Shooting Fish in a Barrel: Matt Taibbi Takes on Tom Friedman (Again)

It really is a guilty pleasure, but I do love it when clever, funny writers take on not so clever, humorless writers. Intellectual slap downs are like junk food to journalists, and Matt Taibbi has provided years of unhealthy food to people like myself, largely at the expense of the New York Time’s resident metaphor butcher Tom Friedman. I try not to poke fun at other writer’s too much, but with Friedman it’s hard to resist.

In his latest Rolling Stone blog, Taibbi takes apart Friedman’s latest attempt to explain the crisis in Syria with a series of metaphors so absurdly convoluted you wonder whether Friedman might be having his readers on. Inexplicably, Friedman seems to have changed his views on the state of Iraq post America’s invasion and occupation, at least in comparison to what we’re now seeing in Syria. Friedman had once used described Iraq as a “pottery barn” that had been “broken” by “1,000 years of Arab-Muslim authoritarianism, three brutal decades of Sunni Baathist rule, and a crippling decade of U.N. sanctions.” Friedman described the pottery barn (Iraq) as being “held together only by Saddam’s iron fist,” that was subsequently smashed by the US invasion. Friedman then argued that Iraq was a disaster in part because the US didn’t give it “political therapy” during its occupation.

But now the emotionally stunted broken pottery barn once held together by Saddam’s iron fist looks rather appealing, at least in Friedman’s eyes. Writes Taibbi:

An endlessly-deepening hole, containing broken pottery pieces at the bottom, rapidly filling up with the dead bodies of good people. That is a very strange and depressing image, and it’s what Friedman saw in Iraq in 2006.

Now, however, Iraq looks good compared to Syria. In an attempt to explain how that could be, given that six years ago it looked quite a lot like our invasion of Iraq triggered a wave of ethnic violence, Friedman is re-explaining the history of the Iraq war.

It turns out that when we went into Iraq, we weren’t trying to put back together the broken pieces of the national pottery that had been held together for so long by Saddam’s iron fist. Rather, what we were doing was . . . well, let him explain (emphasis his):

“For better and for worse, the United States in Iraq performed the geopolitical equivalent of falling on a grenade — that we triggered ourselves. That is, we pulled the pin; we pulled out Saddam; we set off a huge explosion in the form of a Shiite-Sunni contest for power. Thousands of Iraqis were killed along with more than 4,700 American troops, but the presence of those U.S. troops in and along Iraq’s borders prevented the violence from spreading. Our invasion both triggered the civil war in Iraq and contained it at the same time.”

So Saddam wasn’t an iron fist holding together broken pottery pieces at all, but the pin in a metaphorical grenade in which the explosive power of inevitable civil war was contained. Why you wouldn’t just leave a pin in such a grenade is anyone’s guess, but we didn’t – we pulled the pin and then sent 4,700 young Americans to throw their bodies on the explosion (i.e. the civil war). We contained the destructive power of this civil war by physically sealing off the borders, letting the fire of ethnic conflict “burn itself out,” and by brokering a power-sharing agreement between the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias. Then we left.

It gets funnier as Taibbi tries to make sense of Friedmans insertion of more layers to his already spectacularly confusing metaphorical bonanza:

The lesson Friedman takes from all of this is that if you’re trying to knock over an iron fist which is also a pin in a grenade, what you really need is a midwife. “If you’re trying to topple one of these iron-fisted, multisectarian regimes,” he writes, “it really helps to have an outside power that can contain the explosions and mediate a new order.”

By which he means a midwife. Who is also a fireman:

“There is no outside power willing to fall on the Syrian grenade and midwife a new order. So the fire there rages uncontrolled . . .”

This was one of Taibbi’s better Friedman take downs – a hobby he’s been practicing for a while –  but they’re all good (I dug this one up on Friedman’s attempt to compare the Wall st crash with swimming in the nude – another must read classic). I’m surprised Friedman hasn’t caught wind of this and attempted to use metaphors that actually make sense, but it looks like he’s still at it and going stronger than ever. And  while Friedman’s writing arguably adds to the dumbing down of serious issues, it’s a lot of fun taking it apart afterwards.

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