He May Be Slow, But He Ain’t Blind

Tom Friedman, I mean (with apologies to Dwight Yoakum). Friedman is knowledgeable about the Middle East, but intellectually, he is a follower, not a leader. So he is a little late to the party in terms of understanding, and apparently endorsing, the Bush administration’s strategy for the Middle East. In today’s New York Times, Friedman writes:

In visiting Gaza and Israel a few weeks ago, I realized how much the huge drama in Iraq has obscured some of the slower, deeper but equally significant changes happening around the Middle East [Ed.: Or maybe caused them?]. To put it bluntly, the political parties in the Arab world and Israel that have shaped the politics of this region since 1967 have all either crumbled or been gutted of any of their original meaning.
Iraq is not the only country in this neighborhood struggling to write a new social contract and develop new parties. The same thing is going on in Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Gaza. If you like comparative politics, you may want to pull up a chair and pop some popcorn, because this sort of political sound and light show comes along only every 30 or 40 years.
“Fatah never made the transition from a national liberation movement to civil society,” said the Palestinian reformist legislator Ziad Abu Amr. Iraq’s Baath Party was smashed to bits by President Bush. Syria’s Baath – because of the loss of both its charismatic leader, Hafez al-Assad, and Lebanon, its vassal and launching pad for war on Israel – has no juice anymore. Lebanon’s Christian Phalange Party and Amal Party, and the other ethnic parties there, are all casting about for new identities, now that their primary obsessions – the Syrian and Israeli bogymen – have both left Lebanon. Egypt’s National Democratic Party, which should be spearheading the modernization of the Arab world, can’t get any traction because Egyptians still view it as the extension of a nondemocratic regime.
Intensifying these pressures is the big change from Washington, said the Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki: “As long as Washington was happy with regimes that offered only stability, there was no outside pressure for change. Now that the Bush administration has taken a bolder position, the public’s expectations with regard to democratization are becoming greater. But the existing parties were not built to deliver that. So unless new ones emerge, either Hamas or anarchy could fill the vacuum.”

In other words, the Bush administration’s strategy for the region is working. So far, Friedman’s loyalty to the Democratic Party has always trumped his willingness to draw the obvious conclusions from his own observations. It will be interesting to see whether at some point, he will be willing to acknowledge that he and his fellow liberals were wrong, and President Bush was right.
UPDATE: Reader Nathan Clark writes:

You are way too harsh on Thomas Friedman. He actually supported the invasion of Iraq. Friedman was one of the few prominent liberals who cautiously accepted the notion that regime change could spur democratization across the Arab world. For him it was always the strongest rationale for liberating Iraq. If anything, his most recent column was validating what he had written before the war. (See below.)

Nathan included some good quotes from Friedman’s columns, and, especially, an excerpt from a speech Friedman gave at Yale.
Nathan makes a good point, and it is true that Friedman has previously acknowledged the logic of Bush’s policy in the Middle East. My criticism of Friedman, as expressed here, for example, is that he essentially admits that the administration’s Middle Eastern policy is right, but instead of lending the administration his support, he puts emphasis on his criticisms of relatively minor aspects of the administration’s policies for, I think, partisan reasons. Thus, in the column discussed in the post linked to above, Friedman wrote:

The Bush team is certainly not fostering all this when it mismanages a war it launched to liberate the people of Iraq. Its performance has been pathetic, and I understand anyone on the right or the left who wants to wash his hands of the whole thing.

I think that if the same policies were being pursued by a Democratic administration, Friedman would be an enthusiastic and vocal supporter. Now, however, even when he implicitly acknowledges the correctness of the Bush team’s approach to the region, he avoids giving them proper credit for the positive developments currently taking place.
If Friedman thinks that is an unfair assessment of his writings on the subject, we’d be glad to hear from him, and will publish any response he makes.


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