If I May Pile On Friedman, Too

Glenn Greenwald leads the better voices of Blogistan with a withering and well deserved attack on Thomas Friedman’s column in this morning’s New York Times, which half-jokingly suggests that if Barack Obama were the presidential nominee, he might consider Dick Cheney as his running mate. Greenwald particularly raises Friedman’s central point – 

If she were taking advantage of Mr. Cheney’s madness, Secretary Rice would be going to Tehran and saying to the Iranians: “Look, I’m ready to cut a deal with you guys, but I have to tell you, back home, I’ve got Cheney on my back and he is truly craaaaazzzzy. You guys don’t know the half of it. He thinks waterboarding is what you do with your grandchildren at the pool on Sunday. I’m not sure how much longer I can restrain him. So maybe we should have a serious nuke talk, and, if it goes well, we’ll back off regime change” . . .

But Mr. Obama’s stress on engaging Iran, while a useful antidote to the Bush boycott policy, is not sufficient. Mr. Obama evinces little feel for generating the leverage you’d need to make such diplomacy work. When negotiating with murderous regimes like Iran’s or Syria’s, you want Tony Soprano by your side, not Big Bird. Mr. Obama’s gift for outreach would be so much more effective with a Dick Cheney standing over his right shoulder, quietly pounding a baseball bat into his palm.

and compares it to this Friedman gem of macho posturing in 2002:

Sept. 11 happened because America had lost its deterrent capability. We lost it because for 20 years we never retaliated against, or brought to justice, those who murdered Americans. . . .America’s enemies smelled weakness all over us, and we paid a huge price for that. . . .

No, the axis-of-evil idea isn’t thought through — but that’s what I like about it. It says to these countries and their terrorist pals: “We know what you’re cooking in your bathtubs. We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do about it, but if you think we are going to just sit back and take another dose from you, you’re wrong. Meet Don Rumsfeld — he’s even crazier than you are.'”

There is a lot about the Bush team’s foreign policy I don’t like, but their willingness to restore our deterrence, and to be as crazy as some of our enemies, is one thing they have right. It is the only way we’re going to get our turkey back.

I would add something that amplifies Greenwald’s indictment of Friedman’s horrible judgment – the flawed leadership in our own country during our last military boondoggle. “Nixon’s madman strategy,” James Carroll’s excellent piece in the Boston Globe from June 14, 2005 spells it out:  

”I CALL IT the madman theory, Bob,” Richard Nixon said to Robert Haldeman… Nixon is remembered as having threatened the US Constitution, but his presidency represented a far graver threat than that. Various published tapes have put on display his vulgarity, pettiness, and prejudice and his regular drunkenness. But what has generated insufficient alarm is Nixon’s insane flirtation with the actual use of nuclear weapons.

”I want the North Vietnamese to believe,” he went on, ”that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry, and he has his hand on the nuclear button, and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” … For this account, I depend on the political scientists Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suir, whose 2003 article in the journal International Security brought the incident to light.

From Oct. 10, 1969, through the rest of the month the US military was ordered to full global war readiness alert, without any provocation, and with no explanation to US commanders as to the alert’s purpose. Nuclear armed fighter planes were dispersed to civilian airports, missile countdown procedures were initiated, missile-bearing submarines were dispersed, long-range bombers were launched, targeting was begun. On Oct. 27, in the climactic action designed to make it seem the madman was loose, the Strategic Air Command was ordered to dispatch B-52 bombers, loaded with thermonuclear weapons, toward the Soviet Union. Eighteen of the bombers took off from bases in the United States in an operation named Giant Lance. ”The bombers crossed Alaska,” Sagan and Suri wrote, ”were refueled in midair by KC-135 tanker aircraft, and then flew in oval patterns toward the Soviet Union and back, on 18-hour vigils over the northern polar ice cap.” The ominous flight of these H-bombers to, and then at, the edge of Soviet territory continued for three days. This was all done in total secrecy — not from the Soviets, of course, since they knew quite well what was happening, but from the American people.

Unbeknownst to Nixon, his ”madman” gamble coincided with a border dispute simmering just then between China and the Soviet Union. The two communist rivals were themselves approaching war footing, and Moscow already had reasons to be wary of America’s tilt toward Beijing. Thus, when signals of an American nuclear countdown were picked up, Moscow would have had every reason to assume that the United States was preparing to attack in support of Beijing, perhaps launching a preemption of Moscow’s own contemplated attack against China. The Soviets could have seen the American threat not as ”irrational,” as Nixon intended, but as consistent with a reasonable strategic purpose.

Funny how just a teensie weentsie oversight in Nixon’s macho swaggering nearly set off… well, we did luck out that time, didn’t we? Cooler heads in Moscow (and Hanoi!) prevailed. The lesson from this is unmistakable:

As if such accidental complications were not unsettling enough, as Sagan and Suir point out, the entire ”madman theory” of coercion was flawed in its essence, depending as it did on twisted logic that assumed an adversary would respond to a calculated show of irrationality with something other than irrationality of its own. Presumably, Nixon wanted a frightened Moscow to convince a frightened Hanoi to change its behavior in Paris as a way of heading off Washington’s insanity. Rational Russians would save the world from crazy Americans. Come again?

Thomas Friedman is worse than childish, barbaric, and bloodthirsty  — adjectives Greenwald uses to describe him. He’s also a damned fool, ignorant of history, yet pretending to possess intellectual prowess. That makes him downright dangerous. Again.

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