Capturing Tom Friedman

The Times columnist does foreign policy punditry by cliché.


On May 11, Thomas Friedman, America's most influential foreign affairs columnist, began his twice-weekly New York Times op-ed this way:

"In his book 'The Ideas That Conquered the World,' Michael Mandelbaum tells a story about a young girl who is eating dinner at a friend's house and her friend's mother asks her if she likes brussels sprouts. 'Yes, of course,' the girl says. 'I like brussels sprouts.' After dinner, though, the mother notices that the girl hasn't eaten a single sprout. 'I thought you liked brussels sprouts,' the mother said. 'I do,' answered the girl, 'but not enough to actually eat them.'??"

What on earth does this third-hand domestic anecdote have to do with development of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran, the ostensible subject of Friedman's column? A bit further down, he reveals all: "???'Like that girl with the brussels sprouts,' Mr. Mandelbaum said, 'the Chinese and the Europeans are all for combating nuclear proliferation–just not enough actually to do something about it.'??"

This piece–and Friedman's newest book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century–epitomize everything that is initially captivating yet ultimately disappointing about his Pulitzer-winning punditry. The man has fashioned a career out of locating or inventing a crude symbolic shorthand to explain and even popularize complex international phenomena while relying on a small cast of elites from politics, academia, and business to agree with his global clich?s. But what started out as a clever decoding device has, in Friedman's 10th year on the country's most coveted op-ed real estate, become the crutch of a self-caricaturing hack.

In his 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem, which synthesized a decade's worth of reporting from the two capitals, Friedman used his metaphor-hunting skill to cut a bewilderingly complex region into digestible chunks. "Hama Rules," the name he gave to the mind-set behind then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's February 1982 massacre of more than 10,000 Sunnis in the town of Hama, became his shorthand for all tribal displays of retributive authoritarian brutality, whether in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. And he was memorably shrewd in observing that Israel's purportedly divided Labor and Likud parties had actually forged an unacknowledged consensus to maintain the status quo regarding settlements.

As a foreign correspondent drilling down into the political substrata of two countries and then extrapolating to the immediate surroundings, Friedman did enough reporting and learned enough local history to give his flip descriptions the weight of authenticity (at least to an outsider). And with so much heartbreaking news and murderous drama to cover, you barely noticed his curious top-down approach, whereby the truth of a country was discovered almost exclusively by interviewing its leading intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen, preferably over a round or three of golf.

But now that Friedman has been given the entire globe as his beat and removed from the constraints of straight news gathering, his metaphors have become increasingly abstracted from reality, while his sources–the ones he actually talks to, as opposed to inventing imaginary dialogues for–often appear to be chosen not for their specialized local knowledge but for their simpatico worldview and Friedmanesque gift of glib gab.

Take the aforementioned Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies who cut his academic teeth studying superpower relations during the Cold War. Mandelbaum has appeared in 40 of Friedman's columns during the last decade, two of his books, and at least 25 other Friedman pieces dating back to 1989.

At first he was used in a logical enough way–to comment on the sudden collapse of communism, which he treated with the typical Sovietologist mix of cautious optimism and fear of the new. But Mandelbaum, usually described as "the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert," quickly became Friedman's go-to metaphor dispenser, issuing pithy and grammatically flawless bon mots on an impressively broad range of topics, including Saudi Wahhabism ("Either we get rid of our minivans or Saudi Arabia gets rid of its textbooks"), China's entry into the World Trade Organization ("Some things are in the national interest even though the Chamber of Commerce believes them"), Iraq's insurgents ("the real fascists, the real colonialists, the real imperialists of our age"), Jacques Chirac ("France, it seems, would rather be more important in a world of chaos than less important in a world of order"), and American energy independence ("This is not just a win-win, this is a win-win-win-win-win"). His quips became Friedman's headlines, from "Brussels Sprouts" to "Club NATO" to "Gulf of Tonkin II."

The last headline referred to Mandelbaum's description of expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a project that he and Friedman opposed with everything at their disposal, including fantasies. "The main reason the Clintonites chose Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic," Friedman wrote in June 1997 with a certainty matched only by his ignorance of Central Europe, "is because each has a strong ethnic voting bloc in the U.S." (This non sequitur was so appealing to him that he repeated it in six more columns.) When illogic failed, Friedman brought out the crazy metaphors–Porgy and Bess, Whitewater, Ben & Jerry's (don't ask)–and quoted the nonagenarian foreign policy eminence George Kennan as making the hideously inaccurate statement that "Russia's democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we've just signed up to defend from Russia."

As anyone who has worked in journalism abroad can tell you, it's damned hard to get a grasp of a country, let alone a region or the entire planet. Think for a moment how difficult it is to pin down the United States. Now add 193 countries with myriad languages, subcultures, and historical experiences.

When I worked for newspapers in Prague and Budapest, we used to laugh at the hoary clich?s regurgitated by correspondents who lived nearby, in never-communist cities such as Vienna, let alone parachute artists from New York and Los Angeles. Even within the individual countries, it made a huge difference whether a foreign correspondent learned about, say, Czechoslovakia before communism or after. Many reporters and diplomats who did heroic work in the stifling 1970s and '80s were lost at sea in the go-go '90s; they asked to change assignments rather than go on pretending.

Friedman clearly has no desire to change assignment from what he has called "the best job in the world." But if The World Is Flat is anything to go by, he needs to change his approach before being laughed out of the public debate. Fifteen years after he took his shtick global, the hunt for clich? itself has become the main point of his journalism. In the book's introduction, after describing how a software executive in Bangalore, India, told him "the playing field is being leveled," Friedman indulges in an embarrassing reverie of self-discovery.

"I kept chewing on that phrase," he writes. "What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened…Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!…In the back of that van, I scribbled down four words in my notebook: 'The World is Flat.'…So I picked up the phone and called my wife, Ann, and told her, 'I am going to write a book called The World Is Flat.'??"

The world is in fact so uneven and varied that few mainstream columnists have ever dared try to explain it all on a full-time basis, and even those who do tend to gravitate toward narrower fields of expertise. The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum is strongest when writing from her Central Europe experience. The International Herald Tribune's William Pfaff cranks out sour assessments of American power from the paper's sour Paris headquarters. Even Newsweek International's Fareed Zakaria has carved out the specific if broad niche of probing the intersection between U.S. influence and the developing world.

The world isn't flat; it's fat, with niches and nooks and distributed expertise. Friedman had better find one to hang onto, or he might fall off the edge.