Reading his “Letter From Baghdad” column in the New York Times on Sept. 5, you’d never know that Thomas Friedman has a history of enthusiasm for war. Now he laments that Iraq is bad for the United States — “everyone loves seeing us tied down here” — stuck in the “madness that is Iraq.” And he concludes that the good Americans who have been sent to Iraq will not be deserved by Iraqis “if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids.”
The column, under a Baghdad dateline, is boilerplate Friedman: sprinkled with I-am-here anecdotes and breezy geopolitical nostrums. For years now, the man widely touted as America’s most influential journalist has indicated that his patience with the war in Iraq might soon run out. But, like the media establishment he embodies, Friedman can’t bring himself to renounce a war that he helped to launch and then blessed as the incarnation of virtue.
On the last day of November 2003 — eight months after the invasion — Friedman gushed that “this war is the most important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan.” He lauded the Iraq war as “one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad.”
But the assumptions built into a Friedman column are murky outside the context of his worldview. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” Friedman wrote approvingly in one of his explaining-the-world bestsellers. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
Those words appeared in Friedman’s book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” but the passage first surfaced (with a few tweaks of syntax) in the New York Times Magazine on March 28, 1999, near the end of a long piece adapted from the book. Filling almost the entire cover of the magazine was a red-white-and-blue fist, with the caption “What The World Needs Now” and a smaller-type explanation: “For globalism to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is.”
The clenched graphic could be seen as the “hidden fist” that “the hidden hand of the market will never work without.” While the cover story’s patriotic fist was intended as a symbol of the globe’s need for multifaceted American power, the military facet had been unleashed just as the magazine went to press. By the time the star-spangled cover reached Sunday breakfast tables, NATO air attacks on Yugoslavia were underway; the U.S.-led bombing campaign would last for 78 straight days.
Writing columns and appearing on broadcast networks to assess the war, Tom Friedman was close to gleeful. (The man was widely viewed as a liberal, whatever that meant, and “the liberal media” provided Friedman with many platforms that often seemed to double as pedestals.) Interviewers at ABC, PBS and NPR ranged from deferential to fawning as they solicited his wisdom on the latest from Yugoslavia.
Even when he lamented the political constraints on the military options of the 19-member NATO alliance, Friedman was upbeat. “While there are many obvious downsides to war-from-15,000-feet,” he wrote after bombs had been falling for more than four weeks, “it does have one great strength — its sustainability. NATO can carry on this sort of air war for a long, long time. The Serbs need to remember that.”
So, Friedman explained, “if NATO’s only strength is that it can bomb forever, then it has to get every ounce out of that. Let’s at least have a real air war. The idea that people are still holding rock concerts in Belgrade, or going out for Sunday merry-go-round rides, while their fellow Serbs are ‘cleansing’ Kosovo, is outrageous. It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted.”
He added: “Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too….”
The convenience marbled through such punditry is so routine that eyebrows rarely go up. The chirpy line “Let’s at least have a real air war,” for instance, addressed American readers for whom, with rare exceptions, the “real air war” would be no more real than a media spectacle, with all the consequences falling on others very far away. As for rock concerts and merry-go-rounds, we could recall — if memory were to venture into unauthorized zones — that any number of such amusements went full throttle in the United States during the Vietnam War, and also for that matter during all subsequent U.S. wars including the one that Friedman was currently engaged in cheering on.
If the idea of civilians trying to continue with normal daily life while their government committed lethal crimes was “outrageous” enough to justify inflicting “a merciless air war” — as Friedman urged later in the same column — would someone have been justified in bombing the United States during its slaughter of countless innocents in Southeast Asia? Or during its active support for dictators and death squads in Latin America? For that matter, Friedman could hardly be unaware that for several weeks already American firepower had been maiming and killing Serb civilians, children included, with weaponry including cluster bombs. Today, Iraqi civilians keep dying from the U.S. war effort and other violence catalyzed by the occupation; meanwhile, of course, not a single concert or merry-go-round has stopped in the USA.
When righteousness moved Friedman to call for “lights out in Belgrade,” he was urging a war crime. The urban power grids and water pipes he yearned to see destroyed were essential to infants, the elderly, the frail and infirm inside places like hospitals and nursing homes. Targeting such grids and pipes would seem like barbarism to Americans if the missiles were incoming. Any ambiguity of the matter would probably be dispelled by a vow to keep bombing the country until it was set back 50 years or, if necessary, six centuries. But Friedman’s enthusiasm was similar to that of many other prominent American commentators who also greeted the bombing of Yugoslavia with something close to exhilaration.
The final paragraph of Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times on April 23, 1999, began with a punchy sentence: “Give war a chance.” It was a witticism that seemed to delight Friedman. He repeated it, in print and on national television, as the bombing of Yugoslavia continued. A tone of sadism could be discerned.