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Thomas Friedman loves a good war. Or a bad one.
In the early 2000s, he was the New York Times’ most enthusiastic cheerleader for George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the American counterinsurgency in Iraq went south, Friedman became notorious for his constant pronouncements, year after year, that we needed “another six months” to turn around the war and achieve a “decent outcome.” Other commentators started calling “another six months” a “Friedman Unit.”
Given this record, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by his latest contribution to making American discourse about foreign policy even more bloodthirsty and simple-minded. But I was.
Here’s how the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world said he “prefer[s] to think” about the complexities of war and politics in the Middle East:
“According to Science Daily, the wasp ‘injects its eggs into live caterpillars, and the baby wasp larvae slowly eat the caterpillar from the inside out, bursting out once they have eaten their fill.’
“Is there a better description of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq today? They are the caterpillars. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the wasp. The Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas and Kataib Hezbollah are the eggs that hatch inside the host—Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq—and eat it from the inside out.
“We have no counterstrategy that safely and efficiently kills the wasp without setting fire to the whole jungle.”
This is genuinely grotesque. Try to imagine the “paper of record” publishing an op-ed comparing Israeli soldiers and settlers to, say, termites, and saying—with regret, of course—that the difficulty faced by Iran and Hamas was that they’re trying to figure out how to “safely and efficiently” kill the termites without blowing up the whole house.
Would this be any worse than what Friedman actually wrote? If so, how?
And Friedman’s rhetoric becomes worse rather than better when we step away from this hypothetical case and think about the real-world context.
Israel’s war has already displaced 1.9 million of the 2.3 million residents of Gaza from their homes. Starvation is rampant, and senior members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet keep talking about how the endgame should be the “voluntary” mass relocation of Gaza Palestinians to somewhere other than Israel/Palestine.
The International Court of Justice issued a provisional ruling finding a “real and imminent” risk of “genocide” and ordering Israel to take several concrete measures to step back from the brink—like clamping down on genocidal incitement, scaling back the severity of its operations, and allowing in far more humanitarian aid. At the moment, it looks highly probable that Israel will disregard most or all of these orders and, with the U.S. ready to block any attempt at enforcement at the UN Security Council, the ruling will be a dead letter.
Meanwhile, the United States is being drawn into what looks a little bit more every day like a broader war on Israel’s behalf against various Iran-allied groups around the region. While I’m sure President Joe Biden would prefer to stop short of that outcome—and even more sure that the Iranians would prefer it—there’s a genuine risk that the current fighting will escalate into an all-out war between the two countries.
These are the circumstances under which Friedman is reaching back to the kind of dehumanizing metaphors that used to be used by European colonialists who thought they were bringing civilization to savages. The Middle East is a “jungle.” The various kinds of Scary Foreign Enemies to be found there are insects.
At a time when the international legal body tasked with holding nations to account for violating the UN Convention on Genocide has issued a preliminary ruling that Israel’s war crimes in Gaza have reached a point where Palestinians there are “plausibly” at risk of genocide, Friedman is comparing the U.S. and Israel to people facing a sad dilemma about how they can kill the “wasp” and its “eggs”—including the Hamas “egg” in Gaza—without incinerating the whole region.
Friedman, to be fair, isn’t a fan of Netanyahu, who he thinks is too extreme. He also gestures, here and in other columns, at the hope that there can be a two-state solution when this is all over. Meanwhile, though, he sure isn’t calling for Israel to agree to a long-term ceasefire—or even for the U.S. to decisively pull back from the brink of a wider regional war. In fact, in his last piece at The Times before his rumination about the Middle East as a jungle full of wasps, Friedman said that the problem with Netanyahu taking such a hard line against a future two-state settlement was that it made it harder for the U.S. to pull together “the NATO allies and the Arab and Muslim allies it needs to take on Iran in a more aggressive manner.”
Has he thought—at all—about what “tak[ing] on Iran in a more aggressive manner” would look like in human terms? He might hope that this “more aggressive” action wouldn’t spiral into an all-out war but every escalation makes that catastrophic outcome more likely.
And let’s not kid ourselves—the regime in Tehran is in a vastly stronger position than the Taliban or Saddam Hussein were when George W. Bush launched his wars in the early 2000s. This war would be far worse.
When Friedman was issuing his periodic calls for One More Friedman Unit in Iraq, he never seemed to worry about whether a majority of Iraqis wanted foreign troops occupying their country for another six months. Would he sign up to spend six months—or six hours—in a city occupied by traumatized and trigger-happy foreign soldiers who didn’t speak the language and were understandably terrified of being shot by insurgents or blown up by roadside bombs? Six months of bombing, fighting, roadside checkpoints, and house-to-house searches? Six months of worrying that someone with a grudge could accuse you of being an insurgent and get you sent to Abu Ghraib?
If the U.S. imposes its will in the Middle Eastern “jungle” and “take[s] on Iran in a more aggressive manner,” how many Friedman Units of similar horrors would be inflicted on ordinary people trying to live their lives in that “jungle?”
These are questions he might have to pause to consider if he let himself remember that the residents of countries where the U.S. and Israel wage war are people rather than caterpillars hosting the eggs of parasitic wasps. No wonder Friedman prefers to think in metaphors.