14 April 2017
Thomas L. Friedman's virtual reality
For a New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has written a lot of inane stuff, along with the occasional valid insight, but he hit some sort of low with his April 12 column, in which he argues against making a strategic priority out of defeating the self-styled Islamic State forces in Syria. "Why should our goal right now be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria?" he asks. Before you offer what you think is your ready answer, Friedman preempts you by making a distinction between ISIS in Syria and the ISIS that's out to kill you. The latter, you see, is "Virtual ISIS," a malevolent social-media entity that inspires lone wolves to go out and kill all over the world. The Islamic State fighting in Syria in Iraq is "Territorial ISIS," and Friedman actually has a valid point when he argues that destroying Territorial ISIS won't make Virtual ISIS go away. Forevermore, the propaganda of jihad is going to attract alienated people the world over, but you can also argue that not having a rallying point like the self-styled Caliphate might make ISIS less cool or compelling for a lot of these losers. Friedman, to the contrary, suspects that Virtual ISIS will grow still more violent to make up for any defeat Territorial ISIS suffers. That reads a lot like rationalization to me, however. As far as Friedman is concerned, focusing on ISIS takes our eyes off the prize, which is the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and the weakening of the Syrian-Iranian-Russian axis in the Middle East. He actually proposes doing nothing about ISIS in Syria until the Russians and Iranians are ready to pay the price for our cooperation, presumably Assad's head. Why should eliminating Assad be the higher priority? Friedman, I fear, disingenuously argues something like what I've called the Obama Doctrine, which holds that tyranny is the necessary and sufficient cause of unrest because people inevitably will rise up to fight tyrants. In the Syrian context, Friedman sees ISIS primarily as a Sunni nationalist movement and blames the oppression of Sunnis by the Iran-backed Shiite majority in Iraq and the Alawite ruling clique in Syria for the rise of the caliphate movement. I call this a disingenuous argument because it willfully ignores all history before the 21st century, particularly the fact that, he except for the participation of Assad's father in the 1991 coalition against Iraq, Baathist Syria has been treated as an enemy of the U.S. for reasons having nothing to do with the regime's treatment of Sunnis. Syria's sin was, and is, that it is an "anti-imperialist" and especially anti-Zionist state. Syria can never be more of a threat to the U.S. than it is to Israel, and it is not more of a threat to us now than the I.S. is online or on the ground. But Friedman persists, without really admitting it, in fighting the old fight even when a new one should be more compelling. In his column, he tries to appeal to President Trump's devious, hard-bargaining nature in recommending his extortionate policy. It's clear by now that the President has a lot of bad advisers, but Friedman, should Trump heed him, might prove the worst of all.