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The Good News...

...is that Tom Friedman and Jim Hoagland have both written insightful columns on the topic of Iranian influence in Iraq. The bad news is that I have to admit it!

December 19, 2004 | Permalink


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Tom Friedman says that the US should support a neo-Baathist Sunni government in the upcoming Iraqi elections. He claims it is the only way to ensure the Sunnis participate in the election, and the only way to avoid a civil war. Matthew Yglesias says ... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 19, 2004 11:43:00 PM

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But the good news is that you could, and did.

Posted by: Saheli | Dec 19, 2004 2:06:11 PM

Didn't really understand, what Friedman was jabbing about. The same for Hoagland.
But just as Matt declared those two names (J.Miller would've been too obvious at that), I started wondering, shouldn't the commentators be tested in the light of their original views about Iraq?

Posted by: One-off | Dec 19, 2004 3:56:46 PM

Sorry, but what you see as "insight" in Friedman's article is just more of his usual colonialist-western supremacist best-way-to-control-the-natives-and-dominate-the-Middle-East crap. This is no different from his usual prattling.

Posted by: Shirin | Dec 19, 2004 4:02:31 PM

One-off, the reason you don't understand what Friedman was jabbing about is that Friedman has no clue what he is jabbing about. He prattles on and on incessantly, believing, based on his own publicity that he really knows something about the Middle East.

He talks to a few American officials, he talks to a few members of the American-appointed so-called "Iraqi" interim so-called "government", he talks to a few carefully selected shamelessly pro-American Arabs here and there, he filters it through his 19th century western colonialist mentality, and he comes up with the usual "insights" about using the "right combination of brute force and rewards" to manipulate the natives into doing what the U.S. thinks it wants.

He is a tiresomely self-important individual, and is held in very low esteem by most Middle Eastern people.

Posted by: Shirin | Dec 19, 2004 4:13:26 PM

The good new is your honesty and humility!

Posted by: Deborah White | Dec 19, 2004 4:21:13 PM

Thank you for the kudos Matt.

What I meant to say was that what we have in Iraq now is a problem of weapons of mass decision, in which too many Iraqis are deciding for themselves that the Americans are occupiers and imperialists, rather than heeding the wise rhetoric of our wise president.

What we need now in Iraq and the wider Arab world are more weapons of mass deception - movies, cable news shows, and pottery barn catalogs - meant to convince Iraqis and Arabs that we aren't what we are.

Posted by: Tom Friedman | Dec 19, 2004 9:53:32 PM

The articles may have been insightful. But since they advance diametrically opposed strategies for dealing with the current mess, at least one of them is very wrong. I guess that shows you can have a lot of insight and still be clueless!

I'm with Shirin. Friedman is a compulsive talker and kibitzer who seems to make it up as he goes along. If he talks enough, and throws in a sufficient number of wonky phrases like "carrots and sticks," he can pass himself off to a certain number of NY Times readers as a geopolitical strategist. And he always conveniently covers himself by sitting in several different camps at once. He always sounds very eafer, earnest and idealistic, though, whenever he gets an appearance on Charlie Rose. If Graham Greene were still around, I think he would write a new novel called "The Noisy American" with someone like Friedman as his main character.

Hoagland is someone I disagree with more often than not, but who is plugged in to the neocon propaganda engine and usually seems fairly well-informed. But I had the strong impression that he is just guessing as well. His article was "on message" at least with the latest pulp suspense thriller scheme from the neocon whiz kids - the Shiite Supremacy with the Chalabian Candidate subplot. After bitching for months about Iranian interference in Iraq, they have switched plans and now say there is nothing to worry about on that score - and that any Sunni politician who says so is a big, fat, mean liar!

What is clear from reading these and other articles recently is that Iraq has entered a chaotic, confusing and unpredictable period where hardly anybody really seems to know which end is up or where things are going. Everybody's working overtime trying to make educated guesses about the secret plans and strategies of a complex human menagerie of Baathists, Sunni sheikhs, soldiers, Kurdish politicos, Ayatollahs, militia leaders, jihadists, American democracy-building "experts, oilmen and foreign leaders. Meanwhile, all the secret political deals and monetary promises and payoffs are invisible to even relatively well-informed observers.

In the meantime, Fallujah is on communications lockdown, and as we all try to peer through the Pentagon smokescreen to figure out exactly what kind of hell-hole has been created there, it emerges that the city is another one of America's mysterious but glorious Missions Accomplished in which the fighting mission seems, inexplicably, to linger on well past the accomplishment. Yet Hollywood has already signed Harrison Ford to make a movie about the battle. I guess at least the producers in La-La Land know what is going to happen, or at least what dog to wag, and will write an appropriately happy ending.

There are stories coming out about plans to turn the city into a berme-surrounded Warsaw ghetto, complete with identity badges for all (non-evildoer)citizens and Orwellian iris scanners at the five checkpoints that will control all movement in and out.

Every day Iraq seems more like an insane asylum. I just hope they can bring off some semblance of an election there so the US can get out. My dream now is that the voting occurs, and that even if only 237 people vote John Negroponte says: "Looks like a clean election to me! We're going home!" Things might not get any better, but at least we wouldn't keep making them worse. Butit's only a dream - it's never going to happen.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 19, 2004 11:31:52 PM

Friedman is correct with his opening statement: [A]any American general or senior diplomat who wants to work in Iraq should have to pass a test. It would be a very simple test. It would consist of only one question: "Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?"If you answered "Yes," you would not be allowed to work in Iraq. You could go to Korea, Japan or Germany - but not Iraq. Only those who understand that in the Middle East the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line should be allowed to carry out U.S. policy there. And his closing statement also has an important lesson he learned from the time he spent in Beirut:Attention: Iraq is having an election. Elections are rare in this part of the world, so when they happen, everyone in the neighborhood tries to vote.But then he ends with: We need to make sure our friends do [vote] as well. Just one question -- any idea who qualifies as "our friends" these days?

Posted by: nadezhda | Dec 20, 2004 12:00:14 AM

"I just hope they can bring off some semblance of an election there so the US can get out."

Dan, do you really believe that a "successful" election will lead to the departure of the U.S.? I sure don't!

Posted by: Shirin | Dec 20, 2004 1:16:09 AM

Nadezhda, I do not agree with you that the passages you cite are insightful. In fact, they are simply typical examples of Tom Friedman's 19th century orientalist ideology, his arrogant delusion that he actually knows the Arab Middle East, and his fondness for tiresome cliches.

Posted by: Shirin | Dec 20, 2004 1:22:28 AM


No I don't either. As I said, it's just a dream.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 20, 2004 2:54:07 AM


It look like our latest friends are certain "neo-Baathists.". According the Friedman:

... The Bush neocons desperately need an Iraqi neo-Baath.

By that I mean they need to find a political framework that will advance the interests of the pro-Baath Sunni Arab nationalists in Iraq, but do it with a more progressive, pluralistic outlook than the old Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.

Of course, Iyad Allawi and his Iraqi National Accord buddies were supposed to be such neo-Baathists to begin with. It turns out, though, that once we got there and put the crown on his head, he didn't really have a lot of influence over the paleo-Baathists who were already there.

But the new "political framework" Friedman recommends, based on his sophisticated theory of the bazaar-like nature of Arab politics, apparently consists of leaning on our progressive and pluralistic Arab clients in the region to send bags of progressively pluralistic money to former Baathists to buy their cooperation. There is nothing like a pile of gold to progressivize and pluralize the mind of most recalcitrant dead-ender. I guess a neo-Baathist is just a paleo-Baathist who's been bought.

Some illusions die hard. If Friedman was thrown by the trembling hand of God headlong into the smoldering pit of hell, with a cohort of fallen liberal interventionist friends in tow, he and his posse would immediately begin loooking around for the more progressive, pluralistic sort of devils - the Satanic moderates - so they could neoliberalize Old Nick's kingdom and bring some long overdue political reform to the infernal regions.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 20, 2004 3:28:28 AM

Hoagland's piece seems more of a subtle anti-CIA argument than anything else. Somehow, the CIA is guilty of everything that is wrong in Irak. It strongly smells of neocon revenge.

Posted by: Carlos | Dec 20, 2004 9:49:36 AM

Right Carlos, it's the same old fight. Hoagland tips his hand:

They want the dictatorship of Islam and clerical rule," Shalan railed. He accused Sistani aide Hussain Shahristani of being an Iranian agent, much as U.S. intelligence sources earlier this year used that smear against a troublesome Allawi rival, Ahmed Chalabi (who is also on the Sistani list).

Neocons are still fuming about the Chalabi takedown, which they believe was a smear, and the success of CIA and State in getting their own Iraqi National Accord favorites installed in power. They wanted a secular Shiite regime ruling a de-Baathized Iraq. Allawi is a secular Shiite, like Chalabi, but he's also one of Friedman's "neo-Baathists". Now the neo-confabulators apparently think they have a new angle on the earlier plan, with Chalabi playing a more behind-the-scenes role and the religious Shiite leaders out in front, with pledges to write a democratic, non-theocratic constitution. But the Shiite list is under attack from rivals in Iraq who are trying to link it with Iran. So the neos have all sprung into action.

Hoagland blames CIA mischief, but offers Bush a graceful out - blaming the recent anti-list campaign on CIA operatives working on their own without adequate supervision, rather than pinning it on Bush himself.

The neocons have time on their side. They've already gotten rid of Powell, and have Porter Goss purging the CIA of its loudest anti-neocon dissidents.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 20, 2004 10:36:34 AM

I think Freidman is something of an idiot, though not as big a one as Kristof, but I digress.

Perhaps the only thing one must concede to Freidman is that he at least doesn't sit in an office somewhere and pontificate about issues of foreign policy as opposed to a shit like George Will who, so far as I can tell, never leaves the East Coast of the U.S. When Freidman writes about the Middle East, at least he's been there. That being said, I still don't think he understands what he's writing about 99% of the time.

Posted by: Jeff I | Dec 20, 2004 11:33:09 AM

Shinn & Dan -

You may find the two comments I singled out as too glib, and for that reason offensive. But I don't find them in error.

For me, Friedman's comment about straight lines was an often-merited whack at American ignorance about the worlds they operate in, not some slap-down of the Middle East as the exotic Orient. The straight-line types can't do nearly as much damage in societies where existing institutions are stronger than what we found in Iraq after the collapse/dismantlement of the Saddam regime. Friedman's warning is especially in order anywhere an organized military and diplomatic service is faced with an insurgency, since attempts to get to an objective by applying more force or pressure tends to be self-defeating, due to the jujitsu nature of insurgencies.

As for the "neighbors" wanting to "vote," one of the noteworthy features of groups the US is trying to understand and deal with in Iraq is that their sense of identity and sources of support have some significant dimensions that don't coincide with national boundaries. Where that was the case in Korea and Germany, the East-West divide imposed that boundary as a major organizing principle that overrode other cross-cutting group interests.

A major concern of mine before the invasion was that Iraq would turn into another Lebanon, except with far wider geographic ramifications in Iraq's "neighborhood." The way the US has played its cards has increased rather than decreased that risk. It's rather late in the game to suddenly try to mobilize a "pro-moderate-Sunni" initiative from outside.

My question about "our friends" is simply that I haven't heard of anyone within Iraq who would qualify as safe neo-Baathists and who want anything to do with the US. And encouraging Jordan or Egypt to say nasty things about the Iranians doesn't seem to move US interests forward either. So I'm as clueless as you are as to who/what he thinks he's talking about.

As for Hoagland, I agree it seems to be mainly another salvo in the anti-CIA war.

Posted by: nadezhda | Dec 20, 2004 12:20:58 PM

Dan, do you really believe that a "successful" election will lead to the departure of the U.S.? I sure don't!

Remember : you almost have to spell "rapture"
to spell "departure".

Posted by: frebnedzo | Dec 20, 2004 1:27:04 PM

I thought Friedman's comments about straight lines and bazaars were less a criticism of Western ignorance than suggestive of some traditional Western stereotypes about Arabs. The view seems to be this: "Arabs are childlike, irrational, shiftless and erratic. Unlike the industrious and intellectually focussed Japanese, Koreans and Germans, they are thus incapable of moving efficiently and clear-sightedly from the point they are at to the point they need to get to, but must be coaxed and wheedled into it. Fortunately, they are all merchants at heart, who would sell their mothers for the right deal, and are ultimately governed by the rules of the bazaar. They can all be bought. If one has sufficiently large piles of money, and has mastered the subtle art of haggling in the souks, one can get the desired deal."

And all those insurgents risking their lives fighting in the streets, or conducting suicide missions, I guess that's just there way of holding out for a better deal.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 20, 2004 1:40:50 PM

Ironically enough, the anti-colonialist criticisms of Mr. Friedman's analysis betray their own neo-colonialist sentiments. Although I disagree with the analysis in this particular column by Mr. Friedman (see my trackback'd post), the arguments being put out against him are far, far worse.

Let's look at the last comment by Mr. Kervick. He takes issue with Friedman's comparison of Arab politics to a bazaar, saying its emblematic of Western prejudices. But while Mr. Friedman placed this mentality in a value-neutral context, Kervick tries to imply that Friedman believes the bazaar mentality is inherently bad, which is not warranted by anything present in the article (and is certainly not inherently true, haggling for a good deal isn't necessarily an insult!). In doing so, Kervick does one of two equally bad things. Either he tries to twist Friedman's analysis so it links into a standard anti-colonialist critique (intellectually dishonest, as the anti-bazaar attitude isn't present in the article), or Kervick actually believes that Bazaar = bad and is criticizing Friedman for claiming the Arab world uses that particular political framework. The warrant that Kervick gives for "Bazaar-bad" is that bazaar politics are not like the "industrious and intellectually focused" peoples who have adapted American ideals. Implicit in THAT is that the only cultures that are valid are the ones that mimic Americana, and the Arab world is only legitimate insofar as it acts in the straightforward, orderly processional America has come to expect. In this view, Friedman's sin is that he argues Arabs are different (Oriental) when they are actually just like us.

But the false suppression of difference is as imperialist as the false creation of it. The view that we are all Americans, and view the world through the same lens is oppressive, as is the view that Arabs are so utterly foreign that the transmission of US ideals will invariably fall flat. Friedman's general middle ground (not expressed in this article particularly well, granted) is that the US should support democracy in other regions to enable cultural autonomy. The idea that dictators like Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak actually represent the cultural view of the Arab people they "govern" is patronizing and foolish. One must not confuse the government with the governed, especially when the governed have no say in who represents them. Friedman isn't arguing that Arabs are the same as Americans, nor is he arguing that they are so different that we can never share views or values. He seeks to work within the Arab cultural framework to achieve both universal human ideals as well as enable true Arab cultural autonomy as the governing body of the region. That position strikes me as both imminently reasonable and morally just.

Posted by: David Schraub | Dec 20, 2004 5:33:15 PM

David Shraub,

I think you misunderstood the nature of my criticism of Friedman. You say:

But while Mr. Friedman placed this mentality in a value-neutral context, Kervick tries to imply that Friedman believes the bazaar mentality is inherently bad, which is not warranted by anything present in the article (and is certainly not inherently true, haggling for a good deal isn't necessarily an insult!).

I implied nothing one way or another about what Friedman himself thinks of the bazaar mentality. When he likens Arab politics to a bazaar, he may believe he is complimenting Arabs; or he may believe he is disparaging them; or he may believe his description implies no evaluation one way or another. That makes no difference to me one way or another.

Rather, I meant in the first place to suggest that, in my judgment, one is simply committing an error, and a particularly widespread and noxious one, when one employs the metaphor of the bazaar as an explanation for all of Arab politics, as Friedman does in the article when he invokes “the bazaar-oriented politics in that part of the world.” In so doing, Friedman suggests that all Arab politics – the loyalties, the commitments, the organizing, the aspirations, the apparent willingness to sacrifice life and limb to achieve those aspirations – is ultimately an expression of the mentality of the bazaar.

You seem to suggest that a writer is only deserving of criticism for deploying erroneous stereotypes if the writer himself regards the stereotype as a negative one. But that just isn’t the case. My view is that the Arab politics-as-bazaar metaphor is an erroneous over-generalization of the description of activity in the bazaar to the political sphere outside the bazaar. It also happens to be a particularly harmful error, and one with a long history.

You claim later that I am guilty of one of two possible errors: either I have twisted Friedman's analysis in an intellectually dishonest way, so as to imply that Friedman’s article expresses an anti-bazaar attitude, or that I myself belief that the activity of the bazaar is inherently bad, and so I take Friedman’s use of the bazaar metaphor to be insulting to Arabs, whether Friedman intends it to be so or not.

As for the first possibility I have just dealt with it. As to the second, it is only half correct. I do not believe the activity of the bazaar is inherently bad, but I do believe Friedman’s use of the bazaar metaphor is insulting.

It is not insulting because “bazaar = bad”. I do not believe that there is anything bad about haggling over price in the marketplace. Nor do I deny the existence of cultural differences among societies, which make the conventions for negotiation in an Arab market, and the skills needed to do it well, different from conventions and skills at work in other marketplaces in other parts of the world. No doubt these differences are reflected in business practices more generally.

But I do think it would be bad for any society’s politics to be governed entirely by bazaar-like behavior. And that is not because of the difference between the bazaar and American markets, and a preference for American market values. I think it would be a bad thing for any society’s politics to be governed entirely by the codes of behavior at work in its markets, whatever those codes are. If every human political relationship in a given society were a kind of bargaining over some exchange, I would find that a reason to condemn that society. Since I think it would be a reason to condemn such a society, I do think it is insulting if someone erroneously suggests it is true. And I don't think the view that there is more to life than economic transactions is a peculiarly American view.

So if, for example, someone suggested that all of American politics – the canvassing, the intellectual discourse, the activism, the community organizing, the protest, the sacrifice, the campaigning, all of it – was nothing but a big stock market, and suggested that American activists and community leaders could all be bought by engineering the right sort of leveraged buyout, I indeed would take that as an insult. I don't believe American politics is merely a reflection of the stock market any more than I believe Arab politics is simply a reflection of the bazaar. Friedman’s attempt to work within “the Arab cultural framework”, as you put it, is to assume that Iraqi Arab leaders are dominated by purely pecuniary considerations and the values of the marketplace. That is an insult in my book, whether Friedman recognizes it as one or not.

Imagine if Friedman had written a column in which he said “Americans working in Israel must recognize the counting house and butcher shop-like nature of politics in this part of the world. As long as we work with our Jewish friends in America to make sure the Jews keep their thumbs off the scale, and give them their pound of flesh in the end, we can achieve our ends” Outrageous right? Yet there is nothing inherently bad, at least in my book, about money-lending and meat retailing. The reason it is outrageous is that it is both erroneous and an insult to suggest that money-lending and meat retailing are an expression of the political aspirations and activity of an entire people. It is especially insulting when this particular metaphor has a long history of hateful deployment.

And Friedman makes the same sort of insulting suggestion about Arabs when he suggests, in the context of his likening of Arab politics to a bazaar, that Sunni tribesmen can simply be bought by America-friendly Arab states with “bags of money," given the "bazaar-oriented politics of the Arab world."

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Dec 21, 2004 1:51:38 PM

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