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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Cosmopolitan Thomas Friedman and his neocon muse think the U.S. needs to do even more social engineering in the Middle East

US editorialist Thomas Friedman’s "Festival of lies"

(Reddress) -- by Lawrence Davidson --

Lawrence Davidson explains why Thomas Friedman, one of the most widely read editorial writers in the United States, is confused and unreliable when it comes to the Middle East.

Friedman’s frustrations
In a piece entitled "A festival of lies" published in the New York Times on 25 March, editorialist Thomas Friedman expressed his frustration with American foreign policy in the Middle East. "It’s time to rethink everything we are doing out there," he proclaimed. To be sure, he is not the only one frustrated by this situation, but in Friedman’s case it is best to ask just what it is he finds disconcerting about US behaviour?

Actually, he doesn’t formulate a list of his own, but instead latches on to one put together by the historian Victor Davis Hanson (a military historian whose specialty is ancient warfare) and published in the National Review. This is neither here nor there because Friedman tells us that Hanson is correct in all his particulars. So here are some examples of what Friedman via Hanson find frustrating about US policy in the region:

1. Giving all that military assistance (when we really should be helping the Arabs build schools)

2. Mounting punitive attacks (but then letting the results fade away because we "fail to follow through")

3. "Keeping clear of maniacal regimes" (which then allows these regimes to either acquire nuclear capabilities, commit genocide or create "16 acres of rubble in Manhattan")

4. Propping up dictators (which is "odious and counterproductive")

Friedman notes the obvious: these sort of "policy options" cannot change the Middle East for the better. According to both him and Hanson, the region is a perpetual "mix of tribalism, Shi’i-Sunni sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil – oil that constantly tempts us to intervene or to prop up dictators".

All this might make sense to some readers of the New York Times, but it seems superficial and confused to me. After all, I am an historian too. My speciality is the development of US foreign policy in the Middle East. So what do I find frustrating about Friedman’s frustrations?

Frustrating frustrations
1.To reduce the Middle East to tribalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil is just stereotyping and inappropriate reductionism. You might as well reduce the US to Christian fundamentalism, Tea Party fanaticism, south-west-east sectional animosity and gas guzzling pickup trucks. Are they there? Yes. Are they the sum total of the USA? No. It is the same for the Middle East.

2. It is certainly a very good idea to stop giving so many of the region’s armies American weapons and training (and so stop "propping up the dictators), but before you go using the savings to build "community colleges across Egypt" as Friedman suggests, you better consider that Egypt and many other nations in the region are awash in college graduates who cannot find employment. The economies of the Middle East suffer from structural problems, part of which have to do with their ties to a Western-controlled world economy.

3. I can only imagine what Hanson and Friedman mean by "punitive interference without follow-up" being bad policy.

– Maybe they mean that when Ronald Reagan put troops in Lebanon in 1982 in support of the minority Maronite Christian attempt to subvert the country’s constitution there should have been sufficient military follow-up to decimate their rivals, the majority Lebanese Shi’is. Keep in mind that a similar follow-up in Iraq in 2003 killed up to a million people.

– Or perhaps when that same president (darling of all neocons) attacked the home of Muammar Gaddafi in 1986 ... setting in motion a chain of events that led two years later to the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie Scotland, he should have immediately followed through with a full scale invasion of Libya.

– Or when George Bush Senior chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 he should of followed-up with an invasion of the country then and there instead of following through with draconian sanctions that eventually helped kill up to a million Iraqi poor children.

Supposedly all of these "follow-ups" represent policy options that would have resulted in a better, happier and more American-friendly Middle East. This sounds doubtful to me.

4. And what about the supposed mistake of "staying clear of maniacal regimes" which in turn allows for "nuclear acquisition or genocide – or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan". What the heck does this mean? It was not a "maniacal regime" that launched the 9/11 attacks; the US did not stay clear of the "maniacal regime" of Saddam Hussein but instead sold it the poison gas used against the Kurds; and the Iranians (who are arguably less "maniacal" than the Israelis) have no nuclear weapons programme.

What all this points out is that Thomas Friedman, one of the most widely read editorial writers in the country, is confused and unreliable when it comes to the Middle East. And, his relying on a conservative military historian venting in the National Review does nothing to sharpen his perception. What is worse is that none of this prevents Friedman from telling us that the US government, which he has just accused of utter failure for decades, now has the responsibility to tell the people of the Middle East some "hard truths". And what might they be?...MORE...LINK

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