Friedman's Follies


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.