The Incredible Lightness of Being Thomas Friedman

I don’t want this blog to get obsessed with any one individual, and I fear that we’re moving in that direction with Tom Friedman, the main foreign-policy columnist at the New York Times and named by an insiders’ poll at the National Journal last year as Washington’s most influential media personality.

It’s just that, for someone who exercises such influence, he so often seems to be so completely at sea — no rudder, no anchor, no compass even — just kind of drifting from wave to wave (or, in the case of globalization, from CEO to CEO). Apart from a generally liberal (with some important exceptions) and interventionist orientation, Friedman is erratic, to say the least, and often incoherent, as many more diligent critics, notably Matt Taibi, have long observed.

But the erratic and incoherent nature of his thinking struck me hard this week while reading his column, “Hobby or Necessity?” published in the Sunday Times, Mar 28. His basic argument is that Palestinian-Israeli peace was a mere “post-cold-war hobby” for the U.S. while it was a “necessity” for Israel in the 1990’s, but that recent events, especially since U.S. troops began fighting wars in the region after 9/11, have resulted in a 180-degree shift for both countries. While Israel now sees peace as a hobby, it has become a “necessity” for Washington. Citing Biden’s and Gen. Petraeus’ recent statements about the link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Washington’s own security issues throughout the Arab world and beyond — a link that, of course, is anathema to Netanyahu, AIPAC, Abe Foxman, etc. — Friedman writes:

“Now, in the same time period, America went from having only a small symbolic number of soldiers in the Middle East to running two wars there — in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as a global struggle against violent Muslim extremists. With U.S. soldiers literally walking the Arab street — and, therefore, more in need than ever of Muslim good will to protect themselves and defeat Muslim extremists — Israeli-Palestinian peace has gone from being a post-cold-war hobby of U.S. diplomats to being a necessity.

He goes on:

“At a time when the U.S. is trying to galvanize a global coalition to confront Iran, at a time when Iran uses the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict to embarrass pro-U.S. Arabs and extend its influence across the Muslim world, peace would be a strategic asset for America and Israel.”

Now, as readers of this blog know, I don’t disagree with any of this and think it’s highly useful that a columnist as influential as Tom Friedman is putting this message out to his readers. Rather, my problem is simply this: if Israeli-Palestinian peace is a “necessity” for Washington now, why didn’t he consider it a “necessity” back last November when he was arguing for essentially abandoning mediation efforts and “Tak[ing] down our ‘Peace-Processing-Is-Us’ sign and just go home.” What precisely has changed about the fundamental situation in the last six months?

This is what Friedman wrote Nov 8 in a column entitled “Call White House, Ask for Barack”:

“Let’s just get out of the picture. Let all these leaders stand in front of their own people and tell them the truth: ‘My fellow citizens: Nothing is happening; nothing is going to happen. It’s just you and me and the problem we own.’

“Indeed, it’s time for us to dust off James Baker’s line: ‘When you’re serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix.'”

Again, the question arises: what has changed between the publication of that column when Friedman clearly did not think an Israeli-Palestinian peace a “necessity” and today? And if the underlying situation — wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “a global struggle against violent Muslim extremists,” “more in need than ever of Muslim good will to protect ourselves” — is the same as six months ago, why wasn’t Friedman calling for a more aggressive U.S. stance back then?

As I said, it’s like he drifts from wave to wave.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. The first thing you cite sounds like his take on what the US involvement actually is. The second thing you cite sounds like his take on what the US involvement should be. I don’t see how these two pieces conflict at all.

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