Thomas Friedman plots a return to US glory

Those in the US must recuperate their ability to “do big, hard things together”, insists NYT columnist in new book.

Pulitzer-winning Thomas Friedman was a cheerleader for the Iraq War, but says Medicare is a national threat [EPA]

In a January 2011 Fox Business interview, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman – famed begetter of the notion that the US military should make Iraqis “Suck. On. This“- described his forthcoming book That Used to Be Us as “the first book I’ve really written about America”.

Published last month with the subtitle How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented – And How We Can Come Back, the treatise is co-authored by Friedman’s proclaimed “intellectual soul mate” Michael Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins professor who appears on an excessive basis in Friedman’s columns and who is credited with coining the mantra that “people do not change when you tell them they should; they change when they tell themselves they must”. Said mantra does not stop either character from cheerleading the US war on Iraq, which Friedman additionally manages to cast as “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched” despite simultaneously defining himself as “a liberal on every issue other than this war”.

As for Friedman’s assertion that the current book is the first one he has really written about America, this is not entirely reconcilable with his announcement during a 2010 presentation at Istanbul’s Ozyegin University that his then – latest bestseller Hot, Flat, and Crowded “is really about America”. He adds that The World Is Flat, as well as Hot, Flat, and Crowded, marketed as groundbreaking texts about globalisation and the environment, respectively, “have nothing to do with technology or environment at heart” and are instead “basically cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”.

This particular presentation occurred two weeks after the Israeli commando attack on the Turkish Mavi Marmara, part of the Freedom Flotilla endeavouring to deliver aid to besieged Gaza. It may appear more than slightly illogical that a US columnist who has just written off as a “setup” the slaying of nine Turkish humanitarian activists by a US-funded army in international waters – and who has furthermore placed the word “humanitarian” in quotation marks – is now lecturing an auditorium full of Turks on how “a lot of bad stuff happens in the world without America, but not a lot of good stuff”.

Friedman’s postulation that “green is the new red, white, and blue, oh yes it is, baby” is meanwhile only subsequently amended to reflect the geographical circumstances: “And it’s the new red and white in Turkey”. No relevant amendment is available, however, when it comes to Friedman’s declaration of political identification not as a Democrat or a Republican but rather as a believer in billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s theory that “everything I got in life was because I was born in this country, America, at this time, with these opportunities and these institutions”. Given that what Friedman got in life includes marrying into one of the 100 richest families in the US, owning a house valued in 2006 at $9.3m, and accruing $75,000 per speaking appearance, non-billionaires and foreign audiences might be excused for failure to sympathise completely with Friedman’s stated aim to pass on a similar climate of opportunity to his own children.

Victoria’s Secret and the tooth fairy

As author and current congressional candidate Norman Solomon has pointed out:

“It’s reasonable to ask whether Friedman – perhaps the richest journalist in the United States – might be less zealously evangelical for ‘globalisation’ if he hadn’t been so wealthy for the last quarter of a century. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the corporate forces avidly promoting his analysis of economic options are reaping massive profits from the systems of trade and commerce that he champions”.

A simple example of the incestuous relationship fostered by Friedman’s incessant bleating in favour of free-market capitalism and neoliberalism is his receipt of the first annual £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award for The World Is Flat, itself written under the guidance of CEOs and other corporate officials. Friedman repays the honour by referring to the investment banking firm – and soon-to-be primary culprit in the 2008 financial meltdown – as a “classy organisation … who take[s] business and business reporting seriously”.

Our columnist’s own seriousness in these realms is meanwhile continuously affirmed by such events as his 1999 chat with the owner of a Victoria’s Secret factory in Sri Lanka, thanks to which he discovers that in fact all Sri Lankans understand it is “stupid” to oppose globalisation, and testifies: “[I]n terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work in [said factory]”.

Friedman’s corporate mentality naturally dictates his response to the global financial crisis, which he prefers to blame on “The Tooth Fairy” and which enables him to embark on a campaign for planet-wide entitlement cuts in order to rectify current, allegedly unsustainable arrangements. These include the ability of elderly British citizens to “ride any local bus for free” and the ability of Greeks employed in hazardous professions to retire early with full pensions.

Mandelbaum’s ideological qualifications for co-chaperoning the restoration of US glory and global domination in That Used to Be Us are meanwhile underscored by his revelation as early as 2006 that “[t]he greatest threat to America’s role in the world today is not China. It’s Medicare”.

The US as a beacon of stability

The gist of the new manual is that, because Americans were once capable of “doing big, hard things together”, we can, through “collective sacrifice”, recuperate the ability. In other words: “That used to be us. And because that used to be us, it can be again”.

This is, of course, a delightfully straightforward formula for national renaissance – until one starts trying to determine what exactly the “big, hard things” of the past were. According to the book, they ranged from “settl[ing] a vast and wild continent”, a big, hard thing that was undoubtedly appreciated by said continent’s native inhabitants, to responding collectively to the threat posed to US power by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. Friedman and Mandelbaum do not explain why the host of “things” that occurred during the glorious epoch between Sputnik and the onset of US decline in the early twenty-first century – “the Terrible Twos” – should merit nostalgia, given that the “things” included the US air force’s secret unleashing of the equivalent of five Hiroshimas on neutral Cambodia in the 1970s, US support for a military regime in Guatemala that presided over the extermination of over 200,000 Guatemalans, and the US Public Health Service’s experimental administration of syphilis to poor black males in Alabama over a period of 40 years.

It is projects like these that highlight the vacuous nature of Friedman and Mandelbaum’s proposed antidote to contemporary domestic and global strife:

“Our goal is to sustain the American dream at home so it can be enjoyed by the next generation and to sustain American power abroad so that the United States can play the stabilising and example-setting role that the world wants and needs it to play.”

That any pretence to an “American dream” has already been soundly obliterated is fairly clear from the inclusion in this very same book of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s observation that the top one per cent of Americans currently controls 40 per cent of the country’s wealth.

Especially curious, meanwhile, is the duo’s choice of evidence of “this unstable world, [in which] the United States stands out as both a beacon and a supplier of stability”. Sources of contemporary “turbulence” are said to include “bullying governments, such as China’s; repressed and angry societies, such as those in the Arab world”, and “lone individuals, such as the source of the WikiLeaks cables”.

First of all, Friedman himself referred not so long ago to the Chinese government as being composed of “a reasonably enlightened group of people” who are more capable than US Democrats of “mov[ing] a society forward in the 21st century”. Second of all, why increased US power would resolve the issue of “repressed and angry” Arabs is unclear when Friedman acknowledges Arab “anger at US support for anything Israel does”, credits US oil dependence with “enabl[ing] the Arab world … to be ruled for decades by the same kings and dictators”, and opines: “The reason so many Muslims are angry is because most of them live under antidemocratic regimes backed by America”. One can meanwhile only wonder how the mass release of WikiLeaks cables on subjects such as the execution of civilians in Iraq by the US armed forces would indicate a need for the US to intensify its role as “supplier of stability”.

‘Too dumb to quit’

According to Friedman and Mandelbaum, it is none other than the US military that “has become the carrier of the traditional values that have become diluted in much of the rest of America”, such as “unabashed love of country and a sense of duty to serve it – and if necessary make the ultimate sacrifice”.

This feel-good sycophantism vis-a-vis the US war machine, which Friedman incidentally nominates for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 alongside Barack Obama, is compounded by Friedman’s signature portrayal of the armed forces as a bastion of multiethnic teamwork and a pioneer in the realm of racial and gender equality. The cheery cohesion of the military is of course cast into doubt by such phenomena as widespread rape among soldiers and a 2010 army report according to which approximately 18 veterans are committing suicide per day. Friedman’s ecstasy over the possibility of a “Pentagon-led green revolution” via the introduction of aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds meanwhile fails to alter the fact that the US Defense Department presently holds the distinction of being the worst polluter on the planet.

As for Friedman’s explanation of the 2005 execution by US Marines of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha (“occupations that drag on inevitably lead to Hadithas”), this does not stop him from haughtily asserting two years later with regard to the “melting pot” that is the US military: “We don’t deserve such good people – neither do Iraqis if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids”.

The reason “we” don’t deserve our military, according to That Used to Be Us, is that we “contribute nothing” while soldiers and their families shoulder the burden of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq: “Asking Americans to pay for a war with a tax hike used to be us”. Friedman and Mandelbaum’s reluctant acknowledgement in this very same book that “whatever benefits we get” from the Iraq adventure will not justify its excessive cost would seem to call into question the logic behind their argument that one reason for optimism about America’s future is that “when all seemed lost in the Iraq war, the US military carried out a surge, not a retreat, because, as one of the officers involved told [Friedman], ‘We were just too dumb to quit’.” It meanwhile bears mentioning that Friedman’s personal sacrifices on behalf on the war effort far outweigh those made by the average American.

From his prominent media perch, Friedman sells the invasion in 2002 as “the most important task worth doing and worth debating”. The advantages of doing prior to debating are subsequently underscored when Friedman lauds Tony Blair as “one of the most important British prime ministers ever” based on the fact that he chooses to promote democracy abroad by anti-democratically taking his country to war: “In deciding to throw in Britain’s lot with President Bush on the Iraq war, Mr Blair not only defied the overwhelming antiwar sentiment of his own party, but public opinion in Britain generally.” Additional Friedman wartime sacrifices include haranguing Donald Rumsfeld for dispatching only “just enough troops to lose”.

Two months prior to the war, Friedman explains that the real threat to “open, Western, liberal societies today” consists not of “the deterrables, like Saddam, but the undeterrables – the boys who did 9/11, who hate us more than they love life. It’s these human missiles of mass destruction that could really destroy our open society”. The resulting argument is that war against deterrables whose weapons are not the problem is “the most important task worth doing” and will solve the problem of undeterrables who are the weapons and who by definition cannot be deterred anyway.

As for Friedman and Mandelbaum’s heinous assessment that “[i]t was neither foolish nor irresponsible for President George W Bush to want to use Iraq as a lever to pry open the closed and autocratic world of Arab politics”, this noble defence of Bush fails to account for the fact that the war was illegal according to institutions ranging from the UN to the US establishment neocons who launched it.

The oil issue

Friedman’s insistence in 2003 that “US power is not being used in Iraq for oil, or imperialism” has been variously contradicted by his own determination that the war is “partly about oil“, his displacement of blame for US war deaths onto Hummer drivers, and the revelation in That Used to Be Us that the US military “guarantees the world’s access to the oil of the Persian Gulf, on which so much of the global economy depends”.

Given that the Iraq war caused oil prices to rise from less than 25 dollars a barrel to over 100 dollars a barrel, it is unclear how Friedman manages to proclaim in 2005 that the “shot in the dark” undertaken by the US in order to determine if democracy is possible in Iraq was “morally and strategically worth trying” when he himself warned in 2002 that, unless the US “encourage[s] alternative energies that will slowly bring the price of oil down and force [Arab/Muslim] countries to open up and adapt to modernity – we can invade Iraq once a week and it’s not going to unleash democracy in the Arab world”. It is similarly unclear how Friedman detects a need in 2011 for the US to extricate the world from the cycle it helped spawn in the first place:

“The world is caught in a dangerous feedback loop – higher oil prices and climate disruptions lead to higher food prices, higher food prices lead to more instability, more instability leads to higher oil prices. That loop is shaking the foundations of politics everywhere. That’s why the world needs a strong America more than ever, and that’s why it is vital that we fix our structural problems – now.”

Escalators and collective sacrifice

According to That Used to Be Us, America’s structural defects manifest themselves via a national failure to adequately respond to challenges in the realms of “education, deficits and debt, and energy and climate change”. As if this were not enough, it takes the Washington Metro crew nearly as many months to repair two escalators in the Bethesda subway station as it does for China to build a convention centre, while the door handle at the White House Secret Service checkpoint comes off in Friedman’s hand and the governor of Pennsylvania determines that “We’ve become a nation of wusses” when an NFL game is postponed for two days due to a snowstorm.

As Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard’s Linda Bilmes pointed out in the Washington Post in 2008, substantial progress could have been made in everything ranging from education to renewable energy to national infrastructure repairs had the US not chosen to spend over $3tn on the Iraq war. Stiglitz and Bilmes’ observation that “for far, far less than the cost of the war, we could have ensured the solvency of Social Security for the next half a century or more” also goes unheeded by Friedman and Mandelbaum, who argue that Medicare and Social Security must be drastically reduced because – though it “may be unfair to older Americans” – the programs only serve “a special interest”, not “the national interest”. Given that old age is the eventual destination of all Americans, it is not clear why entitlements are judged to be irrelevant to the general populace while shots in the dark in Iraq are not.

It is also difficult to determine how US corporations will be convinced to participate in the “collective sacrifice” that is currently required to reverse US decline. While Friedman and Mandelbaum prescribe that “[w]orkers must equip themselves with the skills to win the well-paying jobs, and entrepreneurs must create these jobs”, they simultaneously observe: “[D]espite the recession, US productivity has gone up, corporate profits have gone up, and unemployment has gone up all at the same time.” Confirmation of the importance of collective action is provided in a quote from Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric CEO and chair of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, whose CV includes shipping tens of thousands of GE jobs overseas: “What we lack in the US today is the confidence that is generated by solving one big, hard problem – together.”

Friedman has long been a proponent of the notion that “Father Greed: the Market” is the most powerful force on earth aside from Mother Nature. Given that Friedman acknowledges that the economic system he advertises as a blueprint for the entire globe is propelled by a desire for financial gain and material accumulation, he should not in fact be appalled to discover in the aftermath of the financial meltdown that the previously “classy organisation” Goldman Sachs has actually been behaving in an “utterly selfish” manner. Friedman and Mandelbaum’s discovery of a “short-term, me-first, never-mind-the-future attitude” in the US should be equally unsurprising.

As Craig Seligman points out in his review of That Used to Be Us for Bloomberg:

“[The authors point to the decline of the decent values Americans used to have. But being nice guys who don’t want to offend anybody, they meekly add, ‘Because it happened in an incremental way, we didn’t notice it – until the subprime crisis in 2008 showed just how far we had drifted from some of the bedrock values that used to be us’.

Really – they didn’t notice? I noticed it 20 or 30 years ago, around the time of the buyout boom and the junk-bond scandal and the elevation of investor profit into the one and only value that was driving many American businesses. When Gordon Gekko declared, ‘Greed is good’ in 1987’s ‘Wall Street’, it didn’t come out of nowhere.”

Friedman and Mandelbaum describe the US Congress as “increasingly beholden to the wealthiest and most politically extreme interests in America” and the political system in general as “under the sway of powerful special interests that work for policies that are at best irrelevant to and at worst counterproductive for the urgent present and future needs of the United States”. Lest readers panic, we are assured that this fundamental attribute of US democracy does not indicate that the country “has the wrong political system but rather that the eminently serviceable political system it does have is not functioning properly”.

The situation can be rectified, apparently, by introducing a third political party capable of inspiring Democrats and Republicans to “join hands in the radical centre”. As John Gray notes in the Financial Times, “the idea that a third-party movement could somehow enable America to avoid the decline that eventually overtakes every great power” is “remote from reality”. One can meanwhile only assume that the radical centre will be just as willing as the polarised extremities to wage war for corporate profit.

The future of Friedman?

The title That Used to Be Us was appropriated from the following statement made by Obama in 2010:

“It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us, and Singapore having better airports than us. And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth – that used to be us”.

The possibility that Obama’s complaints may have themselves been appropriated from Friedman’s own experiences with Chinese trains and Singaporean airports finds probable confirmation on the first page of the book with Friedman’s appearance at the Beijing South Railway Station, “an ultramodern flying saucer of a building”.

Regrettably, Friedman’s influence over the US president is not limited to keeping him apprised of how many thousands of solar panels exist on the roof of said building. He has also been sought out by Obama to explain more intricate phenomena such as the 2010-11 Arab uprisings, despite the fact that his contemporary analytical musings on the region include the idea that Palestinians are “gripped by a collective madness” and that a “ratio of targeted killings to targeted kindergartens” is required in Yemen: “For every Predator missile we fire at an Al Qaeda target here, we should help Yemen build 50 new modern schools that teach science and math and critical thinking – to boys and girls.”

Obama is presumably pleased, of course, to discover from Friedman that he himself is one of the causes of the uprisings, on account of his middle name (Hussein). Friedman’s ludicrous grouping of revolt-inspiring forces – which also includes Google Earth and the Beijing Olympics – merited a masterful response from blogger Sarah Carr, who drew attention to the additional revolutionary impetus provided by the 2008 Cheese-Rolling Competition near Gloucester, England, given that both Gloucester and Egypt contain the letter G.

In speculating about Friedman’s future as political sage, meanwhile, it is perhaps useful to review the formula Friedman and Mandelbaum provide to US workers seeking to survive the “hyper-flattening and hyper-connecting” of the world:

“[T]he most important question every worker will have to ask himself or herself [is]: Am I adding value by doing something unique and irreplaceable? Am I putting some extra chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry on top of whatever I do?”

In Friedman’s case, the question boils down to whether or not the chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and cherry are sufficiently approximated by cliched jingoism, self-contradiction, simplistic and baseless theories, incoherence, blatant racism, and warmongering – all interspersed with tales from Colorado ski resorts, sports analogies, criticisms of the media for equating politics with sports, and illuminating anecdotes about how the waitress at the Perkins pancake house in Minneapolis once gave Friedman’s dining companion extra fruit.

Barring an epiphany among Friedman’s readership as to the alternately petty and abhorrent content of his dispatches, there is still a chance that they will eventually catch on to the fact that he is simply publishing the same book about America over and over again – a practice decidedly incompatible with the argument in That Used to Be Us that only by being a “creative creator” rather than a “routine creator” does one ensure one’s continued relevance to the contemporary global marketplace.

Friedman and Mandelbaum regard the idea that the US military is “too dumb to quit” as a cause for optimism about the nation’s future. I prefer to peddle my own fantasy, which is that those too dumb to quit can sometimes be forced to, and that the only literary endeavour that lies ahead for our authors is a memoir – for which the title can at least be recycled: That Used to Be Us.

Belen Fernandez is an editor at PULSE Media. Her book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work will be released by Verso on November 7, 2011.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.



More from Author
Most Read