In 42-plus years of analyzing lawyers’ briefs, I have gained some experience in spotting written advocacy that resorts to a variety of mechanisms to camouflage a weak argument. Sometimes authors use personal attacks and inflammatory but baseless accusations to cover up the weakness of their argument.
So it is with political journalists and advocates (an overlapping set, to be sure). Tom Friedman, The New York Times’ resident “intellectual” foreign affairs columnist, demonstrates this technique in spades in his recent unhinged personal attack on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for not publicly disagreeing with President Trump’s decision to recall Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovich.
Friedman’s charge is that Pompeo’s failure to voice his public disagreement with Trump’s decision shows that even though Pompeo finished No. 1 in his class at West Point — a composite of academic, leadership, and physical fitness rankings — “he must have flunked all his courses on ethics and leadership.” Friedman lards up his baseless argument with inflammatory, red-meat personal attacks that can fairly be described as sophomoric, in the sense that they are more typical of something written by an inexperienced but passionate youth, rather than a serious man.
Thus, Friedman’s analysis is that Pompeo is “cowardly” and “slimy,” he must have “failed or skipped” all West Point’s classes on ethics and leadership, and his failure to behave as Friedman would demand is “one of the most shameful things I have ever seen in 40 years of covering U.S. diplomacy.” He has “the mark of Cain on his forehead” and it “will not wash off.” Continuing his biblical references, Friedman assures us it is really a “simple” matter: Pompeo will “lose his soul.”
Well, what on Earth is the basis for damning Pompeo’s soul to hell? It is this, in Friedman’s words:
Though he reportedly argued privately to the president to keep Yovanovitch in place, Pompeo faithfully executed Trump’s order without uttering a word to defend his ambassador’s reputation in public.
In the Friedman world, a Cabinet officer’s faithful execution of a president’s policies after private disagreement is both “cowardly” and “slimy,” not to mention cause for eternal damnation.
Surely Pompeo must have skipped all his ethics and leadership classes, as Friedman asserts, to put himself in such a pickle. But what would Pompeo have learned in all those classes? The Army Field Manual on Leadership (known as FM 6-22) provides guidance. In its discussion of “Responsible Subordinates,” it concludes an example about a team chief’s disagreement with his superior with this admonition:
Ultimately, the discussion must conclude and the chief has to accept his superior’s final decision whatever it may be. From that point on, he is obligated to support that decision and execute it to the highest of standards. Just imagine what chaos would engulf an organization if subordinates chose freely which orders to obey and which to ignore. In the end, it is important for all leaders to preserve trust and confidence in the chain of command and the collective abilities of the organization.
That is precisely what Pompeo did, at least according to the Times’ leading “intellectual.” He had a private discussion with Trump about Yovanovich, disagreed in private, and accepted his superior’s final decision. He then supported that decision. But, like many a person who has been fired or demoted, this hurt the ambassador’s feelings:
Daniel Goldman: So just like that, you had to leave Ukraine as soon as possible?
Goldman: How did that make you feel?
Yovanovich: Terrible honestly. After 33 years of service to our country it was terrible. It’s not the way I wanted my career to end.
By all means then, let us impeach!
Despite the risk of hurting the ambassador’s feelings, the secretary of state’s duty, consistent with West Point’s leadership principles, was to execute the commander-in-chief’s orders and fully support them as if they were his own. Any lukewarm enforcement or public distancing of himself from the president’s decision would be a prescription for chaos.
Finally, Friedman’s overwrought attempts at military analogies are weak tea indeed. Replacing ambassadors who have lost the president’s confidence is in no way comparable to leaving your wounded on the battlefield, as Friedman asserts.
As for his triple-emphasized caution about Trump — “I would never, ever, ever want to be in a trench with that man” — Friedman does not make clear how much time he has spent under fire or in a trench. I think, however, I am safe in concluding that Friedman’s chances of spending time under fire in a trench with anyone are about the same as my chances of serving on The New York Times editorial board with Friedman.