Sunday, April 04, 2010

Considering Friedman's Rules

There are, to my mind, two Tom Friedmans. When the longtime New York Times columnist writes about the Middle East he is quite strong. I know many people see him as being too tepid or too centrist, but his book From Beirut to Jerusalem is still the one book I would advise someone to read if they wanted a primer on the Israel-Palestine question. Then there is the Tom Friedman who keeps insisting to us that "the world is flat," his metaphor for the effects of globalization. This Friedman is more miss than hit, his tepidness really becoming a problem when he veers away from an area he knows as well as the Middle East.

Friedman had an op-ed last week that kept spinning in my craw. It deals with American Middle East policy, and so plays to his strengths. In the piece he lays out "three cardinal rules of Middle East diplomacy." While I'm not convinced that he is wrong, on each of the rules I take issue.

"Rule No. 1: When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go. See dictionary for Vietnam: Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky."

But in diplomacy there are times when you call things by their "real name" and there are times when it is, after all, diplomacy so you need to be diplomatic. I'm not convinced the Obama team "turned a blind eye" so much as they knew that we had limited capacity to make a difference. The question is, do we need Karzai more than we can afford to alienate him? And will any difference that we make happen behind the scenes or in front of them? In other words, what we call things seems to matter a whole lot less than how we deal with them once they become reality.

One reason you violate Rule No. 1 is because you’ve already violated Rule No. 2: “Never want it more than they do.”

If we want good governance in Afghanistan more than Karzai, he will sell us that carpet over and over. How many U.S. officials have flown to Kabul — the latest being President Obama himself — to lecture Karzai on the need to root out corruption in his administration? Do we think he has a hearing problem? Or do we think he believes he has us over a barrel and, in the end, he can and will do whatever serves his personal power needs because he believes that we believe that he is indispensable for confronting Al Qaeda?

This rule applies equally to the Israeli prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. There is something wrong when we are chasing them — two men who live in biking distance from one another — begging, cajoling and pressuring them to come to a peace negotiation that should ostensibly serve their interests as much as our own.

Not to get Clintonian on you, but this all depends on what "it" means. If by "it" we mean democracy in Afghanistan or a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine question, then yes, our partners need to want "it" more. But if the "it" in question is democracy in Afghanistan or a peaceful solution to Israel-Palestine in order to establish greater security for the United States, then we should want "it" every bit as much as they do and in some cases more.

"Which leads to Rule No. 3: In the Middle East, what leaders tell you in private in English is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language."

To a degree this is probably true. But a lot of this depends on how much what is said in private is tied to conditions. We know you are going to say certain things to the public to save face or to present the best spin on negotiations with the United States. But the key is sticking to agreements whether we are talking about Karzai or Netanyahu. Countries are allowed to have their own policies, their own sovereignty. But the United States should not be expected to fund that sovereignty or to fight for that sovereignty. And if their sovereignty conflicts with ours, well, that's a problem.

I have been unequivocally strong in my support of Israel, much to the chagrin of many of my more left-leaning friends. But if we ask the Israelis to stop building in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem, and the Israelis imply anti-Semitism or simply spit in our faces, well, I'm inclined to delay some checks for a few weeks and to have third-rank State Department functionaries return phone calls (at their leisure) that otherwise would have gone directly to Hillary Clinton. Yes, we should worry about what they say to their publics. But they should worry even more about the things we can do once they speak ill of us.

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