Friedman’s Doubts

Thomas Friedman has an editorial in the Times that continues on the doubting hawks theme of the last post. It’s nice that we agree that this isn’t a political maneuver on the part of the Bush Administration, but I think his logic is flawed. At the risk of repeating myself from the previous post, I want to deal with his argument specifically.

My dilemma is that while I believe in such a bold project, I fear that Mr. Bush has failed to create a context for his boldness to succeed, a context that could maximize support for his vision — support vital to seeing it through. He and his team are the only people who would ever have conceived this project, but they may be the worst people to implement it. The only place they’ve been bold is in their military preparations (which have at least gotten Saddam to begin disarming).

As I’ve said in the previous post, I think there’s more to this than Friedman gives Bush credit for. It certainly appears that Bush has recognized that the established international order is being turned on its head, and he’s responding strategically to those challenges.

What do I mean? I mean that if taking out Saddam and rebuilding Iraq had been my goal from the minute I took office (as it was for the Bush team), I would not have angered all of Europe by trashing the Kyoto global warming treaty without offering an alternative. I would not have alienated the entire Russian national security elite by telling the Russians that we were ripping up the ABM treaty and that they would just have to get used to it. (You’re now seeing their revenge.) I would not have proposed one radical tax cut on top of another on the eve of a huge, costly nation-building marathon abroad.

Friedman seems hopelessly naive if he thinks acquiescence on Kyoto would have ever been enough to buy European loyalty towards Iraq. No matter how conciliatory Bush could have been towards "Old Europe" it seems it would have mattered little. The Hubert Vedrines and Chris Pattens had already made it clear: Europe wants to be the force that counterbalances the US. How did they intend to do that: by "multilaterializing" the US through constraining international treaties. In other words, such actions would have played directly into the hands of those who want to weaken US influence. With the 1972 ABM Treaty, I have a feeling that plays only the most tangental role in Russia’s unwillingness to support an invasion of Iraq. A far more likely factor of influence is the $40 billion investment Russia made with the Hussein regime. Russia has always been a wild card, and I have my doubts that Putin would ruin a potentially lucrative relationship with the US with a UN veto.

As for the tax cut argument, I am becoming convinced that the only factor holding back a considerable recovery is Iraq. Once the war is over, and I have a feeling that will be in a matter of weeks rather than months, the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the US economy will lift and the economy will really take off. Nor do I believe that Iraqi reconstruction will be that large a drag on the US economy – Iraqi oil will help cushion many of the costs of rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. (And we may yet offer a conciliatory hand to "Old Europe" in exchange for their help – a hand that they would be very wise to accept.)

I would, though, have rallied the nation for real energy conservation and initiated a Manhattan Project for alternative energies so I would not find myself with $2.25-per-gallon gasoline on the eve of this war — because OPEC capacity is nearly tapped out. I would have told the Palestinians that until they stop suicide bombing and get a more serious leadership, we’re not dealing with them, but I would also have told the Israelis that every new or expanded settlement they built would cost them $100 million in U.S. aid. And I would have told the Arabs: "While we’ll deal with the Iraqi threat, we have no imperial designs on your countries. We are not on a crusade — but we will not sit idle if you tolerate extremists in your midst who imperil our democracy."

A "Manhattan Project" for alternate energy would hardly pan out in enough time to make any difference, even if Bush had made it priority #1 when he took office. Furthermore, had Friedman been listening, Bush has said exactly what Friedman recommends. He has already told Arafat he is not a partner for peace, he has condemned Israeli settlement building, and he has already made our intentions in the Middle East as far as democratization is concerned clear to all. While Bush could be and should be clearer on all these points, he has done nearly every one of them already.

No, had Mr. Bush done all these things it would not have changed everything with France, Russia and the Arabs — or my wife. But I am convinced that it would have helped generate more support to increase our staying power in Iraq and the odds that we could pull this off.

So here’s how I feel: I feel as if the president is presenting us with a beautiful carved mahogany table — a big, bold, gutsy vision. But if you look underneath, you discover that this table has only one leg. His bold vision on Iraq is not supported by boldness in other areas. And so I am terribly worried that Mr. Bush has told us the right thing to do, but won’t be able to do it right.

I heard much the same thing about Afghanistan (and still do), and yet the nightmare scenarios many predicted have yet to come through. The Taliban is still scattered and ineffective, and the Afghani people are slowly but surely on the road to a better life.

It bothers me that everyone wants to declare Bush’s Iraq policy a failure before Bush has even had the chance to implement any of it. At best it’s naive to assume that capitulation on issues like Kyoto would have engendered good will towards Bush on Iraq. Even Friedman admits that it would make little difference. Instead, we’d find ourselves in much the same situation as we find ourselves in now, except in a weaker position.

Bush is a Texan at his core, and Texans don’t always play by the same rules as everyone else. Right now he’s taking a big risk, on that we can all agree. However, Bush’s critics should have learned one thing by now: those who "misunderestimate" him do so at their own peril. Bush is nowhere near as incompetent or reckless as even he may like everyone to think. Rather, the administration’s actions have often belied a ruthless political mind that may sometimes make mistakes and may often be undiplomatically blunt, but are always mindful of goals that are rarely apparent until they have been achieved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.