The Dangers of Revisionism: Tom Friedman tries to hide his "very big stick"

Re-writing the history of the Iraq War threatens to suppress the vital lessons that should be learned from it.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published November 30, 2008 10:21AM (EST)

With a new administration ascending to power in a matter of weeks, witnessing Beltway denizens desperately scampering to re-write their role in the last eight years is nothing short of dizzying:

Tom Friedman, New York Times, today:

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Iraq to have relations with Israel anytime soon, but the fact that it may be developing an independent judiciary is good news. It’s a reminder of the most important reason for the Iraq war: to try to collaborate with Iraqis to build progressive politics and rule of law in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, a region that stands out for its lack of consensual politics and independent judiciaries.

Tom Friedman, The Charlie Rose Show, May 30, 2003 (as part of the #1 museum video exhibit illustrating America's political class during the Bush Era):

ROSE:  Now that the war is over, and there's some difficulty with the peace, was it worth doing?

FRIEDMAN:  I think it was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie.  I think that, looking back, I now certainly feel I understand more what the war was about . . . . What we needed to do was go over to that part of the world, I'm afraid, and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. . . .

And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand?  You don't think we care about our open society? . . . .

Well, Suck. On. This.  That, Charlie, was what this war was about.  

We could have hit Saudi Arabia.  It was part of that bubble.  Could have hit Pakistan.  We hit Iraq because we could.  That's the real truth.

Tom Freidman, NPR's Talk of the Nation, September 23, 2003:

What we had to do, I believe at some point, was to go into the very heart of that world and burst that bubble. And the message was, "Ladies and gentlemen, which part of this sentence don't you understand?" . . . . And that's what I believe ultimately this war was about. And guess what? People there got the message, OK, in the neighborhood. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message. But they got the message and the message was, "You will now be held accountable" . . . .

From the deranged desire to force Iraqi civilians from Basra to Baghdad to "suck on" his imaginary "very big stick" -- "pound them across the side of their heads" with his "2-by-4" -- to his magnanimous goal of "collaborating with them" to "build progressive politics," Freidman's justification for the invasion radically changes without notice or acknowledgment. 

Even as recently as May of this year, Friedman was arguing that the "real umbrella story in the Middle East today" is the "Cold War" between what he called -- with typical adolescent, banner-waving simplicity --"Team America" and Iran, and he confessed that everything we're doing in the Middle East is about our our "struggle for influence across the region."  In November of last year, Friedman was again beating his little chest while instructing Barack Obama that -- in order to deal with Iran -- he would need "Tony Soprano by your side, not Big Bird" and would require "a Dick Cheney standing over his right shoulder, quietly pounding a baseball bat [another big stick] into his palm."  Yet today, Friedman seamlessly hauls out the self-glorifying claim that the "most important reason" for the invasion of Iraq is that we wanted to teach them the joys of Freedom.

In 2006 and 2007, our political class was openly flirting with involuntary regret -- and even admissions of wrongdoing -- for its almost unanimous support for the attack on Iraq.  That the war was a disaster was so undeniably clear that support for it was coming to be seen as a source of shame, and some of the most prominent supporters of the war were even resorting to outright falsehoods in order to pretend that they had opposed it from the start.

All of that is changing again.  Even as Americans still overwhelmingly view the war itself as a mistake, we're back to the conventional wisdom among our political class that the invasion was not only justified and wise, but also noble in spirit and motive.  The only problem was Bush's mismanagement of our benevolent quest to free the oppressed.  As Friedman puts it today:

In 2003, the United States, under President Bush, invaded Iraq to change the regime. Terrible postwar execution and unrelenting attempts by Al Qaeda to provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war turned the Iraqi geopolitical space into a different problem -- a maelstrom of violence for four years, with U.S. troops caught in the middle. A huge price was paid by Iraqis and Americans. This was the Iraq that Barack Obama ran against.

Freidman's ideological soulmate, The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, similarly editorializes today that what destroyed Bush's presidency was not the war itself or the fact that it was launched based on purely false pretenses and was illegitimate and wrong, but instead, was merely Bush's "mismanagement of the war." 

The war itself was fine and right.  Only its execution was flawed.  We just need better war managers next time.  That's the consensus that has re-emerged.  And much of the palpable establishment excitement over the Obama administration is grounded not in the expectation that he will change this core mentality -- they clearly think, rightly or wrongly, that he won't -- but only that he'll execute and manage it more competently.

For a short while, it appeared that the one silver lining in the carnage and devastation wreaked by the U.S. attack on Iraq would be a palliative effect on the war-loving pathology among our political establishment.  As Vietnam did for some short period of time, Iraq could have re-taught both the evil and stupidity of commencing optional wars against countries that haven't attacked us and couldn't do so, and more generally, could have underscored the grave error in viewing the battle against Muslim extremism through the glorious prism of "War."  

But with this intense Friedmanesque revisionism well underway -- whereby war cheerleaders like Friedman were Right and Good all along and it was only the incompetent Bush and Rumsfeld who ruined everything with their "bumbling" -- it seems increasingly likely that the opposite lesson will be learned.  Attacking, invading and occupying other countries in order to change their governments to ones we prefer is the smart, wise and just thing to do.  Friedman's term for it today is "collaborating with them to build progressive politics."  Especially if there is another terrorist attack on U.S. soil -- but even if there isn't -- the only lesson being drawn from the Iraq debacle in these precincts is that from now on, we just need to plan and execute it better, so that the Good and Just people who cheer these wars on have their noble schemes vindicated a lot sooner and a lot more proficiently.

Glenn Greenwald

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