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Friedman and the Absurdity of Our Foreign Policy Debates

Tom Friedman has written another column that rivals his love letter to Mohammed bin Salman in all its cringe-inducing foolishness:

One day they may name a street after President Trump in Tehran. Why? Because Trump just ordered the assassination of possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East: Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

Friedman has had exceptionally poor judgment on foreign policy, especially when it comes to the Middle East, for at least the last two decades. He confirms that he has learned nothing from his previous failures with another column that is overflowing with ignorance, false claims, and hubris. He repeats the most brain-dead talking points as if they are original insights:

Think of the miscalculations this guy made. In 2015, the United States and the major European powers agreed to lift virtually all their sanctions on Iran, many dating back to 1979, in return for Iran halting its nuclear weapons program for a mere 15 years, but still maintaining the right to have a peaceful nuclear program. It was a great deal for Iran. Its economy grew by over 12 percent the next year. And what did Suleimani do with that windfall?

He and Iran’s supreme leader launched an aggressive regional imperial project that made Iran and its proxies the de facto controlling power in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana.

Where to begin? First, there is the nonsense of claiming that Iran has “de facto controlling power” in these four countries. That grossly oversimplifies the politics of these countries, ignores the agency of local actors, and inflates Iranian influence. It unthinkingly echoes Saudi and Israeli propaganda, and it actually flatters the Iranian government by crediting them with more power than they have. Then there is the implication that seeking to increase Iranian influence abroad is something that Soleimani chose, as if he were the one setting policy instead of implementing it. As famous as Soleimani became, he was not the one deciding on policy, so Friedman is insulting the wrong person.

Friedman refers to an Iranian “nuclear weapons program” that hadn’t existed for more than ten years at the time that the JCPOA was concluded. Then there is the misleading claim that the U.S. and its allies agreed to lift “virtually all their sanctions” on Iran when they only agreed to lift sanctions related to the nuclear program, and the actual relief from these sanctions was very slow and grudging. No dumb piece of commentary about Iran would be complete without a reference to an “imperial project” that doesn’t exist. Above all, there is the ridiculous belief that Iran was ever going to abandon its foreign policy developed over the last four decades simply because it concluded a nonproliferation agreement. If Friedman would like to be informed about what is going on the region, perhaps he could try reading the reporting from his own newspaper. The New York Timesreports this tonight:

Suddenly, with one targeted assassination, the nation rallied behind its leaders.

Young and old. Rich and poor. Hard-liner and reformer, General Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful military leader, was almost universally admired and had near cult figure status. After being killed in Baghdad on Friday in a drone strike ordered by President Trump, his image is now plastered across Tehran, shrouded in black drapes.

Friedman doesn’t even attempt to understand why the Iranian government behaves the way it does, and he can’t be bothered to consider how Iranians view the region, so he misses the fact that Soleimani was held in the highest esteem by a large majority of Iranians. He was seen as being very effective in safeguarding their country from foreign threats. Friedman misses this because he couldn’t care less what Iranians think about any of these developments, and so he doesn’t take their views into account. Iranians aren’t going to be in any hurry to name streets after Trump for killing Soleimani. The fact that Friedman thinks they might just shows that he doesn’t know anything about Iran.

Friedman manages to work in a general swipe against the entire country before he finishes the column:

Today’s Iran is the heir to a great civilization and the home of an enormously talented people and significant culture. Wherever Iranians go in the world today, they thrive as scientists, doctors, artists, writers and filmmakers — except in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose most famous exports are suicide bombing, cyberterrorism and proxy militia leaders.

This is an insulting statement to make about an entire country, and it happens to be false. Iranians in Iran produce world-class films, art, and music, and they are a highly-educated nation. Perhaps if our government weren’t suffocating them with an unjustified economic war, Iran would be able to export many more things of value. Unfortunately, because sanctions have robbed so many young Iranians of opportunities at home one of the country’s biggest exports is young professionals who have to earn a living in other countries. Friedman’s line is a dismissive and derogatory statement about the Iranian people, and it shows how readily Friedman is willing to conflate the people with their government when it suits his rhetorical purposes.

All of this is Friedman’s way of avoiding having to say anything substantive about the reckless and dangerous decision by our government to commit an act of war against Iran without good reason. Here is someone writing for one of the biggest newspapers in the world, and he uses his position to troll a dead man. His only response to one of the most important questions of the moment is to shrug:

I have no idea whether this was wise or what will be the long-term implications.

Funny how he has very strong opinions about everything else, but he professes to be stumped when it comes to thinking about the implications of a drastic military escalation against another country.

Friedman is one of the most high-profile columnists who writes regularly about foreign policy and international affairs, and he is consistently one of the worst. This is hardly a secret, but it doesn’t stop him from having considerable influence anyway. It is a measure of just how horrible our foreign policy debates are that he has such a prominent platform to spread misinformation and reinforce lazy and insulting stereotypes about entire nations. This latest column is exactly the sort of smug and arrogant commentary on foreign policy that the U.S. can least afford when we are on the brink of another unnecessary war.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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