The Incredible Lightness of Being Thomas Friedman

I don’t want this blog to get obsessed with any one individual, and I fear that we’re moving in that direction with Tom Friedman, the main foreign-policy columnist at the New York Times and named by an insiders’ poll at the National Journal last year as Washington’s most influential media personality.

It’s just that, for someone who exercises such influence, he so often seems to be so completely at sea — no rudder, no anchor, no compass even — just kind of drifting from wave to wave (or, in the case of globalization, from CEO to CEO). Apart from a generally liberal (with some important exceptions) and interventionist orientation, Friedman is erratic, to say the least, and often incoherent, as many more diligent critics, notably Matt Taibi, have long observed.

But the erratic and incoherent nature of his thinking struck me hard this week while reading his column, “Hobby or Necessity?” published in the Sunday Times, Mar 28. His basic argument is that Palestinian-Israeli peace was a mere “post-cold-war hobby” for the U.S. while it was a “necessity” for Israel in the 1990’s, but that recent events, especially since U.S. troops began fighting wars in the region after 9/11, have resulted in a 180-degree shift for both countries. While Israel now sees peace as a hobby, it has become a “necessity” for Washington. Citing Biden’s and Gen. Petraeus’ recent statements about the link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Washington’s own security issues throughout the Arab world and beyond — a link that, of course, is anathema to Netanyahu, AIPAC, Abe Foxman, etc. — Friedman writes:

“Now, in the same time period, America went from having only a small symbolic number of soldiers in the Middle East to running two wars there — in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as a global struggle against violent Muslim extremists. With U.S. soldiers literally walking the Arab street — and, therefore, more in need than ever of Muslim good will to protect themselves and defeat Muslim extremists — Israeli-Palestinian peace has gone from being a post-cold-war hobby of U.S. diplomats to being a necessity.

He goes on:

“At a time when the U.S. is trying to galvanize a global coalition to confront Iran, at a time when Iran uses the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict to embarrass pro-U.S. Arabs and extend its influence across the Muslim world, peace would be a strategic asset for America and Israel.”

Now, as readers of this blog know, I don’t disagree with any of this and think it’s highly useful that a columnist as influential as Tom Friedman is putting this message out to his readers. Rather, my problem is simply this: if Israeli-Palestinian peace is a “necessity” for Washington now, why didn’t he consider it a “necessity” back last November when he was arguing for essentially abandoning mediation efforts and “Tak[ing] down our ‘Peace-Processing-Is-Us’ sign and just go home.” What precisely has changed about the fundamental situation in the last six months?

This is what Friedman wrote Nov 8 in a column entitled “Call White House, Ask for Barack”:

“Let’s just get out of the picture. Let all these leaders stand in front of their own people and tell them the truth: ‘My fellow citizens: Nothing is happening; nothing is going to happen. It’s just you and me and the problem we own.’

“Indeed, it’s time for us to dust off James Baker’s line: ‘When you’re serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix.’”

Again, the question arises: what has changed between the publication of that column when Friedman clearly did not think an Israeli-Palestinian peace a “necessity” and today? And if the underlying situation — wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “a global struggle against violent Muslim extremists,” “more in need than ever of Muslim good will to protect ourselves” — is the same as six months ago, why wasn’t Friedman calling for a more aggressive U.S. stance back then?

As I said, it’s like he drifts from wave to wave.

Author: Jim Lobe

Visit for the latest news analysis and commentary from Inter Press News Service's Washington bureau chief Jim Lobe.

31 thoughts on “The Incredible Lightness of Being Thomas Friedman”

  1. Don't worry. In the span of the next few columns Friedman will reaffirm his message that the US is in Iraq to tell the Muslim world "Suck. On. This."

  2. Words often appear in suspicious clumps–as often was the case among the Neo-Cons. Strangely, "necessary" was repeated several times in Obama's speech to the troopers in Afghanistan as one recalls. He would never ask them to be there–went the refrain–unless it was "necessary."

    Never–he is just not that type of fellow obviously.

    Necessary is a vexed word logically and philosophically. Among rhetoricians it is usually not absolute but relational.

    "Necessary" to or for what?

    Obama never cleared the matter up.

    One awaits further clarification, including the matter of whether it will ever be necessary to leave.

  3. Friedman–like the rest of the know-it-all, fount-of-wisdom "pundits"–is a legend in his own mind.

    1. Would that that were true, but "pundits"–individually and in the aggregate–do have influence on the the public mind and even policy makers. You can't–unfortunately–write him off as merely a legend in his own mind. If you could, we wouldn't be discussing him here.

  4. How do you get to be one of these pundits, anyway? Is it an absolute requirement that one be exceptionally ignorant, unusually narrow-minded, with an extraordinary narrow range of life experiences? Could my parokeet meet the requirements and earn a big salary for squawking?

    1. Yes, but only if your parakeet stays within the range of permissible debate. That means no reductions in military expenditures and no "isolationism".

  5. I can explain why Friedman seems erratic.I explain it that for him the principal target which US have to implement for Israel interest is to deal with Iran “threat”.How you quoted :”At a time when the U.S. is trying to galvanize a global coalition to confront Iran, at a time when Iran uses the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict to embarrass pro-U.S. Arabs and extend its influence across the Muslim world, peace would be a strategic asset for America and Israel.” So he is not so much erratic.It is Israel-Palestinian conflict real and important and hurt the sensibility of all t people?If it is why to note that Iran uses it in her interest.Iran interest would be to copy Egypt and Jordan policy of serve American dictates in region and not the one which put her in sanctions and hard threatens to be attacked

  6. Are there really people who still take Friedman seriously, even though he passes as one of the great "serious journalists.?" The Tea Baggers probably don't read the NYT and Willie Kristol is occupied with making the rounds of all the papers peddling his own bewildering prose.The other neocons certainly know their drivel is propaganda for their failed out-dated pesudo Trotskyian philosophy.
    Seriously, now seriously!

  7. Convoluted arguments eventually run out of steam. When you try to propound the indefensible through semantic acrobatics over the years, you lose thread of your argument – and contradict yourself. For too long, the zionist occupation of ancestral Palestinean homes was cloaked in the need for redemption of holocaust victims – as though the Palestineans were somehow responsible for Nazi atrocities in Europe and had to be penalized! Today, Palestineans are refugees in their own homes. Let's call a spade a spade – and face up to the injustice to which we have all been complicit.

  8. Why is Friedman inconsistent? Good question. Why did Charles Krauthammer recently praise the New Deal and then almost immediately attack Obama's health care change and the coming VAT to pay for it? Health care change is a similar and consequent policy to the New Deal. Why did the left attack Bush for his warmongering and illegal surveillance of Americans while it now praises Obama for executing exactly the same policies?

    Three possibilities come to mind. (1) These columnists, for all their fame and following, really have no solid principles, thus their position is whatever suits them that day. (2) They are so dense that they have no idea that they've contradicted themselves. No, seriously. And (3), in the people's case both left and right, they are unprincipled knaves who oppose only members of the party that they dislike, not any policy those hated members carry out that their own party will also support.

  9. Why all the dithering on the part of Friedman? Why all this parsing of “hobby or necessity”? The occupation of Palestine, the blatant theft of their land, and the ugly racist policies of the Likudniks – these are all crimes against humanity. America drags itself through the mud even tolerating Zionism. People like Friedman are moral cowards or worse.

  10. "It’s just that, for someone who exercises such influence, he so often seems to be so completely at sea …"

    Among other foibles, Friedman just isn't a very intelligent person.

  11. Thomas Friedman at his core is a zionist. Even with this sordid orientation he is a diletante. Why people read him is a mystery.

    1. Nothing like a die hard Zionist pretending to be objective.
      Read Friedman's NYT views in 70's and 80's.
      A leopard does not change his stripes.
      Get out of the picture TOMMY?Really??/
      Does that include cutting the over $10 MILLION per day that Israel recieves from the US TAXPAYER?
      Israel's 2006 Lebanon war saw the US taxpayer even pickup the gas bill for their airforce.

  12. The nature of the news business is that the substance of what you wrote last week doesn't matter, what matters is who read it.

  13. The One thing in common among those so called pundits is extreme loyalty to Israel no matter what it does.

  14. My previous attempt to post the above contained the phrase "Petraeus played an anti-J-w card." (with an 'e'). The post was held for moderation and did not appear. Looks like we have a new naughty word on

  15. It’s just that, for someone who exercises such influence, [Friedman] so often seems to be so completely at sea — no rudder, no anchor, no compass even — just kind of drifting from wave to wave (or, in the case of globalization, from CEO to CEO).

    Just like the Establishment he represents and for which he cheerleads. What puzzles me is why so many otherwise outwardly intelligent people who exhibit at least a modicum of ability to think critically give this blithering village idiot the time of day, much less take anything he says seriously.

  16. He understands the important facts on the ground. The ground being whatever fear, paranoia, assumptions, ignorance or bigotry his all important American audience have towards the Muslim world. This is what he can work with. And for good measure he has the sophistry to maintain his liberal credibility while he's at it. He understands the state of play and where he can take it next to serve his idol – The state of Israel.

  17. IMHO, what has "changed" vis-a-vis Friedman (and the Obama administration) is Iran.

    It is possible that the U.S. is finally preparing to attack the Islamic Republic (and reports on seem to support that, e.g., the "bunker busters" that were recently moved to Diego Garcia). It is possible that Obama believes the outrage such an attack will generate, especially in Arab and Muslim countries, can be tempered by settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Of course, attacking Iran would be a fiasco that, by comparison, would succeed in making Iraq look like "a cakewalk." I'm just saying that this might be why Friedman is singing a different tune.

  18. Jim Lobe, the good man that he is, was being too kind to Friedman, an incomparable flake. Friedman’s devious jockeying, in the columns that Jim quotes, is quite transparent in its purpose. This Israel-firster wants America to now attack Iran in support of his beloved Zionist program.

    And Barack Obama is eager to oblige. The President is archly pretending to challenge the Israeli’s on the Jerusalem issue, simply in order to throw a bone to the furious Muslims before the US attacks still another Muslim country (after Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan).

    One issue that utterly puzzles me, though: If Israel can stockpile nuclear weapons without a word being uttered by anyone, why should Iran be any less deserving? And poor Iran only claims to be developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes!

  19. Generally, you do better to credit stupidity rather than cunning. Not just in this instance either. Incredible ignorance and stupidity fills political history in all times and places.

  20. If Netanyahu ate a baby live on TV, the Friedster would find a way to justify it. "That baby was giving him the evil eye! He was asking for it!!"

  21. Friedman is just one more ‘Max Headroom’ of the MSM that blows any direction the wind is going for the EMPIRE, as Mr. Jim Lobe so adroitly has pointed out here. He’s not unlike so many of his colleagues who are allegedly qualifed talking heads who offer good wisdom and thoughtful reasoning, but instead, what you get is the same kind of ‘nothingness’ as far as true point of reference, that you see with a compass needle that’s blowing in the same wind as this lame poster boy for; “more war means more prosperity, less human burden on the planet” think. You get the same thing from so many of these all expenses paid shill puppets who live off the dole of the MSM, who live off the blood of innocent, oppressed people globally. There should be a law against pawning off this kind of so-called ‘opinion’ as blatant, useless, and lame PROPAGANDA.

  22. Bankcrupt greenspan-Arabmadoff'z run this too big to fail zoO for the past 60yrs..Khalifah Aaed demand 10yrs to run a healthy Earth away from obama warlordz slavery

  23. I'm not sure exactly how the dates line up, but one thing that has happened in the past year or so is that I believe Friedman's wife's mall-building-empire fortune has dropped from about $2 billion to zero. That sort of event has a way of altering all kinds of things.

    1. How long before they are living in a "Hooverville", raising potatoes and onions in the ditch alongside the road?

  24. I just read the Nov 28th article by Tom Friedman. I am outraged! He wants ALL
    Americans to sacrifice for the good of the country. All but the wealthiest group are already sacrificing! It is the top 1% which includes Tom Friedman and his family who have not! He is a phony!!

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