Thomas Friedman actually has a mildly interesting column today [TimesSelect], though I’m not sure what his real point is. Simply put, he notes how delightful it is that China has been able these past six years to devote just about all of its time and energy and money to preparing for the Olympics, without worrying even a little bit about Iraq, without pouring half its treasury down the toilet to combat “global terrorism.” At the same time, not only was the US going insane over iraq and falling apart politically and economically, it was also going on a massive shopping spree, spending itself almost into oblivion. Writing from the WEF in Dalian:
I heard China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, address an international conference here in Dalian, and what impressed me most was how boring it was – a straightforward recitation of the staggering economic progress China has made in the last two decades and the towering economic, political and environmental challenges it still faces.
How nice it must be, I thought, to be a great power and be almost entirely focused on addressing your own domestic problems?
No, I have not gone isolationist. America has real enemies that China does not, and therefore we have to balance a global security role in places like the Middle East with domestic demands.
But something is out of balance with America today. Looking at the world from here, it is hard not to feel that China has spent the last six years training for the Olympics while we’ve spent ourselves into debt on iPods and Al Qaeda.
Friedman’s column is interesting but kind of bizarre. He quietly banged the drum for this war, always expressing caution (“we won’t know until six more months”) while making it clear the war had his support, until it didn’t. With this column, it’s pretty clear he’s given up. He says specifically of the Iraq debacle, ” We’re wasting our brains. We’re wasting our people. We’re wasting our future. China is not.”
China avoided all that, instead focusing on fuwas and Bird’s Nest stadiums and happy happy signs at the overhauled airport – a strategic decision that I respect (much as I loathe the creepy fuwas); China had a goal to reach and all of these steps were in keeping with it. As the war fucked us over and bled our spirits and our pocketbooks, China only moved forward. America’s goal fell apart; Soon no one even knew what we were fighting for.
No matter what you think of China’s goals and its methodologies, it can’t be denied that they set their sites on what they wanted (to redefine their nation through an Olympics unlike any other in sheer scale, scope and worldwide attention), funneled all their energy toward meeting the goal and so far have done a fairly impressive job (though that chapter is still being written). So Friedman looks at this rather amazing story, compares it to what America did over the same six years (i.e., fell to pieces) and bewails America’s paralysis, its feet caught in the quicksand of Iraq, while China forged ahead. And there’s something to say for this argument, though Friedman is coming around to it awfully late in the game.
Is this a bit two-faced of the sensible, prudent columnist? As mentioned, this was a war he wanted. Will we see more columns like this as he seeks to rehabilitate his image in the wake of America’s inevitable withdrawal without victory? I don’t now, but judging from the tone of this column – the first I can remember in which he sounds utterly resigned to defeat, with or without that magical “six more months” – I’d says that’s a pretty safe guess. When you read Thomas Friedman stating matter of factly that China has soared forward while America plummeted back, you know you’re seeing something of a tectonic shift.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.