“I believe 9/11 was the worst thing to happen to America in my lifetime,” Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column. It’s a sign of how difficult things have become for the globe-trotting pundit that he chose to set off this fairly defensible claim as a standalone paragraph, as if it were a bold assertion of faith and truth.
Safe, or even safe-seeming, assertions are suddenly hard for Friedman to come by, as he struggles to comprehend the apparent murder of his friend Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, evidently at the orders of the Saudi regime Friedman had championed.
“By the way, I don’t think they will get away with it,” Friedman wrote.
By the way—incidentally—as an aside—Friedman did not try to explain how or why he thought they would not get away with it, or to describe what forces or tactics might be able to hold the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, responsible for the assassination and dismemberment of a Washington Post columnist. Even by Friedman’s legendarily wishful standards of forecasting, this was a hope lofted into the air with no facts to support it.
But the facts have turned against Friedman, and against his entire worldview, in a way he is, so far, incapable of coping with. His usual glib movement from non sequitur to non sequitur, the smooth machinery of nonsense that made him a bestselling author and expensive speaker, is grinding and thrashing now, spitting out broken shards of argument. The self-assurance that lubricated the whole thing has drained away.
“[I]f there is any lesson to be learned from this terrible affair,” Dexter Filkins writes in the New Yorker, “it’s how blind so much of official Washington and the American press were to M.B.S.’s true nature.”
That is obvious and correct. Friedman, however, in his frantic, clueless way, stumbled even closer to a larger and more humiliating truth:
It had nothing to do with M.B.S. personally. Personally, I don’t care if Saudi Arabia is ruled by M.B.S., S.O.S. or K.F.C.
There, all out of key, was an attempt at the old Friedmanian swaggering voice, the “Suck on this!” voice, the voice of a man who looks down and makes corny jokes about disaster. (Look: Saudi Arabia has a bad case of I.B.S.—Irritable bin Salman.) Now the voice was pleading for understanding, asking the reader to recognize that Friedman wasn’t blind to bin Salman, but that he hadn’t really been looking at him at all.
Friedman championed the crown prince, he wrote, because bin Salman had been willing to speak out against Islamic radicalism, and as Friedman understood things, it was religious moderation—”it is not oil, it’s not arms sales, it’s not standing up to Iran”—that was the essential American interest in the region.
Now, though, the reformer has apparently chopped up a United States resident, and the response of the American president is to wave off the crime and talk about the importance of arms sales. It’s as if Friedman’s theory of the root causes of terror and oppression in the region, and of how they relate to American interests, could have been wrong, or even backwards.
So: 9/11! It was bad, right?
We can debate what was the right response to the attacks—Afghanistan, Iraq, the global war on terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security, or metal detectors everywhere. But we cannot debate the costs.
We have spent thousands of lives and some $2 trillion trying to defuse the threat of Muslim extremists—from Al Qaeda to ISIS—dollars that could have gone to so many other needs in our society.
This was too broken to even qualify as incoherent. The debate over the costs is identical to the debate over the response. The lives and the money would not have been wasted if people like Thomas Friedman hadn’t been unshakably committed to the belief that force would produce a better world—the force of a United States military invasion, back then, or today the force of a new Saudi leader willing to crack heads.
Even now, Friedman can’t give up on his vision of an indispensable leader, with the heroic strength to remake the world:
Even if M.B.S. were pushed aside, if you think there are a 100 Saudi royals with the steel, cunning and ruthlessness he had to push through women driving, removing the Islamic police from the streets and reopening cinemas, you are wrong. There are not.
What if the cinemas don’t really make a difference, though? Or—what if Friedman’s opinion didn’t matter, all along, either way? This is the bleaker story for Thomas Friedman, along the arc from bin Salman’s glad-handing tour among transnational thought leaders to the bone saw in the consulate. Creating a new global reality—through unfettered trade, through armed invasion, through the brute-force imposition of a superior way of life—was always going to hurt some people. But it wasn’t supposed to hurt people like Jamal Khashoggi, people whom major newspaper columnists considered their colleagues. Not intentionally, anyway.
Yet it has, and the president of the United States doesn’t seem to care, and Friedman doesn’t know what to do or even think about it. “It’s a mess,” he writes. By the time he hits the end of the column, the only suggestion he can come up with is that “Trump might start by appointing an ambassador to Saudi Arabia.”
There is no plan, or there never was a plan, or—worst of all—could it be that there is a plan, and the powers that make the plan don’t care about anything Thomas Friedman cares about? Being wrong about Mohammed bin Salman was one thing. The truly terrifying possibility, just beyond Thomas Friedman’s grasp, is that Thomas Friedman could have been wrong about himself.