Tom Friedman as Midwife

In the aftermath of Pulitzer champ Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times offering, “Syria Is Iraq,” commentators have begun to question whether Friedman himself has not discovered the joys of Friedman-parodying.

As Matt Taibbi remarked at Rolling Stone: “This column today is so crazy I have to think Friedman is kidding.”

To put it in Friedman-speak, this is a Friedman column on steroids, a distilled cornucopia of his signature journalistic maneuvers. In the first two paragraphs we learn:

[T]he lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America.

[ . . . ]

The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics. My gut tells me that Syria will require the same to have the same chance.

It comes as no surprise that Friedman’s gut is pontificating on the future of Syria given its established advisory role on foreign affairs matters (“I don’t know Libya, but my gut tells me that any kind of decent outcome there will require boots on the ground” — Thomas Friedman, 2011).

It is meanwhile perhaps thanks to the sheer distance between gut and cerebrum that Friedman’s latest gut-musings have incurred the following critique from Glenn Greenwald:

Friedman says that a country will be “stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless” it has America there. But Iraq did have America there, and — as Friedman himself points out just a few paragraphs later — it got “stuck in Hobbes,” precisely because America was there (“Because of both U.S. incompetence and the nature of Iraq, this U.S. intervention triggered a civil war in which all the parties in Iraq — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — tested the new balance of power, inflicting enormous casualties on each other and leading, tragically, to ethnic cleansing that rearranged the country into more homogeneous blocks of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds’). He literally negates his own principal claim —  a country that overthrows its dictator can only avoid Hobbes if it has a U.S.-like force occupying and controlling it — in the very same column in which he advances it.

Of course, Friedman has unwittingly confirmed in Longitudes and Attitudes that a command of facts and logic does not factor into the job requirements for a New York Times foreign affairs columnist: “[The] only person who sees my two columns each week before they show up in the newspaper is a copy editor who edits them for grammar and spelling.”

This explains how we end up with the trusted American “well-armed external midwife” in Iraq, who refrains from violating any laws of syntax or orthography — just as a “well-armed internal midwife” or a “bluntly-dubbed innate planet” would.

She does, however, violate Friedman’s 2006 decree according to which “[i]t is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war.” The notion of a universally trusted American midwife would meanwhile seem to have been debunked by Friedman’s own reports of anti-occupation protests and attacks on US forces.

As for Iraq’s simultaneous existence as fetus and US babysitting charge, the use of infantilizing terminology vis-à-vis Arabs and Muslims is a mainstay of Friedman’s Orientalist repertoire (“I feel like we’re like an unemployed couple who just went out and decided to adopt a special needs baby” — Friedman on Afghanistan, 2009). It could potentially be argued that his qualifications to dictate the birthing process in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere stem from his own reproductive experience — recounted in Longitudes and Attitudes — on September 11, 2001, at the beachfront Tel Aviv Hilton:

It was there, massaged by the Mediterranean breeze, that my head started to clear and I finally gave birth to the thought that had been bothering me most: “What kind of world are my two girls going to grow up in?”

There are a few possible answers. One is a world in which their father:

  1. criticized the Bush administration for implying a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda,
  2. lauded the US military for “going house to house from Basra to Baghdad” making Iraqis “Suck. On. This” in retaliation for behavior by Al Qaeda,
  3. announced in 2005: “We have to have a proper election in Iraq so we can have a proper civil war there,”
  4. announced in 2011: “For all of the murderous efforts by al-Qaida to trigger a full-scale civil war in Iraq, it never happened,” and
  5. announced this week that there was a civil war in Iraq and that it was triggered by the US intervention.

As for what Syria has to look forward to if it is indeed Iraq, Syrians are advised to be wary of any midwife who demands to be sucked off mid delivery.