Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Thomas Friedman, Iraq war booster

The New York Times columnist broke down what the Iraq was really about for Charlie Rose on May 29, 2003.

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    So that's what that was all about?
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At the end of May 2003, America was on the verge of one of its longest-running, most expensive wars in Iraq. Yet Iraq war boosters were feeling vindicated by the swift march on Baghdad, which had fallen within weeks, and the swift collapse of the regime.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a fan of the Iraq war, appeared on Charlie Rose to crow about this rousing success on May 29 2003. The brief clip below from that interview (the full interview can be found here) is a fascinating glimpse into the id of Washington insiders like Friedman before the invasion in March of that year and for the first few months, at least, of what was to prove a long occupation.

He appears to still think it was the right choice. He wrote last June, in a column on Syria, that: "You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America" and "the only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics."

I don't ever remember a time in my five years in Iraq where the US was generally seen as a trusted "midwife" by a majority, or even a large minority, of people. Whether or not Iraq might have a found a better, less bloody way out from the shadow of Saddam Hussein without an invasion and occupation, is now something forever unknowable.

(I just made the below transcript from the above clip. I've omitted most "uhms" and the like, and may have made one or two errors since the audio is a bit compromised):

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, and I think that looking back that I now certainly feel I understand what the war was about and it’s interesting to talk about it here in silicon valley because I think looking back at the 1990s I can identify there are actually three bubbles of the 1990s, there was the Nasdaq bubble, there was the corporate governance bubble, and lastly there was what I would call the terrorism bubble, and the first two were based on creative accounting and the last two were based on moral creative accounting. The terrorism bubble that built up over the 1990s said flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, that’s Ok. Wrapping yourself with dynamite and blowing up Israelis in the pizza parlour, that’s Ok. Because we’re weak and they’re strong and the weak have a different morality. Having your preachers say that’s Ok? That’s Ok. Having your charities raise money for people who do these kinds of things? That’s Ok. And having your press call people who do these kind of things martyrs? That’s Ok. And that build up as a bubble, Charlie. And 9/11 to me was the peak of that bubble. And  what we learned on 9/11 in a gut way was that bubble was a fundamental threat to our society because there is no wall high enough no INS agent smart enough no metal detector efficient enough to protect an open society from people motivated by that bubble. And what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically uhm, and, uh, uhm take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it because part of that bubble said ‘we’ve got you’ this bubble is actually going to level the balance of power between us and you because we don’t care about life, we’re ready to sacrifice and all you care about is your stock options and your hummers. And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad uhm, 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 going to just let it go, well suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was 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. And that’s the real truth. “

What's maybe most interesting about this bizarre set of views was that they were so commonplace back then. Al Qaeda has hit the United States, so we must hit back at them. Not just at Al Qaeda, or the people who might have directly assisted them, but a much bigger "them:" A whole civilization who had started to loom in the sight of people like Thomas Friedman as an existential threat to America.

Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. The Iraqi people had had nothing to do with 9/11. Were there people there who were delighted to see the US get a bloody nose from Osama bin Laden? Yes. The previous decade had seen a US-backed sanctions effort targeting Saddam Hussein that crippled the country. Never mind that Saddam brought that upon his people with the invasion of Kuwait. Average people were the ones who suffered the most. In 1999 UNICEF estimated that the mortality rate for children under the age of five had doubled in central and southern Iraq since sanctions were imposed, from 56 dead children per 1,000 between 1984-1989 to 131 per 1,000 between 1994-1999.

I don't begrudge them their anger, not least because they weren't doing anything to harm people here in the US. I never understood the terror that seemed to grip so many Americans after 9/11, perhaps because by that point I'd covered small wars and grasping poverty we haven't seen the likes of in the US for generations across Southeast Asia. A few years prior, I covered the independence of East Timor. The murder of Monitor stringer Sander Thoenes there was what led me to getting picked up by the paper -- and he was just one of over 100,000 excess deaths in the tiny country during Indonesia's 24-year occupation. For comparison, that was one in seven people in East Timor. One in seven Americans dying as the result of war and occupation would be 44 million people.

I had schoolmates who died in the towers, one dear friend who departed from the heights of Tower Two just minutes before it would have been too late, and who struggled with survivor's guilt about the colleagues who stayed at their desks, for years after (most reckoned the plane that had crashed into the first tower was an accident, not a terrorist attack). It effected me, as it effected almost all Americans.

But it didn't seem that hard to keep some perspective. And having lived in Muslim majority Indonesia since 1993 and spending the years after 9/11 covering Al Qaeda and aligned militant groups in the region, I'd learned enough to know that a war that could be painted as against Muslims in general would suit Al Qaeda right down to the ground - such a reaction is what they wanted, since they reckoned that would yield them a bonanza of new recruits.

Mr. Friedman has gone from strength to strength in the years since, with handsome speakers fees for him to explain his theories about how the world is changing and evolving. But that brief clip above shows a man whose analysis is easily swayed by emotion, by sentiment.

"What they 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 going to just let it go, well suck on this" is not the sort of comment that comes from dispassionate, reasoned analysis. It comes from fear.

We learned in a "gut way (that) bubble was a fundamental threat to our society?" That's not really learning. As horrible as that attack on us was, there was no fundamental threat to our society. We have done a good job in the years since increasing security (to the point that, in some views, we have actually threatened our own open society ourselves) and preventing any further major attacks on our soil. Did the invasion of Iraq and taking out "a very big stick" accomplish that? No. 

Finally, even the notion of a "terrorism bubble" in the 1990s was a bit of a myth. The decade that the 9/11 attacks began so horrifically was among the safest ones when terrorism in the skies is considered ever (since supplanted by the last decade). There were 469 fatalities for passengers, crews and passengers for commercial fliers in the 2000s, 256 of those on 9/11. In the 1990s, there were just under 400 fatalities. In the 1980s, there were about 1,400 and in the 1970s, there were just over 800 killed. When total number of commercial flights are included to make apples to apples comparisons, the most dangerous decade was the 1930s, with 616 fatalities per billion passenger flights. The 2000s had 22 per billion flights taken.

If there has been a "terrorism" bubble it appeared to have burst around 1991, judging by this graph at the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland with funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Terrorism, though, surged again after 2003, largely with a rise in terrorist incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq associated with the wars being fought in those lands.

At this time of looking back, let's try to remember the track records and quality of argument presented by people whose views and advice are sought before the wars of our future.

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