging columnists and cable-chatterers who were hurling hyperbolic claims to nudge the nation to war -- it's a bit galling to see a fellow who advocated a "suck-on-this" rationale now bitching about a political system that cannot maturely handle big problems and that is negatively influenced by extremist commentators. That said, I hope that Friedman had a lovely time at the dinner and that his perceptive analysis about the U.S political system was enjoyed by all his table-mates.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Filed Under: Iraq, Deep Background

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