Tag Archives: Thomas Friedman

Market failure

Proof that supply and demand are not always in perfect equilibrium, at least in the realm of quality journalism:

What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.

Tom Friedman is the most embarrassing of a truly amateur-hour op-ed operation at the Times.

Bill Keller wants to repeat history, which would make him wrong twice.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.20.43 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.21.40 AM


Last night, New York Times columnist (and former executive editor) Bill Keller’s column, “Syria Is Not Iraq,” appeared online. (It’s seen in the above screenshot at right, juxtaposed against equally intellectually-challenged fellow columnist Thomas Friedman’s piece from last year.) As usual, it was a doozy:

As a rule, I admire President Obama’s cool calculation in foreign policy; it is certainly an improvement over the activist hubris of his predecessor. And frankly I’ve shared his hesitation about Syria, in part because, during an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy.

Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk.

But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.

Keller concludes:

Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.

No, Keller, it doesn’t. Getting Syria right starts with acknowledging how Iraq happened. But doing that would require directly confronting the central role of Keller’s paper in propagating a flimsy and ultimately disastrous case for war in Iraq. Getting over Iraq, to use Keller’s convenient word choice, is a euphemism for allowing the same source that got everything so wrong in Iraq to make the same case for war in another country — again, with no exit strategy or, even, any strategy at all.

Keller argues that our failure to arm the rebels for fear of assisting al-Qaeda is in fact resulting in the same outcome, by ceding ground to the Saudis and Qataris, who are all too willing to assist radicals on the ground in Syria. But what Keller fails to mention is the fact that, after two years of civil war, an American decision to intervene now would raise more questions than it answers and may very well cause a public opinion backlash in the Arab world. Instead of being lauded as saviors, there is at least an equivalent likelihood of rebels asking, “How many lives could you have saved if you’d been here earlier?”

That alone is not a reason to stay away. But the audacity of the clamor for intervention — led by people like John McCain and, yes, now Bill Keller, the same people who so badly misjudged the prospects for success in Iraq — is that it makes the same characterizations about Syria that it did about Iraq. You’d think once would be enough.

Keller writes:

What you hear from the Obama team is that we know way too little about the internal dynamics of Syria, so we can’t predict how an intervention will play out, except that there is no happy ending; that while the deaths of 70,000 Syrians are tragic, that’s what happens in a civil war; that no one in the opposition can be trusted; and, most important, that we have no vital national interest there. Obama conceded that the use of poison gas would raise the stakes, because we cannot let the world think we tolerate spraying civilians with nerve gas. But even there, the president says he would feel obliged to respond to “systematic” use of chemical weapons, as if something less — incremental use? sporadic use? — would be O.K. This sounds like a president looking for excuses to stand pat.

This is a sickening, absurdist paragraph. “Looking for excuses to stand pat?” In Keller’s conceptualization, then, war is the default option, and Obama is doing somersaults in an attempt to evade his natural obligations. But this is simply not the case. Obama is perfectly right to observe that no vital national interest necessitates an American intervention in Syria (although he is seemingly less confident on this score than previously thought).

Keller’s not done:

In contemplating Syria, it is useful to consider the ways it is not Iraq.

First, we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region. “We cannot tolerate a Somalia next door to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey,” said Vali Nasr, who since leaving the Obama foreign-policy team in 2011 has become one of its most incisive critics. Nor, he adds, can we afford to let the Iranians, the North Koreans and the Chinese conclude from our attitude that we are turning inward, becoming, as the title of Nasr’s new book puts it, “The Dispensable Nation.”

Again, Keller’s historical — and personal — amnesia, combined with his implicit but entirely unsubtle smearing of prudent foreign policy analysts as appeasers, is appalling. There is no “genuine, imperiled national interest.” The primary reason everyone’s suddenly started talking about Syria is that Israel started bombing it. As always, Israel’s security interests take precedence over our own: where two years of civilian death and suffering elicited little more than yawns and sighs of boredom in living rooms throughout America, a few targeted airstrikes by Israel are amazingly effective at focusing the hive mind.

Keller writes:

But, as Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, points out, what gets lost in these calculations is the potentially dire cost of doing nothing. That includes the danger that if we stay away now, we will get drawn in later (and bigger), when, for example, a desperate Assad drops Sarin on a Damascus suburb, or when Jordan collapses under the weight of Syrian refugees.

Yes, let’s go to war now, risking very real American lives, to prevent a hypothetical outcome that may or may not cause mass fatalities in another country’s civil war.

Here is perhaps my favorite line:

Fourth, in Iraq we had to cajole and bamboozle the world into joining our cause. This time we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead. Israel, out of its own interest, seems to have given up waiting.

Israel?! That’s his example? Israel, he may recall, was perfectly onboard with the American invasion of Iraq as well. And why shouldn’t it be? Any half-conscious human being can see the natural advantage of allowing a foreign country to wage war on another’s behalf — including paying the costs in lives and massive budget deficits. Israel can stand pat and let Americans take the heat again, as we’ve been doing for years.

“Why wait for the next atrocity?” Keller asks. Indeed, why? For neoconservative warmongers like Bill Keller, waiting is for appeasers. The case for intervention in Syria, like that in Iraq, recalls the title of the famous post-financial crisis book, This Time Is Different. Each time, excuses and half-justifications are lazily proffered so as to distinguish one hawkish prophecy from its disastrous predecessors. This time, let’s approach the problem differently, instead of feebly attempting to differentiate this potential foreign policy quagmire from another, very real one from the past.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Dan Amira to Howard Schultz: Run for President

The Starbucks CEO, having become quite the nonpartisan activist, needs to put up or shut up, says the New York Magazine writer in a hilarious little bit:

This isn’t an endorsement. We’re just letting you know that it’s gotten to that point. Run as a Democrat if Hillary Clinton hangs up the pantsuits for good. Or run as an independent. You’re worth $1.5 billion — put in $500 million and let your business friends and Tom Friedman cover the rest. Running without a party will be tough but so is convincing someone to pay $8 for a cup of coffee.

Hide your kids, hide your wife: Thomas Friedman is back and pontificating

ThomasFriedmanI just conducted a quick spot check, and was horrified to learn that — in the entire history of this blog — I have devoted only two posts to mocking New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. This is really too bad, as he deserves regular treatment of this sort on a monthly basis, at the very least. (Turns out, in fact, that my first post on Sir Thomas was actually my first-ever post on this blog, which I launched on December 12, 2010. Can I get a “happy two-year anniversary?”)

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Friedman has caught my attention again with his latest missive, which you really should go take several minutes to read. Let’s examine the opening line:

When you fly along the Mediterranean today, what do you see below?

Now be careful here. This may seem like a question with a remarkably obvious answer, but you only think this because you’re not Thomas Friedman. If you were, in fact, Thomas Friedman — God save us all — you’d know that, when life gives you lemons, it’s time to make lemonade.

Now you may be asking yourself, “But what does that have to do with not knowing where you are when you’re flying along the Mediterranean?” But again, as you know — starting to get the hang of this? — you’re not Thomas Friedman. In fact, if you were Thomas Friedman, you’d likely have written some tired cliche like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” many times by now in your columns. And you would have known this axiom to be useful because both a cabdriver you once met in Amman and a flight attendant on Singapore Airlines have said it to you. And both of those people’s companies use solar panels. And so all of this is why it is not remarkably obvious to Thomas Friedman that all one needs to do to figure out what one sees below oneself when one is flying along the Mediterranean is to…look down.


If Syria and Egypt both unravel at once, this whole region will be destabilized. That’s why a billboard on the road to the Pyramids said it all: “God save Egypt.”

Oh. Yes, that explains it.

Having watched a young, veiled, Egyptian female reporter tear into a Muslim Brotherhood official the other day over the group’s recent autocratic and abusive behavior, I can assure you that the fight here is not between more religious and less religious Egyptians.

You can be forgiven for thinking that extrapolating one angry journalist’s question into a nationwide trend is a bit of a specious argument. Or that assuming any Egyptian veil-sporting female must be a card-carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood is just downright stupid. But then, you’ve clearly forgotten who employs Thomas Friedman: the New York Times is notorious for its three-instances-make-a-trend approach to narrative-building, so the fact that Friedman has downsized to a mere one-instance-makes-a-trend paradigm is simply a reflection of his desire to conserve energy and save our planet. As we should be doing but aren’t, because we’re not China. (Yet. Maybe someday?)

Whenever anyone asked me what I saw in Tahrir Square during that original revolution, I told them I saw a tiger that had been living in a 5-by-8 cage for 60 years get released. And there are three things I can tell you about the tiger: 1) Tiger is never going back in that cage; 2) Do not try to ride tiger for your own narrow purposes or party because this tiger only serves Egypt as a whole; 3) Tiger only eats beef. He has been fed every dog food lie in the Arabic language for 60 years, so don’t try doing it again.

I am astonished that Friedman forgot to insert a Tiger/Tigris pun here. How could he have let this opportunity slip by? Sure, Egypt’s not Iraq, but Syria isn’t either and that never stopped Sir Thomas. By the way, why didn’t anyone else covering the Tahrir Square protests in 2011 notice a tiger escaping from his cage and making a beeline for the nearest beef steakhouse? Why did only Thomas Friedman see this? I’m starting to understand why he couldn’t see the Mediterranean below him earlier: while everyone else saw the sea, he was staring at a blue monkey playing the harmonica. A solar-powered harmonica.

Friedman closes:

God is not going to save Egypt. It will be saved only if the opposition here respects that the Muslim Brotherhood won the election fairly — and resists its excesses not with boycotts (or dreams of a coup) but with better ideas that win the public to the opposition’s side. And it will be saved only if Morsi respects that elections are not winner-take-all, especially in a society that is still defining its new identity, and stops grabbing authority and starts earning it. Otherwise, it will be all fall down.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d always thought a relatively secular, progressive, democratic government was a better idea than one that strong-arms the opposition and attempts to consolidate power by pushing through an unpopular constitution. So doesn’t that mean the Egyptian opposition has already taken Friedman’s advice to heart? And if so, why hasn’t the public been won to their side?

Maybe it’s because Egypt is more complicated than all that. But more likely, it’s because they haven’t yet learned to make lemonade.

David Brooks discovers inequality, recoils in horror

English: David Brooks

From yesterday’s New York Times column:

Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.

So far, so good…right? Granted, Brooks is a little like the guy who shows up drunk to a party at 4 AM just as everyone’s sobering up enough to drive home. But at least he made it there, right?

Well, not exactly:

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.

And there we go again with the false equivalencies. What does marriage have to do with inequality? Brooks prefers to look at cultural explanations, because cultural-religious rifts are his specialty. (“There are two types of people in America: let’s call them Big-Government Jack and Libertarian Jill,” would be a fairly representative rhetorical style of his.) But even though one huge reason for the current trend towards banana republic-ism is staring us right in the face — tax policy — Brooks prefers to look at something — marriage norms — that might influence something that might influence something that might influence something that might influence inequality. Ever heard of Occam’s Razor, boy?

What makes it so infuriating is that Brooks has a pulpit at the Times, and he consistently uses it to chide Obama for being too enthralled with the idea of government, too ambitious with his proposals, too far left for the nation. But then one day Brooks wakes up to discover inequality, and…yup, turns out marriage norms are the problem.

Time to wake up and start agitating for the policies Obama’s been proposing: sensible, reasonable (by any historical standard) tax proposals that attempt to reverse income inequality and restore some semblance of a little thing we call upward mobility. Call a spade a spade, David Brooks, or risk becoming another Tom Friedman. And the world doesn’t need another Tom Friedman.

The life and wild times of Thomas Friedman

Almost six months ago, I began this blog with an inaugural post making fun of Thomas Friedman. I am neither the first nor the last person to do this, and my mocking was not the funniest on the topic either. But for what it’s worth, I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

Incidentally, it also wasn’t the last time I’d make fun of him on this very same blog. Yup, you got it: Friedman’s gone and done it again. Now I realize the man doesn’t write his own headlines, but one gets the feeling that whoever does that job for him is mailing it in too. His latest column’s title? “Pay Attention.” (I suppose when you reach the level of inanity that Friedman has, blatant pleas for a captive audience are to be expected.) Somewhere in there is an apt metaphor for the last gasp of fast-declining newspapers. But like Friedman, I’m too lazy to elaborate. Why make logical connections when you can make large, specious leaps instead?

Now if I were Sir Thomas, here is where I’d inadvertently run into a [Singaporean bureaucrat/orphaned Cambodian child/Chinese investment banker/taxi driver from any one of those countries]. He’d casually throw out some inauspicious line, like “The traffic here is bad, but an empty road is worse luck than a traffic jam.” Or, “It may not be perfect, but I love my country.” Or, “Dude, stop dictating crappy metaphors into your iPhone while I’m trying to drive here.” As Mr. Friedman, I’d take it from there, weaving in a completely distended argument that manages to mention clean energy, Chinese high-speed rail, and wi-fi, all within a neat 700-word column (written, of course, in under five minutes).

As it happens, I don’t have to do this for him, since Mr. Friedman has taken care of things all by his lonesome. I could tell from the very start that this latest column was a keeper:

I had some time to kill at the Cairo airport the other day so I rummaged through the “Egyptian Treasures” shop. I didn’t care much for the King Tut paper weights and ashtrays but was intrigued by a stuffed camel, which, if you squeezed its hump, emitted a camel honk. When I turned it over to see where it was manufactured, it read: “Made in China.” Now that they have decided to put former President Hosni Mubarak on trial, I hope Egyptians add to his indictment that he presided for 30 years over a country where nearly half the population lives on $2 day and 20 percent are unemployed while it is importing low-wage manufactured goods — a stuffed camel, no less — from China.

Brilliant! The man managed to squeeze in China, tacky gift shops, airports (Thomas Friedman loves him some airports), and an utterly nonsensical plea to imprison Hosni Mubarak for participating in a little thing called globalization. (Later, the essay even closes with this absolute gem: “This is so much more important than Libya.”)

But Friedman isn’t finished, oh no. Just a bit further down, he ruminates: “If elections for the Parliament are held in September, the only group in Egypt with a real party network ready to roll is the one that has been living underground and is now suddenly legal: the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.”

Heavens to Betsy, no! Anything but that! God forbid a democratic revolution actually results in…democracy. Friedman quotes Mohamed ElBaradei, a (non-Muslim Brotherhood) presidential candidate, warning, “You will have an unrepresentative Parliament writing an unrepresentative Constitution.” (To be clear, ElBaradei’s “unrepresentative Parliament” refers to representatives elected freely by the Egyptian population.) Sadly, it never really dawns on Friedman that perhaps a contender for the presidency may in fact have a vested interest in portraying all rivals as less than desirable.

Towards the end, Friedman lays out his case more succinctly:

Free elections are rare in the Arab world, so when they happen, everybody tries to vote — not only the residents of that country. You can be sure money will flow in here from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Muslim Brotherhood.

America, though, cannot publicly intervene in the Egyptian election debate. It would only undermine the reformers, who have come so far, so fast, on their own and alienate the Egyptian generals. That said, though, it is important that senior U.S. officials engage quietly with the generals and encourage them to take heed of the many Egyptian voices that are raising legitimate concerns about a premature runoff.

For those of you keeping track at home, things Monsieur Thomas is afraid of include: 1) democracy, 2) “everybody [trying] to vote”, and 3) outside campaign contributions — the last of which would never happen in the United States, obviously. In Friedman’s intricate mind (which, not unlike the Internet, also appears to consist of a series of tubes), America cannot intervene in Egyptian democracy. It can only pressure the undemocratic Egyptian military to delay voting so the preferred candidates win. Because if we can’t even pull off a little vote-rigging here and there, what was the point of displacing Mubarak in the first place?

The world is flat, and so is your writing

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman can be forgiven for getting a little repetitive at times. (After all, there are only so many ways you can mention China without accidentally saying the same things over again.)

But he seems to have taken things a little too far with his latest column published on December 11, titled “Reality Check.” In the article, which revolves around the American role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman argues: “You can’t want peace more than the parties themselves, and that is exactly where America is today. The people running Israel and Palestine have other priorities. It is time we left them alone to pursue them — and to live with the consequences.”

He may have a point, but it appears that he stole the idea from another article written a year earlier…by himself. In his column from November 7, 2009, “Call White House, Ask for Barack,” Friedman boldly declares: “This peace process movie is not going to end differently just because we keep playing the same reel. It is time for a radically new approach. And I mean radical. I mean something no U.S. administration has ever dared to do: Take down our “Peace-Processing-Is-Us” sign and just go home.”

The op-ed section has never been The New York Times’ strongest department, and such lazy writing will only serve to drive this point home. As for Thomas Friedman, who is almost as obsessed with “clean energy” as he is with China (a paradox of sorts in and of itself), at least give the man credit for consistency: he’s so green-friendly, he recycles his own columns.