A question that should be asked more often by consumers of journalism and policy writing is “What could that possibly mean?” It will help them make the vital distinction between articles and studies and books that are actually worth reading because their arguments and proposals are reasonably tethered to reality, and those that are simply blather. (Of course, policy writers should follow this advice, too, but if they can’t make this distinction without my prompting, they’re probably hopeless to begin with.)
For a good example of writing (and thinking) that flunks the “What can that possibly mean?” test, check out New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s latest, which offers some thoughts on how the United States can deal successfully with the shocking disorder into which much of the world seems to be descending.
It’s a vitally important subject, and I don’t fault Friedman, a multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, for failing to present a detailed strategic blueprint given his format’s tight space constraints. But his readers surely have a right to expect more than a warmed over version of “Kumbaya’s” lyrics.
In terms that can plausibly be conceivable to policymakers for the foreseeable future, what could Friedman possibly mean by urging U.S. foreign policy to do more than “hedge risk and preserve a failing status quo”? What could he possibly mean when he advises American leaders “to be builders with enough foresight to shape a sustainable international order”? What are the specific, concrete measures that could achieve those goals?
What could Friedman possibly mean when he recommends supporting “regional leaders committed to the same”? Does he suppose that lots of them are sitting in their offices or tents or wherever waiting, Lana Turner-like, to be discovered by State Department talent scouts? What could he possibly mean by observing that foreign “leaders and their people are going to eventually have to embrace a new, more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust”? What law of history mandates that happy outcome?
Friedman actually does present what he views as a model for such policies. But here’s the problem: It’s the U.S. approach to some of the Sunni lands in Iraq during America’s second war in that country. In Friedman’s words:
“The U.S. partnered with the Sunni Muslim tribal leaders who didn’t want puritanical Islam, or their daughters to be forced to marry fundamentalists, or to give up their whiskey. But we did not just arm them. We brokered an agreement of shared guns, shared power and shared values — about the future of Iraq — between those Sunni tribesmen and Iraq’s ruling Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.”
But of course, it takes two (at least) to stabilize, and clearly not enough Shiites bought in. Friedman appears to blame the United States for leaving too hastily – though he doesn’t explicitly make the accusation. But how long does he believe the U.S. forces could have stayed? And how long could they have kept Iraqi factions from each other’s throats?
In his summation, Friedman grants the objection that his prescription “sounds impossibly hard.” But the underlying problem is that he doesn’t even permit the debate to get that far. Because nothing in his column even remotely approaches a prescription or strategy. He simply presents readers with a string of gauzy platitudes – and leaves them to wonder “What could they possibly mean?”