Totology

Toto... can't tell them apart.

No, that's not a misspelling of tautology. It refers to the crossed wires in Thomas Friedman's brains that allow him to say make assertions whose relationship to reality are so threadbare that they amount to sleight-of-hand. Several years ago I decided to stop blogging about Friedman (whom I refer to, in my internal monologue, as "Toto"), because he gets very boring, and by and large I haven't even read him in a while. But the moral outrage he summons in his latest piece is so distasteful and selective it's worth spending a little time on. 

Tolology, as I define it, is Toto's repeated use a moral outcry to make an argument that, rhetorically at least, cannot be refuted (i.e. a logical tautology). See how he starts his latest column:

I confess that when I first saw the May 17 picture of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms — after their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program — all I could think of was: Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?

No, that’s about as ugly as it gets.

Well how could we disagree? I guess countries that deal with undemocratic regimes that imprison and kill dissidents are evil. It's a good thing that the United States never does that, and that it's dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian regime rather than negotiate with it, and that it never would have stooped to the kind of deal Turkey and Brazil made with Iran.

Er... except, the US backs plenty of undemocratic countries for much worse reasons that Brazil's desire to play a role on the world stage and Turkey doing the same as well as trying to avoid a war on its borders. For its strategic aims of securing its military and economic presence in the region, it has supported the antedeluvian Saudi regime and the often brutal Egyptian regime. It has done so with ambiguity, at times supporting it and condemning it at the same time. This blog has argued many times for a stronger US stance on Egypt, but within reason — for instance not rewarding the regime unnecessarily as has been done in recent years. I would love to see a revision of the Bush administration stance towards Algeria, a regime much worse than Iran's in many respect, but the Obama administration has continued to deal with Bouteflika and friends because it likes Algeria's natural gas and support for an American military engagement in the Sahel region. How satisfying would it be to do something serious about China's concentration camps and high execution rates. I could go on.

Er... except that the Obama administration's policy, and even the Bush administration's policy, was to negotiate with Iran. Otherwise why bother with sanctions? Let's just invade or bomb or do whatever Toto thinks is worth doing to prevent a nuclear Iran and ensure the fall of the mullah's regime. Maybe just as he supported a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein he now thinks it the same should happen in Iran because of the Green Movement. If US policy is "engagement" then you have to have clear goals. Ensuring that Iran abides with its international obligation under the NPT is a clear goal — although then you also have to care about the principles of the NPT applying to India and Israel (and it's a good thing we're seeing a move in that direction lately.) If US policy in supporting Iran's democrats, great. But then you have might have to develop a policy beyond bombing the country, or, as Congress does, assigning cash to for destabilization and regime change. Because it's not exactly a confidence-buiding measure. And you might want to boycott Total, one of the main investors in Iran, too. Not ready to do that? Then perhaps start thinking about whether threats of bombing campaigns and regime change have hurt Iran's Green Movements (for which the issue, after all, is not the nuclear program but politics and economics) and even empowered conservatives by making it easier to tarnish the opposition as a Western fifth column (you know, the one Congress wants to fund.) 

Er... except, the US tried to get exactly the same deal last year. Cue in Roger Cohen, known around the NYT editorial office as "the sane guy":

Speaking of facts, I must get a little technical here. Iran has been producing, under International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, LEU (enriched to about 5 percent). It is this LEU that would have to be turned into bomb-grade uranium (over 90 percent) if Iran were to produce a nuclear weapon. The idea behind the American deal in Geneva last October was to get a big chunk of LEU out of Iran to build confidence, create some negotiating space, and remove material that could get subverted. In exchange, Iran would later get fuel rods for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

Iran, doing the bazaar routine, said yes, maybe and no, infuriating Obama. Iran now wanted the LEU stored on Iranian soil under I.A.E.A. control, phased movement of the LEU to this location, and a simultaneous fuel rod exchange. Forget it, Obama said.

Well, Turkey and Brazil have now restored the core elements of the October deal: a single shipment of the 1,200 kilograms of LEU to a location (Turkey) outside Iran and a one-year gap — essential for broader negotiations to begin — between this Iranian deposit in escrow and the import of the fuel rods.

And what’s the U.S. response? To pursue “strong sanctions” (if no longer “crippling”) against Iran at the United Nations; and insist now on a prior suspension of enrichment that was not in the October deal (indeed this was a core Obama departure from Bush doctrine).

To be quite honest, I'd rather see a democratic Iran with the bomb rather than au autocratic Iran without it. Pursuing a nuclear deterrent is quite a logical thing to do when you've been branded part of the "axis of evil", threatened with regime change and have a nuclear regional rival like Israel. The Iran Toto wants is one that is democratic, but especially one that plays nice with Israel. I don't know Iran, but I would not be so sure a democratic Iran would be friends with Israel (out of some anti-Arab sentiment, as neocons frequently hope.) I think good parts of both left and right in Iran would still be critical of Israel, just as public opinion in the rest of the region.  

But I'm not so sure that Toto would even be so tolerant of such an Iran. His approach, ultimately, is to defend what Israel wants: no nuclear rival in the region. The rest — the democracy bit — is window-dressing. First and foremost, Toto wants to hold the Zionist line.

(And yes, from now on every Arabist post will be linked to some sort of classic rock song, although few will be as so-terrible-it's-good as this one.)

Update: I couldn't help myself this time, but the reason I don't usually write about Toto is that everyone else does:

FAIR Blog » Blog Archive » Thomas Friedman Doesn't Get Much Uglier Than This

Eunomia » On The Side of Fallen Angels

Robert Naiman: Regime Change Redux? Reading Tom Friedman in Sao Paulo

And I'm sure there's more making good points about Toto's piece, which I didn't want to include because they were besides my point, such as:

  • Columbia is not the model democracy he thinks it is;
  • While Moises Naim is, as far as I know, a perfectly nice guy, his period in government in Venezuela was very destructive for ordinary folks and paved the way for the return of Caudillos like Chavez;
  • and plenty more.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.