The Friedman Principle

The influential New York Times columnist's vision of spreading democracy through the Arab world is this era's domino theory—and it is just as misguided

By Jack Beatty

Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times, attributes wonder-working power to the U.S. intervention in Iraq. For him, it is not about finding WMD or opening a new front in the war on terror or even ending a cruel regime. More is at stake—the transformation of the Arab world from autocracy to democracy.

The Bush State Department identified the demiurge of this deliverance, in a paper scoffing at its chances of success, as the second coming of the domino theory. Friedman has argued that much as the propaganda of the good life from Western Europe undermined communism's grip on Eastern Europe, emanations from a democratic Iraq will precipitate democratic revolts against the Arab despots or force them to reform to head off revolution. Their long-suffering people will gain, but so will U.S. national security. Legitimate Arab polities with opposition parties, Friedman has taught us, are the only long-term solution to terrorism, which is rooted in domestic political frustration.

This maximalist vision—which, in the absence of weapons of mass destruction President Bush and others in his Administration have been playing up as a rationale for the war and its punishing sequel—is morally attractive and strategically astute, but programmatically inordinate. To transform Araby and dry up the roots of terror: that sounds like an objective worth paying any price or bearing any burden to achieve. But who will pay that price? Other people's kids who would not know Tom Friedman from a cord of wood. Yet his views, his vision, could get them killed.

There is a Vietnam shadow on Friedman's grand strategy. Not many Americans would have supported a war solely to secure the factitious independence of South Vietnam. It took the original domino theory to justify the deaths of so many U.S. soldiers and the expenditure of so much treasure: if we don't stop "them"—the forces of international communism—in Pleiku we'll have to fight them in Pasadena. (President Bush has said the same thing about the terrorists attacking our troops in Iraq.) In Syria, for one, the dominoes have been falling the wrong way. At the height of "major combat operations," Pentagon hawks made noises about an incursion into Syria. The House recently voted sanctions on Syria for its support for terrorists. The Syrian dictatorship has used the U.S. presence in Iraq and the increased U.S. pressure on terrorism to crack down. "The situation enables the regime to say there is a danger of war," Haitam Maleh, a human rights activist, told The Financial Times. "We estimate there have been over 700 new [political] prisoners over the past year."

Maximalist goals tend to sanction maximum sacrifices. Suppose our goal in Iraq was modest: call it tenable stability—broadly representative government—in one country. That would be consistent with our interests in the Gulf. The region's governments have never been democratic, but they have kept the oil flowing for more than fifty years. Stable government in Iraq: what strategy could realize that goal? A plan was recently proposed that might. It would:

  • turn Iraqi reconstruction over to the UN, which would have complete political control. The UN could draw in troops from around the world, and deal their host countries in on reconstruction contracts.
  • reverse Ambassador Bremer's tragic decision to demobilize the Iraqi army.
  • stand up some kind of Iraqi government tout de suite, to put an Iraqi face on the reconstruction.
  • pull U.S. troops out of the Iraqi cities, where the attacks on them are hampering nation-building and killing three to ten Americans a week. Replace them with combined Iraqi and UN troops. And deploy the U.S. troops, in reduced numbers, to bases near Iraq's borders, to guard against infiltrating jihadis eager to turn Iraq into America's Afghanistan.
  • Not a bad plan—but, alors!, the French foreign minister proposed it, and according to a jolting recent Friedman column France is our "enemy." Enemy? Not of the families whose sons might get killed if we try to use Iraq to redeem the Middle East. Not of U.S. taxpayers, who would bear a lighter burden if the UN were doing the nation-building in Iraq. It is the enemy of the transformational agenda, however.

    Friedman is a principled man with influence not only over Administration thinking but among people often opposed to Bush policies. "Even Tom Friedman..." In my circle that was a conversation stopper during the lead-up to war. "Well, if Tom Friedman is for war..." voices trailed off, second thoughts were thought. As a rare sane man writing about foreign policy—a man not besotted with power worship—he has moral credibility. To maintain it he needs to write a column on the costs of his vision, on its risks (Islamist democracies opposed to the U.S., for one), and on its feasibility that would help his readers judge the U.S. stake in the war after the war, which Friedman would be the first to agree has taken too many American lives.

    This article available online at:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/10/the-friedman-principle/303173/