I like Tom Friedman. Reading his column for the past seven or so years, I have come to believe that he’s a good guy and his column regularly provides genuine insight in a simplified format. Several years ago though, The New Republic perfectly spotted his weakness in a throwaway comment in a larger article* calling Friedman a salesman instead of analyst. It is true that his columns, while providing insights, are weak on analysis. Friedman’s strength is that he will start with a truly interesting concept that reveals something about the situation he is commenting on – but his weakness is that his analysis of that concept is poor, and often diluted by the kind of “pox-on-both-of-their-houses” journalism that in attempting to be objective, ends up creating a false middle ground.
This is precisely the problem with Friedman’s latest column which suggests that Barack Obama should keep Dick Cheney as Vice President. A weird concept which Friedman explains thus:
When negotiating with murderous regimes like Iran’s or Syria’s, you want Tony Soprano by your side, not Big Bird. Mr. Obama’s gift for outreach would be so much more effective with a Dick Cheney standing over his right shoulder, quietly pounding a baseball bat into his palm.
Friedman explains that a President Obama could say something like this to the Iranian regime if Cheney was his Vice President:
“Look, I’m ready to cut a deal with you guys, but I have to tell you, back home, I’ve got Cheney on my back and he is truly craaaaazzzzy. You guys don’t know the half of it. He thinks waterboarding is what you do with your grandchildren at the pool on Sunday. I’m not sure how much longer I can restrain him. So maybe we should have a serious nuke talk, and, if it goes well, we’ll back off regime change.”
It’s not a mind-boggling insight – that there are ways to leverage an unhinged and powerful Vice President in diplomatic talks – but it is a solid insight, and one that is often overlooked- not least it seems by the current administration. Where I see Friedman go off the rails is in his attempt to portray Obama’s Iran policy. He cites Obama’s “inner Jimmy Carter” as part of the reason for making this statement: “Mr. Obama evinces little feel for generating the leverage you’d need to make such diplomacy work.” I can see someone plausibly making this argument – but not without trying to square it with Obama’s comments about being willing to launch attacks against high-value targets in Pakistan, with or without authorization from the Pakistani government. I consider this a distinctly un-Carteresque policy.
Friedman does not want to let the nuanced and balanced approach to foreign policy that Obama has explicitly and repeatedly put forth get in the way of Friedman’s bumper sticker approach to political commentary. Friedman sees a hawkish hawk and a Jimmy-Carter-ish dove when in fact Cheney is a hawk in the most extreme and unhinged sense and Obama is a pragmatist. The superficial case Friedman is trying to make – that we need both Cheneys and Obamas to make progress might be correct. But his subtext – that Cheney represents the hardline position and that Obama represents its opposite is incorrect. In Friedman’s own account, Cheney does not represent so much the hardline position as the specter of an irrational man with his hand on the trigger. Obama, as indicated by his many statements on foreign policy, does not represent the extension of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy – but of precisely the balanced approach that Friedman seems to be advocating.
The problem is that either (1) Friedman does not know this; or (2) Friedman does not want to appear partisan. Either way, it has turned a potentially interesting column into a distorted bumper sticker view of foreign policy.
footnote: I don’t cite it because I couldn’t find it. It involved criticizing Friedman as a mere salesman instead of analyst and listed among others, William Greider as a better analyst.