December 21, 2011 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
For most of us, saying “I was wrong” is difficult. For Tom Friedman, Iraq War Cheerleader, it is impossible. In today’s column, Friedman returns to the war he is famous for boosting, sometimes in the most boorish of terms. Today he writes,
Iraq was always a war of choice. As I never bought the argument that Saddam had nukes that had to be taken out, the decision to go to war stemmed, for me, from a different choice: Could we collaborate with the people of Iraq to change the political trajectory of this pivotal state in the heart of the Arab world and help tilt it and the region onto a democratizing track?
In reviewing his columns from the era of the buildup to and early months of the Iraq War, it is true that his cheerleading was centered on nation-building, not on removing so-called weapons of mass destruction. In his column of January 5, 2003, Friedman wrote, “I have no problem with a war for oil – provided that it is to fuel the first progressive Arab regime, and not just our S.U.V.’s, and provided we behave in a way that makes clear to the world we are protecting everyone’s access to oil at reasonable prices – not simply our right to binge on it.” Two weeks later, Friedman again made the case for regime change in Iraq: on January 22, 2003, he asserted, “ Some things are right to do, even if Big Oil benefits. Although President Bush has cast the war in Iraq as being about disarmament – and that is legitimate – disarmament is not the most important prize there. Regime change is the prize. Regime transformation in Iraq could make a valuable contribution to the war on terrorism, whether Saddam is ousted or enticed into exile.”
But it is not exactly true, as Friedman claims today, that he “never bought the argument that Saddam had nukes that had to be taken out.” Before then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made his disastrous United Nations presentation on February 5, 2003, Friedman was a believer. In fact, he argued that “We still need a smoking gun to justify a war, if we expect to have any allied support.” Friedman thought there was a smoking gun: a whole bunch of them, all likely hidden underground. On December 1, 2002, Friedman wrote that
... Saddam Hussein was an expert at hiding his war toys and, having had four years without inspections, had probably buried everything good under mosques or cemeteries. That means the only way we can possibly uncover anything important in Iraq is if an Iraqi official or scientist – a Saddam insider – tells the U.N. where it’s hidden…. Is there just one Iraqi scientist or official who wants to see the freedom of his country so badly that he is ready to cooperate with the U.N. by submitting to an interview and exposing the regime’s hidden weapons?
Even after the Powell presentation, Friedman blamed France for “holding America back” and for “not holding Saddam Hussein’s feet to the fire to comply with the U.N…. The only possible way to coerce Saddam into compliance – without a war – is for the whole world to line up shoulder-to-shoulder against his misbehavior, without any gaps.” He said the French position, which called for more inspections was “utterly incoherent…. The inspections have failed,” Friedman wrote on February 9, 2003, “not because of a shortage of inspectors. They have failed because of a shortage of compliance on Saddam’s part, as the French know. The way you get that compliance out of a thug like Saddam is not by tripling the inspectors, but by tripling the threat that if he does not comply he will be faced with a U.N.-approved war.” Friedman was vicious in disparaging the French: their call for more inspections, he wrote, “is a reminder of why, if America didn’t exist and Europe had to rely on France, most Europeans today would be speaking either German or Russian.”
Ten days later, Friedman had apparently given up on this tack. He went from asserting that Saddam actually had W.M.D.s to warning that he would “seek” them. Nation-building was the casus belli. On February 19, 2003, Friedman told us,
Saddam does not threaten us today. He can be deterred. Taking him out is a war of choice – but it’s a legitimate choice. It’s because he is undermining the U.N., it’s because if left alone he will seek weapons that will threaten all his neighbors, it’s because you believe the people of Iraq deserve to be liberated from his tyranny, and it’s because you intend to help Iraqis create a progressive state that could stimulate reform in the Arab/Muslim world, so that this region won’t keep churning out angry young people who are attracted to radical Islam and are the real weapons of mass destruction.
After the invasion, which began March 19, 2003, Friedman wrote a stunning column (dated April 27, 2003) justifying the war absent W.M.D.s:
As far as I’m concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war…. America did the right thing here. It toppled one of the most evil regimes on the face of the earth…. Who cares if we now find some buried barrels of poison? … So as much as I believe we did good and right in toppling Saddam, I will whoop it up only when the Iraqi people are really free – not free just to loot or to protest against us, but free to praise us out loud….
By June 2003, Friedman was doubling down on this theme. W.M.D.s were the President’s problem, not Friedman’s. The real reason for the Iraq War was to pop the “terrorism bubble.” And the only way to do that, Friedman said in his column of June 4, 2003,
was for American soldiers, men and women, to go into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, house to house, and make clear that we are ready to kill, and to die, to prevent our open society from being undermined by this terrorism bubble. Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that world. And don’t believe the nonsense that this had no effect. Every neighboring government – and 98 percent of terrorism is about what governments let happen – got the message. If you talk to U.S. soldiers in Iraq they will tell you this is what the war was about.
The ‘real reason’ for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Afghanistan wasn’t enough. Because a terrorism bubble had built up over there – a bubble that posed a real threat to the open societies of the West and needed to be punctured….
But there is something else in this June 2003 column that bears repeating. Friedman, who today claims he never believed “that Saddam had nukes that had to be taken out,” had not given up on the notion that some sort of weapons of mass destruction would yet be found in the sand:
I have to admit that I’ve always been fighting my own war in Iraq. Mr. Bush took the country into his war. And if it turns out that he fabricated the evidence for his war (which I wouldn’t conclude yet), that would badly damage America and be a very serious matter.
So when Friedman tells you today that he never believed Saddam had nukes, he is – at best – using the term “nukes” as a cover. He wrote repeatedly about “disarming Iraq.” True, by “disarming” he could have meant removing non-nuclear weapons: missiles, machine guns, pistols and tire irons. But he also wrote, before the Colin Powell U.N. debacle, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Even months after the invasion, he still thought inspectors might find such weaponry. In his writings, Friedman describes these weapons as “war toys,” “missiles,” “poison gas,” “chemical weapons.” Often he simply uses the generic term “weapons of mass destruction.” So for him to say today that he never believed in “nukes” is subterfuge at best. It’s Friedman’s way of trying to make you forget he repeatedly told you that Saddam had some form of massively destructive weaponry.
Autobiography is a wonderful thing. If you write yours, you can probably get away with creating a nearly perfect “you.” Sure, a few ex-lovers will know better, and maybe some former business associates and neighbors will chortle, but the rest of us will never be the wiser. That’s because you have not left much of a paper trail. Tom Friedman has left a paper trail. And it belies his latest revision of his autobiography.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com and until recently was a popular commenter on New York Times op-ed columns.