Tom Friedman doubles down on magical thinking

To figure how not to think about events in the Middle East, it’s often useful to consult Tom Friedman. Yesterday, Friedman appeared on PBS with Christiane Amanpour to discuss the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Friedman looks like a fool in the wake of the murder because last year he wrote a gushing column praising Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, for implementing a “top-down Arab spring.” Friedman later went so far as to direct profanity at those who criticized him for this stance.

Amanpour asked Friedman about his praise of MBS in view of the crown prince’s probable involvement in the murder of Khashoggi. Friedman prefaced his answer by saying he wanted to address this on Amanpour’s program, as opposed (I assume) to a regular cable news show, because the question requires time to answer.

Friedman is right that there’s no short explanation for his failure to get MBS right. As it turned out, though, there’s no coherent satisfactory long explanation, either. Friedman said he always knew there was a big upside and big downside to Khashoggi. He hoped the big upside would prevail. That it hasn’t is due, according to Friedman, to dark forces that, behind closed doors, managed to gain sway over MBS.

Dark forces influencing Saudi policy? Who could have foreseen that?

But how, Amanpour wanted to know, should the U.S. proceed if MBS had Khashoggi killed? Friedman proposed that we should no longer support the Saudis in their struggle against Iran.

Does this mean we should support Iran? Not at all. Instead, Friedman says, the U.S. should mediate the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, so as to prevent these powers and their allies from destroying the Middle East.

That’s a great idea — simplicity itself — but why stop there? Why not usher in an era of good feeling between Iran and Israel too?

Friedman’s praise for MBS was naive. His belief in America’s ability successfully to mediate disputes between the most bitter of enemies is stupid.

How is the Trump administration supposed to get the Iranian mullahs — the “death to America” crew — to accept the U.S. as a mediator. The Obama administration couldn’t gain the mullah’s good will through the nuclear deal and the bribery associated with it.

Without giving the Trump administration any credit — we can’t have that — Friedman suggested that Iran might now be willing to talk with the U.S. That’s conceivable, given the pain Trump is inflicting on it.

But talking to the U.S., if it happens, is a far cry from allowing us to broker an Iran-Saudi Arabia deal. If talks occur, our objectives should be to strengthen the nuclear deal and to stop Iran’s use of force in the region. It should not be the pie-in-the-sky of bringing Iran and Saudis together.

Nor, for that matter, did Friedman attempt to explain why the Saudis would accept Trump’s good offices were he to try to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Indeed, Friedman’s explanation for why his high hopes for MBS were dashed — the dark forces theory — undercuts his prescription.

On Amanpour’s program, Friedman claimed that the Saudi leadership is now driven by deep and wildly implausible conspiracy theories. If so, it isn’t going to be wanting the U.S. to broker a reconciliation with Iran, and our efforts to do so would only reinforce the conspiracy theory crowd. Indeed, one need not be a Saudi conspiracy theorist to understand that the Iranians are hell-bent on destroying the Saudi regime.

Friedman seems prone to magical thinking, both in his explanation for MSB’s behavior (black magic, in effect) and in his prescription for America’s Saudi policy. Apparently, Friedman prefers magical thinking to choosing between the two realistic options we have: (1) remaining on the Saudis side even now that MBS’s true nature is there for all to see and (2) turning neutral, and thus being sidelined, in a momentous dispute between a pro-American regime and an anti-American one.

Failing to recognize that these are the options is how not to think about the Middle East.