Tom Friedman Listening Tour

Having read The Lexus and The Olive Tree and dozens of his columns over the years, I have one small suggestion for Thomas L. Friedman. I suggest that he come up with some new material every once in a while. Instead of constantly complaining that President Bush isn’t working hard enough to win European support, he might ask what it is that the Europeans have done to shoulder their fair share of the burden for defending themselves during the past six decades, first against Communism and now against Jihadist terrorists.

Let me put this is bluntly as I can: George W. Bush was just re-elected by a majority of the American electorate, which is a much more important referendum on U.S. foreign policy than a handful of people a columnist meets on a ten day tour in Europe. Sure, some people may think Mr. Friedman more qualified to advise the president than Condoleeza Rice, but I haven’t met them yet.

While perusing Memeorandum earlier this morning, I came across a blogger from Q&A who identifies himself only as McQ. He told me that, “Sometimes Thomas Friedman drives me up a wall.” Startled that anyone could be anything but enraptured with the great Times columnist and Expert On Everything, I continued to listen. Responding to several European analysts Mr. Friedman met in a bar who longed for the America of old that didn’t hassle people at the border, McQ snapped, “September 11th, 2001 changed that forever. It’s time you and the Ponyites figure that out. The government of the US isn’t here to make German bar flies happy. It’s here to make US citizens safe and secure.”

While sipping on what was left of my Diet Cherry Coke, I moseyed over to a little watering hole called Captain’s Quarters, a favorite among regular Joes in these parts. There, I met the proprieter, “Captain Ed” Morrissey, who offered that maybe it’s the Europeans who are wrong rather than Mr. Bush. He proclaimed, “The solution to the problem isn’t silence, but continually challenging the European electorate to rouse themselves from their defeatism and knee-jerk pacifism. They don’t like George Bush because he reminds them that the European public can’t even defend themselves any more, let alone assist us in our security issues.” Then, JB, a frequent patron at CQ, noted that Friedman seems to be contradicting things that he’d written in his previous column.

Joe Schmoe, who for all you know is a cab driver from Fairfax, Virginia who I didn’t make up to support what I was going to write anyway, told me, “When Friedman went on his sabbatical a while back, I was hoping he’d stay gone. It’s just too much work reading three bad columns making the same hackneyed point for every good one. Really, I prefer to read blogs these days.”

Mr. Friedman is a bright guy and he’s often got interesting things to say. Certainly, he travels a lot and talks to many interesting people and writes down things that they say. But does he really expect a president of the United States to go around with his tail between his legs seeking advice from the likes of Jacques Chirac, much less Stefan Elfenbein, a food critic nursing a beer at his table?

Yes, yes, there are legitimate counters to all these points. But before I will listen to Mr. Friedman make those counterpoints, he will have to write another readable column first.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. kenny says:

    “Europeans have done to shoulder their fair share of the burden for defending themselves during the past six decades, first against Communism and now against Jihadist terrorists.”

    You mean how during the cold war, the european nato countries always had more men under arms than the US did ?
    In 1985 for instance the US has 2.2 million military personnel. The european Nato forces had 3.6 million.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Ordinarily, one looks at such things in terms of population and per capita GDP. For that matter, the “forces” weren’t comparable man-to-man in terms of training, equipment, and readiness.

  3. On balance, I like Friedman, even when I disagree with him. However, as someone who takes political analysis quite seriously, I tire of his “methodology” of dining with people on his travels and then using it as a means of making an argument.

  4. ken says:

    James, nice recovery. But your conservative myopia is all too apparent throughout your post. Your chest thumping about Bush’s election as a more important referendum on US foreign policy than what the rest of the world thinks about US foreign policy is just plain dumb. If your foreign policy turns friends into enemies and enemies into fanatics then regadless of how much you and your ilk approve of it something is wrong. We were never so hated by so many in world before Bush. All the world can see that he lied about Iraq in order to invade and occupy that country. He is arragantly stupid, like a drunk in a barroom who threatens friends and foe alike in order to get his way in a brawl he started.

  5. David Harris says:

    Does it not occur to you that the “friends” we have made enemies out of have a lot to lose if America succeeds? Remember that our so-called allies in Europe have been around quite a bit longer than we have, and several of them used to be quite the world powers themselves. Couldn’t it possibly be that they have a vested interest in seeing us fail? And from your response, you apparently think that bin Laden was just an enemy, and not a fanatic, before Bush’s foreign policies took effect. I seem to recall people questioning whether Bush was accomplishing anything in his first few months in office. Yet in his first 8 months, you seem to believe that he apparently did enough to turn our enemies into fanatics willing to hijack planes and attack us on our own soil. You need to face the fact that Islamic terrorism goes beyond the differences between liberals and conservatives here in the U.S. And if, in the process of defending our borders and the freedoms long denied in other parts of the world, we shed some of our traditional “allies” in Europe who have looked longingly at our successes over the last 100 years, frankly, I’m okay with that.

  6. Mikey says:

    Friedman goes overseas to get the opinions of a bunch of guys in a bar. Then he argues that the president of the United States should base his foreign policy on what this bunch of barstool philosophers supposedly told him.

    Does anybody else but me find that premise to be completely laughable?

  7. Paul says:


    Your reply is the perfect icon for the larger debate.

    Dr. Joyner writes a brilliant column and you reply with a repetition of simplistic talking points that are meaningless at best and demonstrably false at worst. — Yet thru your intellectual emptiness you think you presented the superior argument.

    Much like the larger debate on foreign policy itself, James set out to accomplish something and you would prefer to just whine.


  8. Jem says:

    I’d argue that Dr. Joyner is correct in his assertion that the US elections are the ultimate arbiter of any President’s policies. Until such time as the provisions of the current Constitution are overruled (by Ammendment or foreign conquest), the President is accountable solely to the electorate. And barstool pundits who are nationals of foreign states do not have voting rights here–nor do their leaders, whether elected or self-proclaimed.

  9. Mikey says:

    Anyone other than Dr. Joyner, that is.
    I think Mr. Friedman needs to step back and grab a couple of hits of pure oxygen.

    Advocating that the President take the advice of Barney Gumble, Homer Simpson, and the rest of Moe’s regulars. Un-bleeping-believable.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    “And barstool pundits who are nationals of foreign states do not have voting rights here—nor do their leaders, whether elected or self-proclaimed.”

    And IIRC they were complaining about just that during our recent presidential election campaign. Remember the “America’s influence affects all of us so we should all get a vote in their elections”?

  11. Lurking Observer says:


    In the first place, the largest NATO contingent was the Turks who, judging by Europe’s reactions these days, aren’t really European to begin with.

    That same Turkish army was mostly equipped with vehicles and aircraft 1-2 generations older than their central European counterparts.

    During the 1970s and 1980s, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan spent much of their time trying to persuade Europe (other than the Brits) to spend 3% of their GDP on defense. This, while the US was spending 6-8% of GDP on defense.

    Of course, much of the European militaries are comprised of conscripts, aka draftees. And while it is Democrats (e.g., Charlie Rangel) who are proposing to bring back the draft here, this was not and is not a particularly good way to field more capable militaries. Especially with the European terms-of-service (often less than 24 months, i.e., just long enough to learn how to handle your equipment, but not nearly enough to gain significant proficiency). But, hey, they’re cheap!

    But, of course, we are more hated today than, I take it, in the 1980s, when the USSR was threatening Europe with SS-20s and Western Europeans marched—against Reagan. And it was under Bill Clinton, widely loved, universally respected, that US embassies were bombed, the World Trade Center was bombed, the USS Cole was bombed….

    I’m sorry, your point again was?

  12. reliapundit says:

    Bravo! Well said.

  13. praktike says:

    OK, OK, Thomas Friedman is annoying, and so are the Europeans to a certain extent … but is he wrong?

    Should Bush not listen to what they have to say?

  14. Dave Schuler says:

    Actually, prak, proportionality suggests that the Europeans should be listening much more closely to what Bush (and we) have to say.

  15. Stephen says:

    In a school yard brawl I wouldn’t want Tom Friedman on my side. In a fight to the death with Islamo-fascists, Friedman would be leading a seminar in conflict resolution at a retreat in the Berkshires. He’s an arrogant know it all who thinks he’s a moral exemplar every time he lectures the President on how to behave and what to do.

  16. Eddy says:

    I noticed the name Elfenbein (it’s my last name as well). So I goggled “Stefan Elfenbein” and found out that this is hardly some “guy in a bar.” This link shows that he spoke at a panel discussion where his topic was the New York Times coverage on the Middle East!! This is what Friedman gets for “man on the street”! This is shoddy journalism pure and simple. It’s like asking Tom Brady’s mother her thoughts on the Super Bowl. Can’t they do 25 seconds worth of fact checking.