Friedman's Follies

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In researching my column of today, I came across a remarkable extended run of punditry that I feel compelled to share: From 1995 to 2003, the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman bashed the idea of expanding NATO in at least 33 columns, under headlines like "Gulf of Tonkin II," "Clinton's Folly," "Madeleine's Folly," "NATOwater" (in which he argued that "NATO expansion is the Whitewater of the Clinton foreign policy"), and my personal favorite, "Ben & Jerry & NATO." Reading all of them, I felt like I was looking through a little window into the soul of the world's most cheerfully elitist globalizer. And you do not have to be a squishy multilateralist like me to enjoy Friedman's bizarre theories, wildly inaccurate predictions, and hacktacular over-reliance on the same two sources to make his losing case.

One of Friedman's root objections to expanding the alliance was that "the main reason the Clintonites chose Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is because each has a strong ethnic voting bloc in the U.S." I'm sure that third-generation Czechs and Hungarians will be pleased as palinka to discover that they have so much pull. (Where do the Czech-Americans even live, by the way? Cedar Rapids, Iowa? West, Texas?) Undaunted, Friedman was so delighted by this non-sequitur of an explanation he repeated it in at least seven (7) other columns, calling it a "naked" and "cynical effort" to cash in on that crucial Mitteleuropean swing bloc. Curiously, he dropped this line of argument once NATO expanded to include countries with expatriate populations you could fit into the back of an SUV.

Another favorite tactic was to provide supporting quotes from a Johns Hopkins foreign policy guy named Michael Mandelbaum … in 11 different columns. Who is Mandelbaum? Friedman describes him variously as a "foreign affairs expert," "a leading critic of NATO expansion," the author of a "highly original and provocative book," and, most touchingly, "my friend." Like any Sovietologist worth his Salt II, Mandelbaum's full of alarmist and red-eyed predictions about dealing with the Bear. "The Bush people have … given Putin enormous leverage, because he can block the U.S. on [NATO expansion and the ABM Treaty] without much cost or effort," he mis-forecast in a typical June 2001 column.

But the booby prize for crazy-wrong predictions has to go to Friedman himself. "I tell [the Estonian ambassador to NATO that] not only will Estonia not be in early, it will never be in NATO," he wrote in November 1996 (Estonia joined six years later). "There's no way the U.S. Army is going to guarantee the Estonia-Russia border," he wrote in March 1997 (it now does, if indirectly). "I suspect before this is over Bill Clinton and the American people will feel about NATO expansion much the way they feel about James McDougal and that miserable plot of land called Whitewater," he tried again two months later (James who?).

The columns are filled with falsely limited choices that didn't come true. Like this March 1998 whopper:

[Conservatives] want NATO to go all the way to the Baltic-Russian border, but America's European allies are dead against that, because they know it would be a provocation to Moscow. So either the conservatives will push ahead with Baltic membership, and split NATO, or they will leave things where they are and abandon the Balts after promising them membership, or they will expand NATO to the Balts and trigger a crisis with Russia. But it will be one of those three.

Or not!

In fairness to Friedman, his NATO columns brought up three still-debatable concerns: That expanding the alliance stokes illiberal anti-Americanism in Russia (a point he drove home by quoting his "friend" Aleksei Arbatov in three separate columns), that a larger NATO becomes less of a fighting force and more of a club, and that it makes it harder to negotiate missile reduction with the Russkies. Still, his basic mischaracterizations, bad predictions, over-reliance on his elite pals, and exaggerated deference to the sensibilities of Moscow are, in my view, embarrassing. Maybe that's why after eight years of trying furiously to keep the former East Bloc in military limbo, he now wants NATO to accept his friends in Iraq, Egypt and Israel.

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  1. Where do the Czech-Americans even live

    Well, my family is from Pittsburgh, Pa. I think Chicago also has a pretty decent population.

    Of course, I think my family is more Slovak than Czech, so I could be totally wrong.

    Regardless, I never realized we had so much power at the polls! All this time and all I needed to do was convince my Grandmother’s church!

  2. There’s buttloads of Slovaks in Cleveland. Or Slovenes? Something like that.

    I dunno. Is NATO really a plausible military alliance any more? Anyone want to go to war with Russia over Estonia? Count me out.

  3. Chicago and Cleveland are the obvious answers for most of Friedman’s phantom voters, with a little Pittsburgh thrown in for spice. There are also lots of ’68er Czechs & ’56er Hungarians who live near Phoenix, for some reason.

  4. I live in Phoenix, AZ – third gen Czech right here! Oh, and my mom lives around here, too. Don’t know any other Czech’s for sure, but I think there are some others ’round here.

    When I was at the World Cup of Hockey last November or something in Minneapolis, I was surprised at how many Slovaks, Russians, and Czechs there were attending games. When I asked them where they came from, I got a variety of answers, but Chicago was fairly big. But plenty came all the way from NYC, Omaha, and pretty much all over. They were totally into it, especially the Russians.

    But they were all fun to party with!

  5. your readers are right…lots of Czechs in Chicago. like many others, they pay no attention to Friedman.

  6. Yeah, I currently live in Slavic Village in Cleveland and can vouch that there’s a large population here, but it’s very localized.

  7. Stephen — Is actually called “Slavic Village”? I totally have to come visit….

  8. Matt — when you do, I’ll totally take you out for beers! (and yes, it really is called Slavic Village!)

  9. Okey-dokey! Sounds fun!

  10. Cleveland, huh? Shit, I may have to wander up there some time. I’m 3rd gen, but I don’t know much about the culture. My grandparents were the kind that wanted to make their child an American ASAP so my mom didn’t even know the language very well, hence I didn’t learn it at all.

  11. “Where do the Czech-Americans even live, by the way?”

    Matt, come to Berwyn, Illinois.

  12. David T — That where you’re from? I can see a terrific Slavo-trash tour coming up…. I’ve actually *been* to that Cedar Rapids museum (neat!), and to West, Texas.

    The latter of which was a total trip — I was driving a rent-a-car in the ugly stretch between Dallas and Austin, on about Day 7 of covering the late-stages Nader 2000 campaign, bloated with room-service Budweisers and three hours of sleep a night. I was seriously on the verge of nodding off behind the wheel, when I blinked & saw a billboard asking the eternal question, “Ne mate hlad?” I *really* thought I had lost it, but sure enough, in the middle of nowhere, just 5 miles or something off the highway, is this Czech town called “West, Texas.” I had some smazeny syr & non-Pilsner Urquell Czech beer, took a quick spin around the ruined factory town, then drove to Austin.

  13. I don’t know if it’s still true, but I tell everyone that Czech is Texas’ third most spoken language. We got lots of ’em around here.

  14. Friedman certainly made an ass of himself over NATO and Eastern Europe, but the fundamental question concerning NATO’s rationale is still quite valid. Without a Soviet Union, what, exactly is NATO an alliance against? It can’t be terrorism – there are too many variants, political ramifications and dissension within NATO’s ranks to make that a credible enemy. The real reason for NATO is to keep the US directly involved in European internal security issues, and that seems increasingly unlikely to wash with the US public in the future.

    An aside about Yalta – it’s very easy to criticize FDR, but what was he supposed to do? By February 1945, the Soviet Union had overrun the Balkans and Poland and was rapidly advancing in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Eastern Europe was already a de facto Soviet sphere of influence, and there was zero desire on the part of the Western Allies to enter into direct conflict with the Soviet Union to reverse that situation. The best that FDR or Churchill could do was wrangle an agreement from Stalin to allow direct free elections in Poland, and I doubt that either politician seriously expected the Soviets to honor that bargain.

  15. Don’t mess with Czechses!

  16. Was there a previous H&R piece a couple of days ago about Friedman’s awful metaphors and other crimes against the English language?

  17. Anytime ‘palinka’ is used in a post, it’s time to break some out!

    We, Hungarians, can be found everyehere in the States (we’re like a bad virus) but especially in:

    La-La Land

    Cleveland (Hun. epicenter of USA)

    Chicago

    New York

    Toronto

    Szevsztok!

  18. Mark B — I don’t want to get into long debate about it, but the rationale people like me use is, NATO isn’t necessarily “an alliance against,” it’s an alliance for. Literally (when talking of expansion), for the peace of mind of newly democratic (or newly *existing*) countries who A) don’t have a lot of experience and confidence, B) have been run over and swallowed by Greater Powers several times in their history, and C) can’t really afford a properly useful defensive force on their own. It may seem ridiculous to Thomas L. Friedman that Lithuania would worry about being invaded by a hostile army, but let’s remember that that actually happened just 15 years ago.

    There are two or three other positive impacts of NATO integration, in my observation. In most (and maybe all; I haven’t checked) cases, new entrants were required to resolve border disputes and minority rights to some level of satisfaction. This had the effect of dampening potential flashpoints before they could light a spark. (I watched this process help improve relations between Hungary and Slovakia, for example.) It helped many young democracies get their sea legs (by not having to focus on paranoid nationalism), it gave the Visegrad Four countries at least a tangible multilateral reward while they waited for the slow machinery of the EU kick into gear, and it helps contain unpredictable Russia.

    I know and respect the arguments against all that. Just telling you the other side of the story.

  19. Solyom — I forget; do you live in L.A.? If so, we’re throwing a modest little party Thursday for (among other people) the founding editor of The Budapest Week (whose wife is a Magyar). We will be drinking vampire wine from Romania, Becherovka, and hopefully not one ounce of your filthy Unicum….

  20. Hmmm, do they still have the Slovak fest near the steel mills in Cleveland? Seem to remember the cheap beer prices there.

    Also ate my share of Hungarian turkey in Toledo. I think this calls for a beer and a sandwich.

  21. think about the guy in the fed ex commercial who is always wrong”we don’t get french benefits?” see a resemblance?

  22. Friedman writes to a formula, like Maureen Dowd. He takes the NYT editorial position and adds a single twist.

    In short, Friedman writes what’s best for Friedman.

  23. Matt –

    Thanks for the feedback. I can understand why the nations of Eastern Europe, in particular the Baltic States, desire some guarantees that past history won’t repeat itself. It doesn’t surprise me, though that this raises hackles in Russia, since that country is the obvious target of any such system. Historically, it’s proven to be very difficult to maintain an alliance structure in the absence of an obvious external threat, and Russia regards NATO’s existence and expansion as evidence that the rest of Europe regards them as exactly that kind of threat. It looks to them as if Europe is continuing to use the US as the club in the closet to keep the Beast in the East at bay.

    I think that it will be very difficult to keep the American public coonvinced that they need to be active players in European security issues as European and American foreign policy imperatives increasingly diverge (Iraq being a prime example). The EU will need to develop a collective security as well as economic focus as the US withdraws from its former role as guarantor of Europe’s frontiers.

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