Marines, Not McDonald’s: Tom Friedman’s Fortune-Telling Folly

History is over. The world is flat.

These were the sort of self-congratulatory and wildly grandiose platitudes that passed for wisdom in the first decade after the United States declared "victory" in the Cold War. Neither slim statement is true – at least not in the sense they meant them – naturally: literally (of course), or even figuratively. Then again, it isn’t strictly true that the U.S. "won" the Cold War, or "defeated" the Soviets, surely not militarily, either.

There’s reams of evidence that the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and the consequent America-piloted globalization crusade, didn’t usher in world peace or cover the world with Western-style, liberal governments. Yet, even in the face of such pesky facts, a staggeringly sizable core of establishment foreign policy elites, in that intellectual wasteland of Washington D.C., still cling to these comforting fictions. As if just a bit more effort, one last good old college-try, by their "indispensable nation” could get the job done. Thankfully, there are eloquent voices from outside the Beltway echo chamber doing their best to deep six these harmful myths.

For example, recently, I read – dissected really – my longtime muse Andrew Bacevich’s new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered its Cold War Victory. It’s damn good. To emphasize his point, Bacevich conjures the (still living) ghosts of Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman. Fukuyama was the prophetic one, and the lead phrase up top was his. His bold assertion was that, as the Cold War wound down, the future would belong to American-style governments, specifically that: "The end of history means liberal democracy is the final form of government for all nations."

Friedman, a New York Times columnist, was the concept’s loudmouth champion, and the second assertion above was his. While an oddly high number of prominent NBA players bewilderingly still disagree, Friedman, at least, didn’t literally imagine the earth a flat surface. Rather, he argued that globalization was revolutionizing the world, in mostly positive ways, which were likely to increase peace, in the long run. All of which, of course, Friedman not so subtly assumed, would work to the benefit of US profit and power – but only, and this is the rub, if America led the whole thing. Stripped of the philosophical veneer, what concerned, and excited, both of these gentlemen of-their-moment was Pax Americana. If Francis Fukuyama pitched the Pax-prediction, then Thomas Friedman held the coronation.

Then there was this other classic Friedman gem. He called it the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. First posited in 1996, the theory stands as a veritable time capsule of, and reflected – even defined – the heady optimism of the post-Cold War ‘90s. Always a good one for pithy, oversimplified turns of phrase – precisely what makes his work so digestible and still secures his job at the premier national newspaper – Friedman coined a pearl here. In a nutshell, the guru of globalization asserted that "No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s." No measly inductive historian, the utterly deductive Friedman wasn’t just describing the recent past, but predicting the future, even prescribing a cure for the disease of interstate war. Sprinkle enough greasy, American, corporate fast-food franchises around the world, and the scourge of combat would go the way of the dinosaur…and fast.

He was wrong of course. He always is. Let’s not forget that Friedman was a lead cheerleader for the botched, tragic 2003 Iraq invasion. Two months into that still now ongoing war, he even gave a rather impressive chickenhawk performance, telling Charlie Rose:

"We needed to go over there [to Iraq], basically, and take out a very big stick right in the heart of that [Mideast] world and burst that bubble.… What they [Muslims] needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying "Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society?…Well, suck on this!"

But on the McDonald’s nonsense he was wrong on a number of demonstrable levels. Seven years before Friedman’s Golden Arches-unveiling, the US invaded Panama. Then, three years after Friedman published the theory, India and Pakistan fought over Kashmir (again) in the Kargil War. Seven years hence, Israel invaded Lebanon (again). Two years later, the Russo-Georgian War kicked off. Then, finally (for now), in 2014 Russia and Ukraine started shooting at one another, with the latter serving as a proxy for the US in its ongoing Cold War-redux against the Kremlin. All of the above parties had McDonald’s franchises when the bullets began a’flying. So OK, Golden Arches never held water and definitely didn’t pan out.

Only that’s not the half of it. There was another, far more circumspect, writer, who had come to precisely the opposite conclusions as Friedman – and even used similar McDonald’s oriented analogies – and did so four years before Tom made his Golden Arches splash. In the March 1992 issue of The Atlantic, the sociologist Benjamin Barber published "Jihad vs. McWorld," in which he argued that "The two axial principles of our age – tribalism and globalism" would continue to clash. What’s more, in a veritable inversion of the, frankly nauseating, classical Fukuyama-Friedman sanguineness, Barber began the piece thus: "Just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures—both bleak, neither democratic." Globalization, as such, particularly if served (as it would be) at American bayonet-point, was likely to prompt a tribal and/or religious backlash in the near future.

Which, on a number of levels is just what happened. I mean the guy even had the word "jihad" in the title…a year before the World Trade Center was bombed the first time. No matter, most everyone knows the name Tom Friedman, whilst hardly anyone has heard of Ben Barber. Nonetheless, it is worth considering, two full decades into the 21st century, Barber’s still rather prescient prediction, along with its profound implications for the American hyper-imperialism and perpetual warfare that followed, and continues still. Taking stock, some two-and-a-half decades after the twin McD’s theories hit the press (or the then decidedly dial-up-internet), I thought it’d be neat – only it proved quite glum – to relook the whole McDonald’s-as-bellwether fad, which was about as ‘90s as Beanie Babies or "the Rachel" hairstyle.

Now you see, the thing about old Tom Friedman is that if you listen long enough, and can suffer sifting through his pack of factual errors, false prophecies, and fancy obfuscations, he’s bound (eventually) to say something deeply honest (if disturbing). For example, three years after spelling out the Golden Arches Theory, he admitted that "McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."

Now that’s a gripping confession, and should be a candidate for the epitaph on the late-stage American Empire. See, at first glance, Friedman’s theory seemed to imply that the US military wouldn’t have to fight so many future wars since Ronald McDonald was going to lead the world in a collective rendition of "kumbaya." While that certainly hasn’t happened, it’s no longer even clear that that’s what Friedman really meant or expected exactly. Count me dubious, and suspicious that Tom was, even then, a hawk in dove’s clothing, and suspected – maybe hoped – that times would soon be ripe for a bit American military muscle-flexing.

Here’s my point: the question, for the purposes of this article, isn’t whether globalization writ-large is "good" or "bad." Nor is it meant to assess the relative benefits of transnational capitalism or liberal democracy. That would only drive yet another wedge between, and alienate, libertarian and socialist readers who ought to, need to, unite on this subject. Rather, the monster to first suss out, and then destroy, from the Fukuyama-Friedman framework for globalization is empire; their shared assumption that a muscular America – with rifle-totting teenagers and the defense industry that arms them – must be the agent to deliver the new world order. If, in purer forms of libertarian thought, "voluntaryism,” ought be the name of the game, then, clearly, Friedman especially was selling something else entirely.

What we do know, is that 24 years after Friedman first paved the Golden Arches drive thru lane to peace on earth – that’s one Kendall Jenner ago – it has been USMarines, not McDonald’s, which have flooded a vast swath of the world from West Africa to Central Asia. It seems that, especially after the 9/11 crisis-turned-opportunity, any country in which McDonald’s – and by extension, multinational (read: American) corporations and pro-Western political elites – hasn’t put down stakes, or where "McWorld" culture faced the slightest resistance, a flood of US troops paid a (not-so) surprise visit. These "non-franchise countries" are, almost without exception, the very places Washington has filled with marine infantrymen and Army M1 tanks, and whose skies are criss-crossed by Air Force (or CIA) MQ-9 Reaper drones.

By my recent – exhausting, I assure you – count, the US military has troops stationed or deployed in about three-quarters of the countries that don’t have a single McDonald’s franchise in the massive span of territory stretching from Senegal to Afghanistan, from Africa’s Atlantic Coast all the way to China’s western border (south of Europe and north of Congo, that is). Notable among these dozens of locales where marines (and soldiers, and airmen, sailors, and mercenary security contractors) rather than McDonald’s count as America’s prime export, are the usual-suspect naughty states of the Mideast (Syria, Iraq, Yemen), the perennially under-water-mortgaged US timeshare of Afghanistan, as well as almost all of Africa, and, at one time or another, much of Central Asia.

Now, anyone following the forever wars, has no doubt repeatedly seen the stat on how the US military occupies 800 bases in some 80 countries. Problem is, matters are far worse than all that. Most included in that count are actually only on permanent bases in the listed countries, and the ones that also appear on the official report the Pentagon has released annually since 2008. However, the ever-more media-savvy public affairs professionals – who see their job as more to run interference for the military hierarchy than to inform a citizenry with a legal right to know – have long since declared it the expressed policy of the Pentagon not to disclose the number of troops on the ground, or even where that ground is, so long as the mission is classified as an "overseas contingency operation" (OCO).

And wouldn’t you know it: nearly all deployments to those non-BigMac-friendly countries just happen to be OCO related. Which is how you get such farcical math as that in a 2017 Pentagon report on overseas troop levels which categorized the location of 44,000 troops – American sons and daughters, these – as "unknown." It’s also how four US troopers got killed in an obscure African country (Niger) that few citizens could locate on a map, let alone spell, and that even the Senate’s two self-styled foreign affairs aficionados – Lindsey Graham and John McCain – admitted afterward, didn’t even know based some 1,000 American service members.

Thus, while the range of activities the US military engages in in these non-McWorld countries run the escalating gamut from training, advising and assisting local forces in their fight with internal enemies, conducting manned and drone bombing runs, running special operations raids, right up to outright, old-fashioned shoot-em-ups, it is instructive to remember that many OCO-deployed troops actually collect some version of extra "hazardous-duty" pay. Lest anyone assume – or believed the Obama-era semantic-gymnastics legerdemain on just what counts as a "boot" "on the ground" – that these Golden Arch-deployments aren’t combat missions, I’d direct them to 1) the special allowances often paid the troopers there, and 2) the slippery way OCO deployments are categorized in the first place.

According to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report: "Title 10, Section 101, of the United States Code, defines a contingency operation as any Secretary of Defense-designated military operation ‘in which members of the armed forces are or may become involved in military actions, operations, or hostilities against an enemy of the United States or against an opposing military force.’" Beyond being an exceedingly (and probably purposefully) vague definition, note how the unelected Defense Secretary gets to decide what does or doesn’t qualify as an overseas contingency operation, within which he can then classify – i.e. refuse to disclose – the number, and even exact locations, of the troops deployed therein.

That circular, borderline Kafkaesque, logic, and absurd definitional elasticity leaves those who do care, and think it vital, to know how many US troops are where and doing what, with little recourse but to tediously piece together an altogether hazy picture through: mining open-source news articles, waiting on pond-water-speed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, doing reverse mental math to derive something from the not-as-classified OCO (yet) budget reports, and reading between the lines of various PAO releases. The whole charade is criminally opaque, and – in a republic founded by folks who, whatever their substantial flaws, almost to a man opposed standing armies, foreign wars, and overseas imperialism – should rank as a national scandal of the first order.

Only it doesn’t, it won’t, and matters are certainly not likely to improve (the "T" in Trump doesn’t exactly stand for transparency) under the present administration. No, The Donald’s record-breaking, Pentagon-slush fund masquerading as a budget – and more importantly the way such gigantic defense industry-giveaways sail through Congress with bipartisan super-majorities – represents, instead, logical (extremist) culmination for a warfare state gone mad.

While certainly not likely to sport a MAGA hat, our old chum Tom Friedman – along with all his neocon buddies who now daily cry foul on MSNBC – indisputably paved the way for America’s first reality-star-cum-president, and all the gaudy imperial glamour that comes with King Donald I. Instructive, too, is that ever since his promised Americentric dream world began its irreparable downward spiral, an ever unapologetic Friedman – rather than strike a penitent chord – has grown incredibly sensitive to any and all criticism of his past positions on Iraq, globalization predictions, and just about everything else he’s bungled up over the years. In one of his earlier, but particularly relevant – Methinks “The lady doth protest too much” – evasions, he wrote:

I was both amazed and amused by how much the Golden Arches Theory had gotten around and how intensely certain people wanted to prove it wrong. They were mostly realists and out-of-work Cold Warriors who insisted that politics, and the never-ending struggle between nation-states, were the immutable defining feature of international affairs…

Well, Tom was proven wrong. Again. While no angels themselves, the realists and Cold Warriors, at least, grounded their critiques in two things he never considers: history and human nature. It’d be fun to gloat and dance an indulgent jig on his McWorld grave were Friedman’s predictions and prescriptions not so dangerous, and were he not still sowing trouble to this very minute. So, for the sake of the republic, to steal a phrase from his above Golden Arches apologia, let’s all hope Tom himself will soon be an out-of-work Post-Cold Warrior…

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen