The Framing of the Middle East Paradigm

May 14, 2008 at 5:33 am | Posted in Iran, Middle East | 4 Comments

Thomas Friedman has written another op-ed about the Middle East. Frankly he should have retired his thoughts on the Middle East in 2002 when he gave up reason and supported the war in Iraq. But sadly, we still have to hear him get involved in that which he does not understand, or that which he would rather frame in a particular way, setting the stage for future American leaders to view the Middle East a particular way. He does so with this new op-ed. He writes:

The next American president will inherit many foreign policy challenges, but surely one of the biggest will be the cold war. Yes, the next president is going to be a cold-war president — but this cold war is with Iran.

That is the real umbrella story in the Middle East today — the struggle for influence across the region, with America and its Sunni Arab allies (and Israel) versus Iran, Syria and their non-state allies, Hamas and Hezbollah. As the May 11 editorial in the Iranian daily Kayhan put it, “In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides: Iran and the U.S.”

For now, Team America is losing on just about every front. How come? The short answer is that Iran is smart and ruthless, America is dumb and weak, and the Sunni Arab world is feckless and divided. Any other questions?

The outrage of the week is the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah attempt to take over Lebanon. Hezbollah thugs pushed into Sunni neighborhoods in West Beirut, focusing particular attention on crushing progressive news outlets like Future TV, so Hezbollah’s propaganda machine could dominate the airwaves. The Shiite militia Hezbollah emerged supposedly to protect Lebanon from Israel. Having done that, it has now turned around and sold Lebanon to Syria and Iran.

Note all the problems in this, the simplistic view of something complex, the easy labels, and so on. First comes the overall theme, the overall framing that Mr. Friedman wishes his readers to view America’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East: A Cold War. See, Americans are quite familiar with the term “Cold War,” or so Mr. Friedman thinks. But from our one and only example of a “Cold War” there sure isn’t any real comparison between the two examples. However, in both examples, one thing is very, very, sadly true: the United States misreads both opponents. The Soviet Union took over eastern Europe to set up a buffer zone between itself and Germany (after two betrayals who would be dumb enough NOT to?). Did the Soviet Union have plans to go into western Europe? Nope. But that was the fear in the United States. That, however, set up the confrontations in the rest of the world, where the Soviet Union felt it needed to expand to protect itself from the threat faced by the United States. We did the same, setting up bases in far off countries, delving into the internal affairs of far off nations we had no business messing around with.

In this op-ed, you can almost feel Mr. Friedman’s desire for this to be a reversion to the more simplistic life under the Cold War. So simple it was. Them = bad guys, Us = good guys. The United States, though, is a real fickle bitch. We used the Soviet Union to destroy Nazi Germany, only to turn around and use those same Germans to undermine the Russians. Most of the real saving battles of World War II on the European front occurred between Russia and Germany (as they had a generation previous in World War I). Without the Soviets, Germany would have overrun the entire western front and given the United States no ability to truly make a beachhead in France. In any case, this is a tangent.

So back to the main point, the situation in the Middle East today is not a Cold War. The troubles of the Middle East are unfortunately from our doing, not Iran’s. We are the ones who removed a democratically elected president of Iran back in the 1950s, installing the shah and bringing repression back to the Iranians, leading to their Revolution and to the situation we see today. We are the ones who installed the Ba’ath Party in Iraq, leading to Saddam Hussein and the rest of that sad story.

The second place that Mr. Friedman gets things wrong is in tying Iran, Syria and Hezbollah as basically one entity working in harmony on every little point. If something occurs that undermines our position, it surely must be because of that dastardly “Axis of Evil!” Surely there are no local politics involved. Surely Hezbollah has no local politics to deal with that has nothing at all to do with Iran. Hezbollah is a powerful entity within Lebanon even without Iran.

What Mr. Friedman cannot seem to understand is that this is truly different than the Cold War. Poland had little choice but to do what the Kremlin ordered. But Syria is really not under the control of Iran. I highly doubt we will ever see Iran send tanks to Damascus to breakup a revolution like Budapest, Hungary. But see, thinking all that is getting into complex situations, and Mr. Friedman doesn’t really want Americans to think more deeply about this situation. He would rather have us look simplistically at the Middle East. Them = bad guys, Us = good guys. End of story, as Mr. Friedman would like to frame it.

Mr. Friedman, it is best if you stick to talking about global warming or globalization or anything else that has nothing to do with the Middle East. You’ve put your foot in your mouth far too much vis-a-vis the Middle East. Let us not forget how you framed the war in Iraq.

Should anyone ever consider listening to YOUR opinion of what to do in the Middle East? Never.


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  1. Fascinating…

  2. I’ve got major issues with any question that starts out “Now that the war is over…”

  3. I thought This quote was apropos:

    “It may be said with rough accuracy that there are three stages in the life of a strong people. First, it is a small power, and fights small powers. Then it is a great power, and fights great powers. Then it is a great power, and fights small powers, but pretends that they are great powers, in order to rekindle the ashes of its ancient emotion and vanity. After that, the next step is to become a small power itself.” – G. K. Chesterton, “Heretics” (1906)

  4. Another note on Friedman’s comments: Future TV is not a “progressive” media outlet. It is a combination of least common denominator prurient-interest entertainment, sectarian hate-mongering, and Hariri family personal interest media vehicle. Occasionally I turn it on and quickly regret it.

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