Commentary Magazine


Topic: American foreign policy

Failed Middle East Theories? Look in the Mirror, Tom Friedman

Thomas Friedman’s rants about foreign policy on the op-ed page of the New York Times are generally predictable if not particularly insightful. But today’s installment is original in one respect. In it he references an article in the National Review by respected conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson gives a laundry list of American foreign policy failures in the Middle East and concludes that maybe America should just realize that all of the existing theories about the Arab and Muslim world are fatally flawed. Hanson is generally right, but what rings false about Friedman’s praise for the piece is that in doing so he fails to acknowledge his own support for some of those failed approaches. He also slyly tries to include one other aspect of American policy in the list of failures that was conspicuous by its absence from Hanson’s article: support for Israel.

It’s true that, as Hanson points out:

Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.

But in endorsing this sobering judgment, Friedman fails to note that he has served for the last 20 years as a faithful advocate for the foreign policy “realism” that he criticizes. Nor does he have the guts to point out that his best-selling “flat earth” theories about how economic concerns will trump those of religion and nationalism in the 21st century have been shown to be as laughably out of touch with the reality of the Middle East as any other.

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Thomas Friedman’s rants about foreign policy on the op-ed page of the New York Times are generally predictable if not particularly insightful. But today’s installment is original in one respect. In it he references an article in the National Review by respected conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson gives a laundry list of American foreign policy failures in the Middle East and concludes that maybe America should just realize that all of the existing theories about the Arab and Muslim world are fatally flawed. Hanson is generally right, but what rings false about Friedman’s praise for the piece is that in doing so he fails to acknowledge his own support for some of those failed approaches. He also slyly tries to include one other aspect of American policy in the list of failures that was conspicuous by its absence from Hanson’s article: support for Israel.

It’s true that, as Hanson points out:

Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.

But in endorsing this sobering judgment, Friedman fails to note that he has served for the last 20 years as a faithful advocate for the foreign policy “realism” that he criticizes. Nor does he have the guts to point out that his best-selling “flat earth” theories about how economic concerns will trump those of religion and nationalism in the 21st century have been shown to be as laughably out of touch with the reality of the Middle East as any other.

But even more dishonest is his decision to try and throw in the one element of American foreign policy that Hanson does not denounce: the alliance with Israel. According to Friedman, America’s unwillingness to strong arm Israel into making concessions on territory to Palestinians who have already demonstrated their complete disinterest in making peace on any terms is also undermining our foreign policy. But no other theory about how America should approach the Middle East has been proven to be false as conclusively as Friedman’s blind faith in “land for peace.”

Even worse, in summarizing our refusal to “tell the truth” to countries in the Middle East, he makes the following generalizations:

But we don’t tell Pakistan the truth because it has nukes. We don’t tell the Saudis the truth because we’re addicted to their oil. We don’t tell Bahrain the truth because we need its naval base. We don’t tell Egypt the truth because we’re afraid it will walk from Camp David. We don’t tell Israel the truth because it has votes. And we don’t tell Karzai the truth because Obama is afraid John McCain will call him a wimp.

The United States may be guilty of a great many faults in the Middle East but let’s not pretend that America’s views have been kept a secret. Pakistan is well aware of American public opinion of its double game on terrorism. The Saudis know Washington is dubious about their ability to maintain an oil-fueled oligarchy. The same can be said of Bahrain and the Afghan government is under no misapprehension about American doubts about its future. And certainly after three plus years of Barack Obama in the White House, Israel is aware (not withstanding Obama’s election year charm offensive aimed at Jewish voters) that he takes a dim view of the Jewish state’s position on the territories.

In adding Israel to that list, Friedman once again slips in offensive language that is redolent of the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy theories about The Israel Lobby. In December, Friedman earned the scorn of the Jewish world for falsely claiming that the Congressional ovations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Here, he seems to be repeating that anti-Semitic slur by alleging that the votes of the pro-Israel community — a vast bi-partisan force that encompasses the overwhelming majority of all Americans — has prevented the U.S. from placing enough pressure on the Jewish state.

But a different twist on that phrase shows why Hanson rightly did not include Israel in his formulation. It is the “votes” of Israelis — which makes it the one true democracy in the Middle East — that makes it the exception to his rule in which the lack of shared values prevents the United States from establishing a coherent relationship with the other countries in the region.

We can debate just how effective a U.S. policy of democracy promotion can be but the one thing that the alliance with Israel proves is that its absence makes a long-term commitment to a nation a shaky proposition. While American Middle East policy has been a mess, Thomas Friedman’s contributions to that legacy as well as his smears of Israel’s supporters deserve prominent mention in any list of such failures.

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