Daniel W. Drezner

An open letter to the New York Times concerning Thomas Friedman

Dear New York Times: As the paper of record, your op-ed page is a natural target for snark, derision, and other forms of criticism.  I’ll certainly plead guilty to these venial sins. I’ve found flaws in more than a few of your columnist’s writings on foreign affairs.  Thomas Friedman, in particular, has invited a fair ...

Dear New York Times:

As the paper of record, your op-ed page is a natural target for snark, derision, and other forms of criticism.  I’ll certainly plead guilty to these venial sins. I’ve found flaws in more than a few of your columnist’s writings on foreign affairs.  Thomas Friedman, in particular, has invited a fair measure of scorn from your correspondent over the years — though I’d note that I’m hardly the only one guilty of that sin.  Let me stipulate that I have no doubt that Mr. Friedman can polish off an accessible 800 word column on foreign affairs better than 99.5% of the foreign policy community.  And Friedman has locked down a certain Greatest Generation demographic, the one that emails their children with Ph.D.s in political science to say "Tom Friedman said something interesting in his column today.  You should read it." 

Friedman’s prose style invites a certain kind of satire, which is occasionally unkind but pretty harmless.  I write now, however, because in his latest column he has migrated from the merely foolish to the ill-considered and dangerous.  This is his advice to incoming Secretary of State John Kerry:

[W]hat’s a secretary of state to do? I’d suggest trying something radically new: creating the conditions for diplomacy where they do not now exist by going around leaders and directly to the people. And I’d start with Iran, Israel and Palestine. We live in an age of social networks in which every leader outside of North Korea today is now forced to engage in a two-way conversation with their citizens. There’s no more just top-down. People everywhere are finding their voices and leaders are terrified. We need to turn this to our advantage to gain leverage in diplomacy.

Let’s break all the rules.

Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.  

He goes on to talk about Israel/Palestine, but let’s keep the focus on Iran.  To put it kindly, there are some serious problems with Friedman’s advice.  In no particular order: 

1)  There are many possible Secretaries of State who possess the necessary charisma, drive, and rhetorical skills to resonate with the ordinary citizens of other countries.  I think we can all safely agree that, capable as he might be,  John Kerry is not one of those diplomats. 

2)  Why not "negotiate with the Iranian people?"  Well, to get technical about it, they’re not the ones controlling Iran’s nuclear program.  That’s not a minor issue.  For all this talk about how states are irrelevant in the 21st century, on matters of hard security not much has changed.  Lest Friedman or anyone else doubt this, recall that the Iranian state has proven itself more than capable of suppressing the Iranian people over the past four years.  Why Friedman thinks that the Ayatollah Khamenei would listen to ordinary Iranians on the nuclear question is beyond me. 

3)  Friedman seems to think that ordinary Iranians are implacably opposed to the nuclear program.  I have yet to read any analysis or on-the-ground reporting (including the NYT) that suggests this to be true.  Rather, the common theme is that Iranians take nationalist pride in the technological accomplishments of their national nuclear program.  Furthermore, in a propaganda war between the U.S. government and their own government, the U.S. is probably gonna lose even if it possesses the better argument.  For all of Friedman’s loose talk about the power of social media in a digitized world, he elides the point that one of the sentiments that social media is best at magnifying is nationalism.  In the case of Iran, this would mean a more recalcitrant negotiating partner. 

4)  In the 35 years since the Iranian Revolution, and the 10+ years since Iran’s nuclear program became a point of contention, is there any evidence that U.S. public diplomacy has had any positive effect in the country of Iran?  Any?  So why will it work now? 

5)  One last point.  Iran’s regime has been obsessed with the belief that the United States is trying to foment a Velvet Revolution in the country.  They’ve been willing to arrest, repress, or harrass anyone vaguely associated with such a campaign.  Exactly how does Friedman think the government in Tehran would respond to the kind of public diplomacy initiative that he’s suggesting? 

I could go on, but you see what I’m trying to say.  Friedman’s "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials.  Worse, he’s recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran.  This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy.  God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman’s advice. 

Sure, 99.5% of foreign policy wonks might write something less punchy, but I suspect most of them wouldn’t write something so obviously wrong.  Friedman clearly needs a sabbatical from the rigors of column-writing to get his head back in the game.  In the interest of raising our country’s foreign policy discourse, I beg you to put him on leave.


Daniel W. Drezner

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner