To say that the New York Times leans left is equivalent to noting that the famous tower in Pisa tilts to the south: It’s a statement of the obvious. So diversity of opinion on the paper’s op-ed page is always welcome. On the other hand: Be careful what you wish for.
The other day, the Times featured columns by Senator John McCain and their regular op-ed writer Thomas Friedman that might have found readers yearning for the sonorous liberal bromides in which the editorial page typically specializes. The views expressed by McCain and Friedman are alike in one respect only: They are bizarre, the sort of stuff that readers might once have encountered in some whacked out magazine put out by over-caffeinated nut-jobs, but that the Old Gray Lady of yore never would have dignified by publishing.
Yet if weird, they also qualify as instructive. Together, they illustrate how the fix in which the United States finds itself in this first year of the Trump presidency has resulted in the establishment becoming fully unhinged. Or maybe it’s just that Halloween is right around the corner.
Now in his eighties and waging a gallant fight against cancer, McCain is enjoying a latter-day revival of sorts. His willingness to criticize President Trump has restored his reputation as feisty, no-nonsense Mr. Straight Talk. Yet the subject of his Times column is not Trump per se. Rather, McCain’s purpose is to urge the administration to persist in the enterprise formerly known as the Global War on Terrorism. From the outset of that enterprise, back when today’s new recruits were still toddling around wearing Huggies, McCain was zealously promoting it. With Trump now the third president to own this benighted project, McCain aims to offer instruction on how to continue the fight.
The problem we face, writes McCain, is that “the United States is still dangerously lacking a comprehensive strategy toward the rest of the Middle East in all of its complexity,” a statement of the obvious if there ever was one. This absence of strategy, he continues, is “the unfortunate legacy that the Obama administration left for its successor,” a claim that is simultaneously true and deeply misleading. (Did the George W. Bush administration have any such “comprehensive strategy”?) Particularly troubling, in McCain’s view, and emblematic of the existing strategic vacuum, is the fact that in recent days Iraqi militias, armed and equipped by the United States, have engaged in skirmishes with Kurdish fighters, also armed and equipped by the United States. In Iraq, we are, in effect, supporting both sides in an embryonic civil war that may yet become an all-out fight.
“This is totally unacceptable,” McCain declares. Further, these clashes “are symptomatic of a deeper problem,” namely that “the regional order in the Middle East is rapidly collapsing” while “American power and influence is [sic] diminishing there.”
What has caused this unfortunate turn of events? McCain has a ready answer: It is “largely because over the past eight years the United States has withdrawn from the region.”
In short, it’s all Obama’s fault. Altogether ignored is the role that U.S. military actions in and around the Middle East dating from well before Obama showed up played in creating the instability that McCain now decries. Also ignored are these facts: Whether for better or worse (and it’s been more the latter than the former), Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, overthrew Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, vastly expanded the use of drones as instruments of assassination, and initiated the campaign against ISIS for which the Trump administration now claims credit. Oh, and he nailed Osama bin Laden, too. Some withdrawal.
So what remains of order in the Middle East may indeed be “rapidly collapsing,” as McCain suggests. But to cite a U.S. withdrawal from the region as the cause is the inverse of true.
To put it another way, Mr. Straight Talk is peddling nonsense, carefully curated to glide past his own role and that of the Republican Party more generally in creating the mess we’re in. In sum, McCain’s column is an exercise in rank dishonesty.
And the solution? McCain doesn’t quite say, instead descending into sheer babble: “We need a strategy that lifts our sights above the tactical level and separates the urgent from the truly important.” I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but my guess is that, if pressed for details, McCain will argue for more war, not less. He will ignore what the wars he has so energetically endorsed have cost and what little they have accomplished.
And yet McCain’s column stands as a model of logic and circumspection in comparison to Thomas Friedman’s. If McCain’s reputation has spiked upward lately, Friedman’s has tanked, at least so it seems to me. The glib prophet of globalization remains glib, but his prophecies have proven largely bogus.
The title of Friedman’s piece takes the form of a directive: “General Mattis, Stand Up to Trump or He’ll Drag You Down.” Friedman begins, as he so often does, by quoting himself at length. In an earlier column, he had instructed Trump’s generals—Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster—to “stand up and reverse the moral rot that has infected the Trump administration from the top.” They failed to comply.
Now desperate, Friedman summons Mattis as “the last man standing—the only one who has not been infected by Trump’s metastasizing ethical cancer, the only one who has not visibly lied on Trump’s behalf, and who can still put some fear into Trump”—to seize control of the situation and save the Republic from the individual elected to the presidency less than a year ago.
“Secretary Mattis,” Friedman writes, “we don’t need any more diagnosis of the problem. We need action.” The necessary action is this: Along with Kelly and McMaster, Mattis should tell Trump “that if he does not change his ways you will all quit, en masse.”
“Trump needs to know that it is now your way or the highway—not his,” Friedman writes, certain that the threat of collective resignation will bring Trump to heel. In effect, he is urging Trump’s generals to coerce their commander-in-chief into relinquishing the authority that is rightly his according to the Constitution. They will make the decisions. Trump will sign the necessary paperwork.
Friedman insists that he is “not talking about a coup.” This, too, is sheer, indeed contemptible, dishonesty. He is, in fact, not only “talking about” a coup but using the nation’s newspaper of record to advocate a coup. Friedman wants our civilian commander-in-chief to take his marching orders from the generals. Well, welcome to the junta.
What does it say about the state of public discourse that views such as these appear in what is ostensibly the nation’s most influential publication? You decide. But I think it says that the crisis facing our country is much bigger than Trump.
Andrew J. Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.