Thomas L. Friedman on the Iraq War
week before last, New York Times Foreign Affairs Columnist
Thomas L. Friedman paid Columbia, South Carolina a visit. He spoke
to a packed auditorium at the University of South Carolina’s Koger
Center for the Arts courtesy of a grant-funded annual lectureship.
His topic, as I’d predicted, was the Iraq War and why he thought
it was justified despite his being severely critical of how the
Bush Administration has handled the situation since the fall of
Saddam Hussein’s regime.
before going on, a confession. I read Friedman closely, despite
a kind of love-hate relationship with his material. (The relationship
is one sided, of course: I read him, but I’m as certain as I am
that the sun will come up tomorrow that he’s never heard of me.)
While I disagree with him most of the time, he’s not just another
media shill. He doesn’t even have a journalism degree. His degrees
are in Mediterranean and Modern Middle East Studies. He’s studied
the Middle East and its problems for years, as well as logging thousands
of miles traveling in and around the region. He’s written three
Beirut to Jerusalem (1988), The
Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (1999)
and Attitudes: The World In the Age of Terrorism (2002,
2003). He has a couple of Pulitzers under his belt, for whatever
that is worth. So if there’s anyone we should be reading as representative
of the defense of U.S. interventionism in Iraq or elsewhere in the
Middle East, it is Thomas L. Friedman.
for some time now I’ve been using his writing as a kind of foil
for my own thinking. While defending the war effort, his position
differs from the Bush Administration’s. If by some chance his arguments
on behalf of the Iraq War fail, we can probably be sure that the
case for this war, and for a continued occupation by U.S. troops,
fails period. As for hearing him speak, even if I knew in
advance I would disagree with everything he said, when I thought
about it I figured I would be crazy to pass up this opportunity.
So there I was, hat in hand, entering Koger Center Auditorium on
Sept. 30 to hear Thomas L. Friedman along with well over 2,000 other
drew on a number of recent columns to argue that despite the apparent
absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Saddam’s nasty regime
nevertheless had to go. It wasn’t exclusively about weapons of mass
destruction, and wasn’t about whatever threat Saddam himself might
have posed to the U.S. Terrorism itself posed still poses
a threat to Western civilization. After 9/11 it became imperative
to answer this threat with an open display of force "because
we could," and because Iraq is in the center of the Middle
East. Afghanistan was not enough, even if Afghanistan harbored the
Taliban who sponsored al Qaida training camps. It is necessary to
respond as forcefully as possible to the mindset that turning planes
into flying bombs and hurling them into buildings is okay. According
to Friedman the Iraq War delivered this message: "We’ve spent
250 years building our open society…. We are not going to sit on
our hands and let you take it away." It wasn’t that Saddam
had any connection with 9/11 or even with al Qaida. It wasn’t even
about enforcing UN resolutions. It was about the U.S. exercising
leadership, as the world’s only superpower following the collapse
of the Soviet Union, in paving the way for democracy in the Middle
East beginning with Iraq: creating a society that will not breed
terrorists. Friedman: "Context is everything. If you give young
people a context where if you have an idea you can pursue it freely,
if you have an invention you can develop it freely, if you have
a thought you can voice it freely, guess what? They don’t want to
blow up the world. They want to support it."
believes as do many commentators that Islam has been hijacked by
a radical strain, and it is this radical strain that sponsors terrorism.
Call this radical strain Islamism. As Friedman sees things, Islamism
has become the third of three viciously totalitarian ideologies
that were spawned in the twentieth century, the first two obviously
being Nazism and Communism. Islamism is Islam drained of its spiritual
character and replacing it with rage at the "poverty of dignity"
which led to 9/11. What does Friedman mean, "poverty of dignity"?
What he is driving at is just the realization obvious to Middle
Easterners that America remains way ahead of them economically,
technologically and militarily. Muslims in these nations are humiliated
by our dominance, which in some areas of their lives exceeds that
of their own governments. And "when you feel your own dignity
being cheapened, that can make you do angry, angry things."
Like turn planes into flying bombs and take them nose first into
believes, furthermore, that Western civilization achieved what it
has because the two faiths that have been dominant here Judaism
and Christianity made peace with modernity. They embraced the idea
of the open society. They embraced technology. After a long struggle,
they even embraced science. Islam, so far, has not made peace with
modernity. The tension between Muslims and the West will continue
to exist Islam will continue to be vulnerable to its radical, Islamist
strain, that is unless and until it does. Islamism has been brewing
for years, and the 9/11 attacks became "the capstone of a bubble,"
the terrorism bubble. It is necessary to puncture this bubble.
move toward Friedman’s ultimate justification for the Iraq War as
I understand it. During his lecture he cited a column written a
few months back (I alluded to it above), "Because
We Could." He told there were four reasons for the Iraq
War: the stated reason, the moral reason, the right reason and the
stated reason stated because the Bush Administration "never
dared to spell out the real reason for the war" was that Saddam
had weapons of mass destruction that posed a potential if not immediate
threat to Americans. The moral reason held that Saddam’s brutal
regime was an "engine of mass destruction and genocide"
that had murdered thousands of his own people.
real reason, however, comes down to the perceived need to "hit
someone in the Arab-Muslim world" that had built up that terrorism
bubble holding that "plowing airplanes into the World Trade
Center was o.k., having Muslim preachers say it was o.k. was o.k.
… [W]e hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because
he deserved it, and because he was right in the heart of that world."
that very last thought. It brings us to Friedman’s right reason:
"the need to partner with Iraqis, post-Saddam, to build a progressive
Arab regime. Because … the real weapons that threaten us are the
growing number of angry, humiliated young Arabs and Muslims, who
are produced by failed or failing Arab states young people who hate
America more than they love life." Thus Friedman sees building
a "liberal democracy" in Iraq along with resolving the
ongoing clash between Israelis and Palestinians as the key to defusing
the threat of terrorism over the long run: "to create a space
to partner with Iraqis right in the center of the Middle East, to
take up this battle … for a more progressive Islam." To encourage
a dialogue within Islam that will defuse radical Islamism. For "if
there is no war within Islam, there will be a war with Islam and
we don’t want that!"
defenses of U.S. intervention go, I am not in favor of just dismissing
this one out of hand. Friedman isn’t stupid. But he is of the school
of thought that the U.S., as the world’s only superpower, has global
responsibilities that go with this. In previous correspondences
with readers, I have occasionally been hit with arguments such as
the following (I am paraphrasing here, I hope fairly): "Your
position (and Lew’s and the rest of you folks at LewRockwell.com)
is isolationist, and isolationism is out of date; it just will not
work in the world of modern technology, near-instantaneous communication,
and globalization where there are nevertheless quite different cultures.
To maintain peace in a world of two or more competing cultures or
ideologies, both or all sides have to want peace. If one of these
sides wants to wage war and abolish the other(s), then those other(s)
have no rational choice except to respond." Friedman’s position
suggests an answer to this: thwart future wars by thwarting what
motivates them. Remove the motivation for Islamist jihad
against the West by offering them the benefits of an open society.
One reader wrote to me not long ago: "To beat [the Islamists]
we are going to have to find a way somehow to bring a measure of
our own systems to the attention of those peoples."
same reader conceded: "We cannot make them choose
those systems, no they may well decide they still prefer their insane
religious zealotry but I, and most others, believe that, exposed
to our systems, they will choose it as the preferable one
to operate their lives by. Certainly most people who immigrate to
this nation do so, to some extent, [and] their children still more"
(italics his). Friedman echoed this sentiment, concluding his lecture
by observing: "This may be a fool’s errand. But I’d rather
go down hoping and trying, rather than listening to people say how
those people can never be democratic, can never have what we have."
And: "India has the second largest Muslim population in the
world but there are no Indian Muslims in al Qaida."
The point: India has more and more embraced modernity.
raises a lot of good and interesting questions, not all of which
I can deal with in a single article. I choose three. The first is
whether, given our history of involvement in the region, Muslims
will be motivated to embrace "our systems." The second
is, what, precisely, will they be embracing when they embrace "our
systems"? The third: what can we do to defuse a legitimate
danger and simultaneously maintain our commitment, as a society,
to principles identified in our answer to the second?
is surely entirely correct on one central point: U.S. dominance
in the region bothers Muslims and other Arabs. As many of us have
pointed out on numerous occasions, our involvement in the internal
affairs of Middle Eastern nations has been extensive to the point
of sabotaging popularly elected governments and replacing them with
puppet regimes that were at least as brutal as Saddam’s if not more
so. Jacob Hornberger, in a
valuable article published late last year, laid out a timeline
of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East going back over 50 years.
He began with the ousting of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh through the
CIA-sponsored coup that instilled the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi,
who proceeded to brutalize the Iranian people for the next 25 years.
The Shah’s regime paved the way for the rise of Islamism in Iran as
we discovered the hard way in the late 1970s with the fall of that
regime, the rise of the equally brutal Ayatollah Khomeini and the
hostage crisis that began in 1979. The assault on the U.S. embassy
in Tehran was emblematic of the hatred that had been whetted against
this country because we had backed the Shah. Hornberger observes
how the U.S. then partnered with Saddam Hussein against Iran. (The
claim that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction was not
a priori absurd. We know he used chemical weapons against
the Iranians. He got them from us!) Hornberger also notes how U.S.
operatives worked closely with Islamists, including Osama bin Laden,
in the hopes of thwarting Soviet advances in the region. He observes,
finally, how a U.S. Ambassador initially gave Saddam Hussein a green
light to invade Kuwait in 1991, the event that triggered the first
Gulf War when the first George Bush turned on him.
involvement in the region, using Arabs and then casting them aside
when their usefulness was over surely this describes the history
of the U.S. government’s relationship with Saddam Hussein no doubt
has inclined Muslims with memories not to trust the U.S. Suppose
that somehow a representative government could be brought
about in Iraq. How could its leaders be sure that the U.S. government
would respect the nation’s sovereignty and not turn on them
at the first sign of noncooperation with our political and military
brings us to the second consideration raised above. What, precisely,
are the Iraqis to embrace? A system akin to ours? To use Friedman’s
term, which is the popular one among all political elites today,
"liberal democracy"? What is "liberal democracy,"
and what is so great about it? If "democracy" means that
the leaders are elected by a popular vote taken from the majority,
then since the majority of Iraqis are Muslims, this would mean another
Muslim state very likely the antithesis of our system, especially
if the Muslims in control are Islamists. The very idea of reconstructing
a "liberal democratic" Iraq seems ludicrous.
system, it bears rehearsing, was not considered a democracy, "liberal"
or otherwise, by its founders. It was considered a Constitutional
republic "if you can keep it." Rule by a majority was
not considered a particularly good idea. Hence the strictures in
the Constitution aimed at keeping the roles and responsibilities
of the central government as limited and specific as possible, and
keeping power as widely dispersed as possible.
we figure out if we could do this for Iraq instead of "liberal
democracy," maybe we should ponder: how did we do it
(and keeping in mind that we didn’t do it perfectly by any means,
as the last 216 years of history abundantly testifies)? Let me see
now. Efforts to place strictures on government on power generally go
back at least as far as the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was penned
in 1215, and hardly a success in its own time; the spectacularly
nasty King John went right back to doing as he pleased the following
year. There was no specific political philosophy of individual liberty
to be found there. Indeed, the Western world developed the philosophy
of liberty only gradually, over a period of centuries, embodied
eventually in writings such as those of diplomat-turned-philosopher
John Locke, historian-turned-philosopher David Hume, economist and
philosopher Adam Smith, and so on. Arguably, the individualism that
would be articulated at the core of libertarian thought was still
ahead of its time in the late 1700s otherwise the new republic would
have gotten rid of chattel slavery and made a clean break with the
past. It may be ahead of its time even today!
a free society and, most important of all, building into
it structures of protection against those who want power
is not easy and were I as famous as Thomas L. Friedman that
would undoubtedly go down as the biggest understatement of 2003!
I have long maintained that the goal of political philosophy is
not answering questions like, What is the ideal society? or What
is the ideal form of government? but rather, How does society (individuals
acting in cooperation) control power (individuals who want power),
without sacrificing justice?
lost most of our Constitutional republic because of the things we
didn’t get right. There were too many loopholes in the Constitution,
and those who wanted power learned to exploit them. Others simply
took the freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution for
granted. They failed the test for vigilance, were unmindful of the
alien ideologies creeping into "our systems" via government
schools, until the idea of limited government itself became an alien
concept. I would expect that we might have a lot of difficulty exposing
Iraqis to "our systems" and expecting them to understand
them much less embrace them and put them into practice.
don’t know any Iraqis personally but I can surely imagine
their being confused by us, not to mention fearful of American military
might. On the one hand, they see this might, and the open display
of force Friedman saw as necessary to retaliate for 9/11. They also
receive doubtless troubling mixed messages from the U.S. all the
way across the board. They see our unqualified support for Israel
although clearly as regards that conflict, neither Israelis nor
Palestinians have clean, blood-free hands. They see the U.S. as
the center of Christianity (and protector of Judaism, embodied in
Israel). And then they see our materialism, our mass-consumption
culture, a hedonism that includes Britney Spears music videos displaying
so much skin she might as well be naked. I presume that those Iraqis
with Internet access might understandably worry about their children
downloading such videos or worse! if Iraq develops
along Western lines. Friedman describes our prosperity as having
resulted from forms of Judaism and Christianity that have been "upgraded"
so as to embrace modernity. These "upgrades" in fact are
uneasy and often conflicted and contradictory mixtures of Christianity
(or possibly "Sunday Christianity") with materialism and
precisely, would they be asked to embrace when embracing an "upgraded"
Islam that has made peace with modernity? Surely a few intelligent
Iraqis and Muslims are asking such questions when they wonder about
the motives of the Americans now in control of their country who
want to "reconstruct Iraq" and build "liberal democracy."
brings us to the third and final question I will address here. Suppose
we can somehow clarify the idea of Constitutionalism and that of
a Constitutional republic for Iraqis and other Middle Easterners.
What can we do to defuse the legitimate danger we face at present?
Can we assume that if we leave them (the Islamists) alone they will
leave us alone? Admittedly this is a chancy assumption. Unquestionably
there are Islamists who would like to destroy America and everything
it stands for. Are we compelled to wage wars against them to prevent
them from destroying us?
don’t think so. Actually, when you get down to it, neither does
Friedman. Not really. Friedman presents some strategies. They are
a mixed bag. Friedman is a convinced globalist, and so views the
world through the globalist lens. His suggestion in his lecture,
therefore, was for Americans to "be the best global citizens
we can be." He spoke of having "to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict," although I didn’t hear many specifics. He argued
that we "need to lessen our dependence on Middle East oil,"
a task that would be far simpler if radical environmentalists would
allow oil companies to drill for the proven oil reserves available
on U.S. soil and offshore. And: "We need to be better listeners.
Listening is a sign of respect."
we listen to something Osama bin Laden himself once said. In the
context of a 4,400-word document given the official stamp of approval
by President Bush and designed to present the basic evidence that
bin Laden was the one responsible for the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden
himself spoke (this dates from October 12, 1996):
people of Islam have suffered from aggression, iniquity and
injustice imposed by the Zionist-Crusader alliance and their
collaborators. . . . It is the duty now of every tribe in the
Arabian Peninsula to fight jihad and cleanse the land from these
Crusader occupiers. Their wealth is booty to those who kill
them. My Muslim brothers: your brothers in Palestine and in
the land of the two Holy Places [i.e., Saudi Arabia] are calling
upon your help and asking you to take part in fighting against
the enemy the Americans and the Israelis. They are asking you
to do whatever you can to expel the enemies out of the sanctities
sounds very much to me like bin Laden wanted the U.S. to leave to
cease meddling in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern nations.
Given that we wouldn’t leave, it is necessary to get rid of us by
force. This is very much in line with those who argue that U.S.
interventionism has led to the present predicament. Disengaging
ourselves therefore might not be sufficient to stop terrorist activity
at this point that ball is already rolling but it might be part
of a sound strategy aimed at protecting Americans from terrorism
by removing one of the sources of resentment that originally motivated
Islamism: aggressive, imperialistic U.S. foreign policy.
would suggest adding to these such things as: protecting our
borders. Much has been written about the threat posed by our
porous borders. Several of the 9/11 hijackers were in this country
illegally, on expired visas. I could write a separate article on
illegal immigration and its dangers had it not been done many, many
times. The threat that terrorists could gain entrance to the U.S.
amidst the hordes of illegals crossing over from Mexico is surely
a reasonable one. Yet what has happened is that several states have
now passed laws allowing illegal aliens to obtain drivers licenses!
This sends the message that neither state governments nor the federal
government are serious about securing our borders. Their minions
would rather use the Patriot Act and other legislative abominations
to curtail the liberties of U.S. citizens. Yet obviously one of
the keys to preventing another terrorist attack on U.S. soil is
to prevent terrorists from getting inside this country. They would
not be in much of a position to harm us from the outside; these
groups simply don’t have the resources or technological know-how
to build nuclear weapons or other doomsday devices to fire across
our borders from the outside.
I will submit that the soundest strategy for curbing the threat
of terrorism is twofold. Begin curtailing U.S. involvement in the
internal affairs of Middle Eastern nations. If they are serious
about wanting us to leave, we should take them at their word and
leave. This would include relinquishing the goal of a reconstructed
Iraq converted to "liberal democracy." While there is
an argument to be made for a U.S. obligation incurred by our having
ruined the infrastructure of the country, we should be making plans
to withdraw as many troops as possible from harm’s way. This brings
us to the second part of the plan: to deploy these troops against
our borders particularly our border with Mexico. The Mexican government
won’t like it, but we don’t need Mexico’s permission to put a stop
to the invasion taking place. Even Hispanics who have been U.S.
citizens for a while, having gone through the proper procedures
for becoming a U.S. citizen that once existed, have begun to resent
both this onslaught and the policies that serve to encourage it.
But in stopping Mexicans from coming here illegally, we may also
stop the next Mohammed Atta from gaining the access to this country
he would need before he could harm U.S. citizens.
sort of solution is, of course, not perfect. There are no perfect
solutions. The Middle East is a mess, and likely to remain so for
the foreseeable future. But I continue to believe that the best
contribution the U.S. government could make towards improving things
in that part of the world is to acknowledge, frankly, the mistakes
interventionists have made in the past and resolving to end these
"foreign entanglements." This means relinquishing the
idea that being the world’s only superpower enjoins upon us the
responsibility of building an empire, exporting this vague and confused
notion of "liberal democracy" on peoples who have no desire
for it and might be better off without it.
Yates [send him mail]
Ph.D. in philosophy and is the author of Civil
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(1994). He is currently at work on three books: In
Defense of Logic,
a philosophical treatise; Skywatcher’s
a science fiction novel, and This
Is Not the Country I Grew Up In,
a collection of past articles from LewRockwell.com and other
sources. He is an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute,
and next January will be joining the adjunct faculty of Limestone
College. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com