Thursday, April 7, 2016

Friedmanic Depression. II

Image via OceanDesign.
Thomas P. Friedman, better known as Thomas L. Friedman, the Sad-Eyed Mustache of the Lowlands, is still depressed, thanks to a rather cool-sounding book by an old collaborator of his, Michael Mandelbaum, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, which

argues that the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy were an aberration — an era when America became so overwhelmingly more powerful than any rival that it got geopolitically drunk and decided that it didn’t just want to be a cop on the beat protecting our nation, but also a social worker, architect and carpenter doing nation-building abroad.
Well, do tell, Tom. You've certainly been wearing that thinking cap lately.

I'd like to just let him alone for once, or indeed single him out for praise, but there's one bit I can't let go, because it provides a remarkable example of the use of bad grammar as an obfuscatory device:

After having supported one of these initiatives — Iraq — precisely in the hope that it could be transformative, it’s hard to dispute Mandelbaum’s conclusion.
The participial, "having supported", floating around without a subject other than "it" in the main clause, as if the thing that supported the initiative was the thing that is hard; after whose having supported one of those initiatives, Tom? Hard for whom, Tom?

The formula is one you might get away with applying to some kind of eternal verity—"After drinking five or six tequilas, it's hard to behave toward an officer of the law with the respect one might otherwise wish to show"—but the specificity of the appositive reference to Iraq, one initiative that somebody supported for a particular reason, forces you to tie it to a single historical moment, ca. 2003, when somebody is remembered for saying "Suck. On. This."

In other words, it's Tom's actual confession we're looking at here, to having been one of those geopolitical drunkards (he should have said, "Since I was one of the criminal idiots who supported the war, I can't easily argue with Mandelbaum's assertion"), but Friedman's participle dangle hides that and turns it instead into a majestic panditic judgment. Well, maybe not that majestic, since your tenth-grade teacher is still right to jump on it as crappy English.

That said, Friedman's take, in the context of his new view, isn't worthless. He's right to connect the analysis to the justice of Obama's recent conduct—

neither this president nor the next wants to be doing any more of that — if they can at all avoid it
—and he's right to explain why you can't build somebody else's nation in terms of the agency of the people whose nation is being built:

“The military missions that the United States undertook succeeded. It was the political missions that followed, the efforts to transform the politics of the places where American arms prevailed, that failed.” Why? Because political success was never within our control. Such normative transformations can only come from within, from the will of local actors to change long-embedded habits, overcome longstanding enmities or restore long-lost political traditions.
If you want to see some real, deep dishonesty, you should be looking somewhere else—at the take, for example, of Straussian conservative Peter Berkowitz (George Mason law professor, Hoover Institution fellow),  in his reaction to Mandelbaum's book, completely glossing over his continuous (if magisterially distanced) support for the Iraq War, from the defense of Cheney (2004) to the defense of Judith Miller (2015); and equally glossing over the central problem Friedman notes in that last quote, of misusing military means to achieve political ends.

Berkowitz's shtik now is to allege that Bill Clinton's support for "human rights in China, democracy in Russia, and regime change in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo" ("regime change", really?) is identical to George W. Bush's "endeavor" (i.e., vast war effort) "to build free and democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq" which is in turn identical to the Obama administration's attempt "to bring peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians". The purpose is to use Mission Failure as the pretext for an argument about how stupid Obama is, as Berkowitz lurches into his own National Review–style assessment riffing off Obama's response to one of Binyamin Netanyahu's insults (as reported in that famous Jeffrey Goldberg piece):
“Bibi, you have to understand something,” the president said. “I’m the African-American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.”
Obama apparently not only believes that his distinctive background and powers of persuasion—rather than, say, a solid grounding in foreign languages, comparative politics and economics, and diplomatic and military history [with which George W. Bush, you know, was so amply supplied]—equip him to understand the geopolitical complexities of tumultuous, faraway regions.... 
Obama wasn't arguing about how his background uniquely suits him for the office (if he was, he'd mention how his mother was an anthropologist and he's the first American president to speak an Asian language and he's taught for years at the University of Chicago, and has clearly read plenty in all those fields, as is amply demonstrated in that interview and others). He wasn't arguing at all. He was explaining as gently as possible that a stupid person wouldn't have been able to accomplish what he has done, and asking to be treated with respect.

Which that fool Berkowitz is unable to hear, because the respect is something he's apparently incapable of feeling. And it's not even relevant to Mandelbaum's analysis in any case.

Anyway, it kind of makes Friedman look cute by comparison.

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