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The Paradox of Tom Friedman's Resurgence
The longstanding New York Times columnist has had a good month of commentary. What does that mean?
One of the more interesting trends in the marketplace of ideas regarding the Israel-Hamas war has been the resurgence of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. All ten of his columns since the war broke out have been about the political dynamics playing out in Israel, the United States, and the Middle East. And over the past month I have heard or read variants of “I can’t believe it but Friedman’s column today is a must-read” from folks across the ideological spectrum.
To be clear, I agree with this assessment. Take his November 9th column, which tries to explain how the October 7th attacks have changed the Israeli mindset. The best bits of it describe how the attack has affected Israelis who used to live in border towns:
I am stunned by how many Israelis now feel this danger personally, no matter where they live — starting with a friend who lives in Jerusalem telling me that she and her husband just got gun licenses to have pistols at home. No one is going to snatch their children and take them into a tunnel. Hamas, alas, has tunneled fear into many, many Israeli heads far from the Gaza border….
Kiryat Shmona is one of the most important Israeli towns on the border with Lebanon. [A] father said his family had fled the northern fence line with thousands of other Israeli families after the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia and Palestinian militias in southern Lebanon began lobbing rockets and artillery and making incursions in solidarity with Hamas.
When might they go back? They had no idea. Like more than 200,000 other Israelis, they have taken refuge with friends or in hotels all across this small country of nine million people. And it has taken only a few weeks for Israelis to begin driving up real estate prices in seemingly safer central Israeli towns. For Hezbollah, that alone is mission accomplished, without even invading like Hamas. Together, Hezbollah and Hamas are managing to shrink Israel.
This is an excellent point that combines anecdote with a data point and second-order effects that buttress the column’s thesis. I recommend reading the entire column to get an even better sense of Friedman’s account.
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[Is it a perfect column? No, but those are few and far between. Friedman also offers a stark warning about Israel’s current leader, writing, “I am stunned by the degree to which that leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, continues to put the interests of holding on to the support of his far-right base — and pre-emptively blaming Israel’s security and intelligence services for the war — ahead of maintaining national solidarity or doing some of the basic things that Biden needs in order to get Israel the resources, allies, time and legitimacy it needs to defeat Hamas.” The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World agrees with everything in that paragraph — except being stunned by Netanyahu’s behavior. His political track record for the past twenty-five years provided ample evidence that this is what he would do.]
Is the current praise for Friedman surprising? Yes and no. Yes, it’s surprising, because for an awfully long time a Thomas Friedman was cited in foreign policy circles primarily as a strawman to be knocked down in brutal fashion. I wrote about the paradox of Friedman in The Ideas Industry — that he was simultaneously cited by many but at the same time had spawned a massive cottage industry of critics. To the extent that Friedman would generate waves in the larger foreign policy conversation, it was because of his ability to open doors and interview leaders.
But no, it’s also not surprising. Friedman’s first book was From Beirut to Jerusalem, the product of ten years of on-the-ground reporting from Israel and Lebanon. He knew the region. Even folks who rubbish Friedman’s later books and op-ed columns tend to praise his first book. As I explained in The Ideas Industry, critics often treat intellectual superstars like music groups, praising their earlier, grittier work while disparaging their subsequent commercial efforts. In returning to the Middle East, Friedman is like the country singer who cracked the pop charts but then returns to their country roots in a later album.
The question for the foreign policy community and Ideas Industry denizens is what to do with this information. For readers, the answer is clear-cut: keep reading Friedman on the Middle East! Read other folks as well, of course, but Friedman is likely to continue writing must-read columns for a spell.
For editors, the lesson is different. Friedman is on a hot streak because he’s writing about the region about which he possesses the deepest reservoir of knowledge. That does not erase all of his earlier, somewhat-more-vapid columns, however. This suggests two ideas for editorial page editors. First, create term limits for columnists. Give them five years, and then send them back into the field as reporters or have them serve as editors. Second, when a crisis emerges that touches on their initial area of expertise, be prepared to take former columnists and give them a temporary stint as regular contributors.