New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was one of the loudest cheerleaders for the war in Iraq. His condemnation of Putin’s “war of choice” in Ukraine — a horrific act of aggression, like Bush’s war — could be a word-for-word rebuke of what he wrote then.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman in New York City, November 6, 2019. (Photo by Mike Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times)

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman just visited Kiev. Last week, he produced a long write-up of his various thoughts and observations about the trip. Ukraine is “scrappy.” There’s an iPhone app for air raid alerts. Various anonymous Ukrainians told Friedman they were afraid that “Putin’s pal Trump” would be president again.

If you can suppress your irritation at Friedman’s particular journalistic voice — he writes that “Ukraine is, like Israel, a real ‘startup nation’” — parts of his report are genuinely moving. There are moments where he manages to capture some small piece of the horror that the war has brought to Ukrainian civilians as well as all the soldiers fed into the meat grinder on both sides.

At one point, he describes passing by an “exhibition of destroyed Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers” and he manages to evince some human sympathy for the conscripts who died “terrible death[s]” inside those vehicles. He even drops a few hints that a negotiated settlement might be necessary to stop the bloodshed.

Mostly, though, he’s full of righteous anger at Vladimir Putin for starting the war. And on that point, I completely agree. Whatever you think of the geopolitical backdrop, whether better US policy could have de-escalated tensions before the war started, or what should be done now, there’s no way to (sanely) deny that the invasion was a criminal act of aggression.

But it’s a little much to hear that condemnation from the lips of Thomas Friedman — the same New York Times blowhard who was one of the loudest cheerleaders for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

When Friedman Went to War

Like many antiwar activists in 2002 and 2003, I read every word Friedman wrote about the impending catastrophe with horrified fascination. I remember, for example, the January 2003 column where he responded to the idea that George W. Bush was preparing to launch a “war for oil” by saying, essentially, Yes, and what of it? “There’s nothing illegitimate or immoral,” he wrote, “about the U.S. being concerned that an evil, megalomaniacal dictator might acquire excessive influence over the natural resource that powers the world’s industrial base.”

Bush administration officials mostly avoided talking like that. Instead, the official justification for the invasion was that Saddam Hussein was a) developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) that b) for some reason he would decide to share with his mortal enemies in Al Qaeda. When a) was revealed as an outright lie, hawks started to put more emphasis on the idea that the war was being fought for democracy — never mind that polls at the time showed that a supermajority of Iraqis supported the armed insurgency to drive out the occupying US troops.

Here’s how Friedman justified the war in a May 2003 conversation with Charlie Rose:

What really mattered, he told Rose, was that Iraq was in a “part of the world” where Islamic extremism flourished. There was a “terrorism bubble” in the Arab world that led to the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Either he forgot that the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and that Hussein’s dictatorship brutally suppressed Islamic extremists in Iraq or he considered these to be unimportant details. “What we needed to do,” he said, “was go over to that part of the world and take a very big stick right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble.” Terrorists needed to see “American boys and girls going house to house — from Basra to Baghdad — and basically saying… suck. on. this.”

What the bubble-bursting meant in practice was that hundreds of thousands of human beings lost their lives, millions became refugees, and successive waves of bloodshed and chaos rocked the region. Meanwhile, Friedman kept assuring his readers that the “next six months” things could turn around. He said this in November 2003, June 2004, early October 2004, late November 2004, September 2005, December 2005, January 2006, March 2006, April 2006, and May 2006. It became a proper noun: the “Friedman Unit.”

Friedman’s Short Memory

Somehow, though, sixteen years after American troops rolled into Baghdad — and three years before the Russian army tried to take Kiev — Friedman was still rationalizing his support for the war. He had the strongest of stomachs when he was considering the death toll of Bush’s war. But the invasion of Ukraine? That he calls “obvious a case of right versus wrong, good versus evil, as you find in international relations since World War II.”

I suspect that a lot of survivors of the napalm and cluster bombs dropped on targets ranging from jungles in Vietnam to densely populated neighborhoods in Baghdad over the course of the eight decades since World War II might be able to think of a few other obvious cases.

Friedman writes:

What Putin is doing in Ukraine is not just reckless, not just a war of choice, not just an invasion in a class of its own for overreach, mendacity, immorality and incompetence, all wrapped in a farrago of lies. What he is doing is evil. He has trumped up any number of shifting justifications — one day it was removing a Nazi regime in power in Kyiv, the next it was preventing NATO expansion, the next it was fending off a Western cultural invasion of Russia — for what ultimately was a personal flight of fancy.

Let’s apply this list of charges to the invasion of Iraq, shall we?

Reckless? Check.

War of choice? Check.

Immorality? Incompetence? Shifting justifications? Farrago of lies? Check, check, check, and check.

And he seems to have trouble keeping his own story straight. At one point, he enthuses that if Russia is defeated, Ukraine’s “integration into the European Union and NATO someday would constitute a power shift that could rival the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification.” In what world could Friedman be right about the geopolitical stakes, but also right that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was more of a “war of choice” than Bush’s invasion of Iraq?

Again: none of this is even close to enough justify Russia’s invasion. Hundreds of thousands of people have already lost their lives and those hundreds of thousands becoming millions before it’s all over is very far from being the worst-case scenario. The war is not only morally indefensible but astonishingly counterproductive on its own terms. Russian imperialists are no less capable than American imperialists of making catastrophically self-defeating decisions, and far from putting a stop to NATO expansion, the invasion has considerably accelerated it.

But if you went house to house in Bethesda, Maryland, looking for the pundit with the least standing to condemn wars of choice justified with farragoes of lies, it would be hard to do better than Thomas Friedman.


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