Thomas Friedman (AP/Peter Schneider)

Thomas Friedman asks if US should arm ISIS to fix problems created by policies he supported

When it comes to what the US should do in the Middle East, it's a matter of Friedman vs. Friedman


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Luke Brinker
March 18, 2015 11:47PM (UTC)

"Should we be arming ISIS?"

That's the question New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman poses today, writing that while he loathes the terrorist group, also known as the Islamic State, it's not as if the Shiite militias fighting ISIS  in Iraq would govern much better:

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O.K., so we learn to live with Iran on the edge of a bomb, but shouldn’t we at least bomb the Islamic State to smithereens and help destroy this head-chopping menace? Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?

In 2002, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in Afghanistan (the Taliban regime). In 2003, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in the Arab world (Saddam Hussein). But because we failed to erect a self-sustaining pluralistic order, which could have been a durable counterbalance to Iran, we created a vacuum in both Iraq and the wider Sunni Arab world. That is why Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad.

ISIS, with all its awfulness, emerged as the homegrown Sunni Arab response to this crushing defeat of Sunni Arabism — mixing old pro-Saddam Baathists with medieval Sunni religious fanatics with a collection of ideologues, misfits and adventure-seekers from around the Sunni Muslim world. Obviously, I abhor ISIS and don’t want to see it spread or take over Iraq. I simply raise this question rhetorically because no one else is: Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq? Because the Shiite militias now leading the fight against ISIS will rule better? Really?

Tough questions. But the Middle East, Friedman notes, is full of them: "Because past is prologue, and the past has carved so much scar tissue into that landscape that it’s hard to see anything healthy or beautiful growing out of it anytime soon." Might as well consider a few rhetorical questions, if only to think about how to extricate ourselves from our problems in the region -- problems, of course, caused in large part by policies Friedman promoted.

Here's the judicious commentator in 2003, explaining to Charlie Rose why the U.S. absolutely needed to topple Saddam Hussein -- a man Friedman might today describe as "the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq":

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.… What they [Muslims] needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying "Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? You think this bubble fantasy, we're just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this!" That, Charlie, is what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia! It was part of that bubble. We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.

Alas, the U.S. occupation of Iraq did prove the smashing success the war boosters assured us it would. By 2005, Iraq was disintegrating into sectarian civil war, a state of affairs Friedman blamed largely on "the moral vacuum in the Sunni Arab world." In an October column that year, the armchair analyst who now bemoans the Shiites' ascendance urged the U.S. to "arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind":

Maybe the cynical Europeans were right. Maybe this neighborhood is just beyond transformation. That will become clear in the next few months as we see just what kind of minority the Sunnis in Iraq intend to be. If they come around, a decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and we should stay to help build it. If they won't, then we are wasting our time. We should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind. We must not throw more good American lives after good American lives for people who hate others more than they love their own children.

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Of course, the U.S. lavished no shortage of aid and armaments on the sectarian Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki, whose exclusionary policies fomented Sunni extremism and helped pave the path for the rise of ISIS. Perhaps this was how the sage pundit envisioned it all along.


Luke Brinker

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