October 27, 2005
Bill Van Auken of the World Socialist Web Site has recently
commented on New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s
reply to readers critical of his support for the United States’
invasion and occupation of Iraq. (See "Friedman
on Iraq—the "thinking" behind the New York Times’s
debacle".) Van Auken provided a concise and damning analysis
of Friedman’s tortured justification of his endorsement of
There is one extraordinary statement Friedman made in defense
of his record, however, that merits separate attention. "As
readers of my column know," he wrote, "I barely even
mentioned the word Iraq for the first eight years that I was a
columnist. I really only came to the Iraq issue when the country
came to it, post 9/11, when the Bush administration decided it
was going to invade Iraq come what may."
As it would be impolite to call Mr. Friedman a liar, I would
suggest that he is suffering from some strange form of selective
amnesia—perhaps a sort of Political Alzheimer’s—that
has destroyed his capacity to remember columns that might be a
source of professional embarrassment.
The easily accessible archives of the New York Times
establish that Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein were one
of Friedman’s principal concerns in the decade that preceded
9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. This is hardly surprising,
for the United States did not—as Friedman absurdly claims—discover
Iraq only after September 2001.
In the aftermath of the Desert Storm military operation of
1991, Iraq remained the focus of foreign policy debate in the
United States—a policy obsession fueled by the anger of right-wing
policy institutes that deplored the failure of the first Bush
administration to occupy Baghdad and oust the regime of Saddam
Hussein. The reluctance of the Clinton administration to commit
the United States to a full-scale war against Iraq, for fear of
the political and military consequences, was subjected to virtually
unending denunciations by the Republican Party and wide sections
of the media throughout the 1990s.
Friedman played a significant role in this campaign, writing
numerous columns in which he promoted the myth that Saddam Hussein’s
regime either possessed or was developing weapons that threatened
the United States, and lambasting the Clinton administration’s
unwillingness to face up to the scale of the supposed danger posed
Let us cite just a few examples of Friedman’s opus from
the archives of the Times.
In a column dated November 6, 1997, entitled "Head Shot,"
"When you think about how the US should respond to Saddam
Hussein’s latest attempt to evade UN sanctions, just keep
this in mind: Saddam Hussein is the reason God created cruise
missiles. Cruise missiles are simply the only way to deal with
Asserting that "Saddam is up to something serious this
time," Friedman demanded that the Clinton administration
undertake decisive measures, insisting that "it cannot be
just to obliterate those sites where he [Saddam] is still hiding
weapons [sic]—although that’s important. The US has
to try to destroy him too. Because the worst of all worlds would
be if we destroy his weapons but he survives and throws out the
UN inspectors. He would then be able to rearm without anyone watching
Iraq. And he will try to rearm.
"Given the nature of world politics today, and given America’s
feckless allies, the US will get only one good military shot at
Saddam before everyone at the UN starts tut-tutting and rushing
to his defense.
"So if and when Saddam pushes beyond the brink, and we
get that one good shot, let’s make sure it’s a head
In this column, loaded with the pretentious tough-guy jargon
that is Friedman’s trademark, so many of the themes that
were to be employed by the Bush administration in the immediate
run-up to the invasion of March 2003 were already visible: Saddam’s
hidden weapons, the feckless Europeans and tut-tutting United
Nations who are too frightened to fight, and the need for decisive
action by the United States to destroy Saddam.
Friedman escalated his campaign for a military assault on Iraq
in 1998. He wrote on January 6 of that year:
"Saddam Hussein must be feeling pretty cocky right now.
Yes, he’s learned all the lessons from Gulf War I: Don’t
make yourself an easy target. Cooperate with UN inspectors just
enough so that the US can’t bomb you, but not enough so that
they’ll ever find the germ weapons you’re making in
your palaces. It’s a strategy that has the White House tied
in knots. Very clever, Saddam. Very clever."
There was, as we all now know, absolutely no factual basis
for the claim that Hussein was manufacturing "germ weapons"
in his palaces or anywhere else. But by making such unsubstantiated
assertions Friedman was helping condition American public opinion
to accept as a necessity military action against Iraq.
Indeed, the use of the term "Gulf War I" in the column
was a virtual endorsement of a second war against Iraq, then still
more than five years away.
Just three weeks later, on January 31, 1998, Friedman called
for "bombing Iraq, over and over and over again, until either
Saddam says uncle, and agrees to let the UN back in on US terms,
or the Iraqi people eliminate him.... [W]e may have no choice
but to go down this road. Once we do, however, we better have
the stomach to stay the course."
On February 17, 1998: "With a bombing of Iraq now increasingly
likely, the question being raised by those uneasy with such a
strike is: What is the endgame? Is America just throwing its weight
around to punish Saddam Hussein?
"The answer is really very simple. It comes down to two
words: weapons proliferation. If Iraq—already a repeat user
of poison gas—is able to snub its nose at the UN weapons
inspectors, then the world’s ability to fight the proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction would be fundamentally compromised.
Libya and its friends would all be less afraid to develop germ
weapons and nukes. We would all end up in a much more dangerous
world. That’s why Saddam has to be stopped."
On February 24, 1998, Friedman wrote: "Another deal with
Saddam Hussein? Hmmmmm. Why does it leave me feeling uneasy—as
if I had just agreed that Ted Kaczynski [the so-called "Uni-bomber"]
could be my mailman, because he promised, this time, for sure,
no more letter bombs? You just know that sooner or later something
is gonna go boom."
On February 28, 1998, Friedman developed a new argument for
portraying Saddam Hussein as a massive danger. "The main
threat to US and global stability is the super-empowered individual—the
super-empowered angry man (or woman).
"That’s also why the proper analogy for the Iraq
crisis is not Vietnam or Munich. It’s the 1993 World Trade
Center bombing, masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, the quintessential
super-empowered angry man. Ramzi Yousef had no political program
or ideology, other than hating America and Israel. Saddam is Ramzi
Yousef with part of a country. That is, Saddam is something more
than a leader of a terrorist band, but something less than a leader
of a unified state. That’s why confronting and disempowering
him is both difficult and vitally necessary.
"Saddam may be a 13th-century tyrant, but he is the epitome
of the 21st-century threat."
On August 11, 1998, Friedman issued a bitter denunciation of
the Clinton administration. "In the wake of the US embassy
bombings in East Africa, the White House kept putting out the
same sound bite on every network: An unnamed senior official was
quoted as saying, 'We will not forgive and we will not forget.’
That is a noble sentiment. There is only one problem. If you look
at the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy over the past
two years, there has been a consistent pattern of forgiving and
"Where should we start? How about Iraq?"
On January 19, 1999, after Clinton ordered a massive bombing
campaign against Iraq, Friedman expressed his satisfaction with
signs that the administration was prepared to take tougher actions:
"The good news is that the Clinton Administration says
it has decided to focus its energy now on producing the ouster
of Saddam, rather than just containing him. Almost the entire
target list from the US attack three weeks ago was aimed at the
generals and the Republican Guards who up to now have protected
Saddam. The message on the US smart bombs which apparently killed
hundreds of Saddam’s palace guards, was: 'Warning: Hanging
Around With Saddam Hussein Can Be Hazardous To Your Health.’
One last citation: On July 23, 1999, in a column entitled "Tick,
Tock, Tick...," Friedman conjured up out of his perfervid
imagination the "multiple clocks ticking away in the Middle
East," some of which, he asserted, "have dynamite attached."
The "Iraq clock," Friedman warned, was among the most
dangerous. "Saddam Hussein is clearly racing to acquire weapons
of mass destruction. Will he come up with one in the next couple
of years, and what sort of havoc might he wreak around the region
if he does?"
All of these columns were written years before the events of
9/11 and the outbreak of war. They prove that Friedman, who now
prefers to forget what he wrote, utilized his position as a columnist
for the most influential newspaper in the United States to promote
baseless claims that Iraq constituted a threat to the United States
and to legitimize military attacks against that country. He functioned
as a dishonest and cynical propagandist for war, and bears no
small degree of moral responsibility for the carnage that has
followed the invasion of March 2003.