The incoherence of Tom Friedman

If one looks at the big picture, Tom Freidman is far from being our most misguided commentator on foreign affairs. Yet when the topic turns to President Bush, Friedman frequently utters nonsense that would never have occurred to even the most wacky, Bush-hating critic.

For example, last week on Meet the Press Friedman informed Tim Russert (transfixed, as ever, in the presence of the pompous Times-man) that the U.S. desperately needs the support of the EU, Russia, and China on a variety of fronts, but cannot obtain that support because of Bush administration’s policies. Friedman explained that, although foreigners like to ridicule the U.S. for its optimism and naivety, they actually admire us for precisely these traits. The real sin of the Bush administration, Friedman concluded, is that it has bitterly disappointed a world that looks to the U.S. for hope and optimism, thus costing us the support we need to deal with Iran and other rogue and/or terrorist states.

Friedman’s attack could not have been more off-target. First, while many in the world do admire the U.S. for its can-do attitude in the face of old world cynicism, the leaders of China, Russia, and France are not among the admirers. They are, instead, the embodiment of the cynicism.

Second, Friedman has it exactly wrong when he claims that the Bush administration has failed to live up to the American tradition of can-do optimism. The main way in which Bush departed from old-world strictures was, of course, through his decisions to invade, and then to try to democratize, Iraq. One might criticize these decisions (as France has) on the ground that they underestimated the difficulties associated with promoting a stable democracy in a country like Iraq — in other words on the ground that they were naive. But one cannot fairly call them insufficiently optimistic and hopeful.

Friedman’s incoherence is partly a reflection of the difficulty of being both an advocate of a vigorous, pro-democratic war on terrorism and a Bush-hater (as opposed to merely a Bush critic). It is also, I think, partly a reflection of Friedman trying to be too clever.

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