It is befuddling when columnists, whose job is to express opinions and interpret matters they have some background in for readers -- and who do so with evident inaccuracy for years on end -- are always unrelievedly mistaken but don't change their message or alter their analytical technique. The New York Times is a hotbed of such people, and the Times itself has been mistaken about every single serious issue in American life for decades, at least since Scotty Reston wrote in 1983 that Ronald Reagan would be a complete failure as president and would be so overwhelmed by the job that he would not seek reelection, and would be defeated if he tried to be reelected. Of course, he won by 17-million votes, the second greatest plurality in American history, and carried 49 states, and is generally reckoned an outstanding president. (Reagan rewarded Reston with the Freedom Medal.)
Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristoff, and the anonymous editorialists of the Times are almost always radically mistaken in everything they propose. But the in-house champion of this genre of habitual error is now Tom Friedman. He is ostensibly a Middle East expert and his Middle East opinions occupy about a third of his columns. These are fairly predictable, and while the order and exact composition change, there are essentially three endlessly repeated and slightly recalibrated messages in his columns: achieve instant peace in the Middle East by stopping and rolling back Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including suburban Jerusalem; provide every new-born child in the world, especially the under-developed world, with a laptop as a signing bonus for surviving child birth, to assure world fraternity; and cease almost all carbon consumption at once to prevent all humankind being asphyxiated by soaring heat and oxygen insufficiencies by July 4, 2015.
Taking the first only, Tom Friedman comes by his outright support of the PLO as honestly as someone who makes some effort to disguise it can. He was a member of the pro-Arafat Middle East Peace Group and Breirah organizations when at Brandeis University, and continued steadily in this vein when representing the Associated Press and New York Times in Beirut, from which point he downplayed the PLO's terrorist activities and expressed gratitude for its protection of foreign media in Beirut, in a time of intermittent hostage-taking. For the PLO not to protect Friedman would be suicidally ungrateful. In 1993, Tom Friedman hailed Arafat as a man of peace, and promoted Arafat and Rabin and their opposing methods and goals as entirely morally equivalent. Even if one accepts that the British promise of Palestine to the Jews and the Arabs created a dual right of possession, their methods have not been equivalent. If the Palestinians disarmed, a two-state solution, though not on the lines that the Arabs would prefer, would result. If Israel disarmed, the Jewish population would be massacred, expelled, or subjugated. He signed on to Arafat's White House espousal of peace, human rights, and freedom, and has not publicly acknowledged that he was completely fleeced.
Tom Friedman enthusiastically welcomed the elevation of Bashar Assad to succeed his father as president of Syria in 2000, because he had an English wife, had been an ophthalmologist in East London, and, holy of holies, was the president of the Syrian Internet Association. He was likened to Deng Xiao ping as a probable reformer who would pursue democratization, normalize relations with Israel, end Syria's alliance with Iran, and be a benign influence in Lebanon, as long as Israel gave back the Golan Heights. To say that he fulfilled Lenin's criteria for a useful idiot would only be half-right: since Israel retained the Golan, he was not useful to his radical Arab heroes. In 2006, Friedman denied that Syria was a natural ally of Iran and claimed it had an inborn tendency to be supportive of the United States. There has never been the slightest evidence of this since the day the French (reluctantly) conceded Syria's independence after World War II.
In 2009, he was swooning with optimism again and claimed a positive tide of events in Iran, and invoked his companion enthusiasm for the Internet and social media to proclaim that western liberal democratic influences were now an unstoppable force in the Middle East. Globalization and modernization were finally going to sweep away the obtuseness and brutal archaism of the region at last. It need hardly be emphasized that no such consummation has occurred or is visible or even imaginable.
In 2011, inevitably, and leading the Times' hallelujah chorus for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he wrote that it was only a moderately traditional organization that was in fact a force for modernization, but that, in any case, the anti-Mubarak forces were led by democrats, carried forward on the tide of history by the prior failures of Nasserist nationalism and Islamic intolerance. That those forces have failed is not at issue, but they have not been deserted by the Muslim Brotherhood.
We all make mistakes and have the right to make mistakes, and from a distant acquaintance, I know Mr. Friedman to be an equable and pleasant man. But he is abusing his right to persist in proven error and has sapped the credibility of an eminent, if pathologically wrong-headed newspaper on Middle East questions. As a word of friendly advice, he could spruce up his repertoire a bit also.