Commentary Magazine


Friedman’s Folly

Has anything sillier than this, from the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, been written recently by a serious columnist?

Is the surge in Iraq working? That is the question that General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will answer for us next month. I, alas, am not interested in their opinions. It is not because I don’t hold both men in very high regard. I do. But I’m still not interested in their opinions. I’m only interested in yours. Yes, you—the person reading this column.

This is a case study of a columnist trying to be provocative and merely coming across as pandering and foolish. The main point of Friedman’s column is that the “surge,” while it may be making progress, is insufficient. What matters, he argues, is politics. He sees, as the indispensable condition for American success, “a coalition of Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds who share our vision of a unified, multiparty, power-sharing, democratizing Iraq . . . [and who] are willing to forge a social contract that will allow them to maintain such an Iraq—without U.S. troops.”

This is another way of saying what Petraeus and Crocker (and countless others) have said repeatedly: ultimately a decent outcome in Iraq depends on a political solution, not a military one. But the American military must play a key role if political reconciliation is to have any chance of success. To argue that military success has nothing to do with political progress is absurd.

Friedman states that, since “[sectarian] fires have been set, trying to unify Iraq feels like doing carpentry on a burning house.” But to extend the analogy, what Petraeus and company are trying to do is to put out the fire and create the conditions that will allow the carpenters to complete their work. We don’t know if they’ll succeed—but we know they can’t possibly succeed so long as the fire rages.

Petraeus and Crocker have had more success than virtually anyone would have hoped for at the beginning of the year. The evidence of progress on the security side is indisputable. Clearly, we have a long way to go, and the central government in Iraq has been a major disappointment thus far. But to state that what Petraeus and Crocker have to say in September is of no interest is intellectually unserious and even dishonest. Tom Friedman may not believe that Petraeus and Crocker can alter events in Iraq—we shall see—but he will surely care what they say. And pretending that the opinion of a hairstylist in Manhattan or a high school senior in Seattle should carry more weight than the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq is risible.