The Shortest Distance Between Two Analogies

Thomas Friedman, December 19, 2004:

I have long believed that any American general or senior diplomat who wants to work in Iraq should have to pass a test. It would be a very simple test. It would consist of only one question: “Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?”

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If you answered “Yes,” you would not be allowed to work in Iraq. You could go to Korea, Japan or Germany — but not Iraq. Only those who understand that in the Middle East the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line should be allowed to carry out U.S. policy there. . . .

A sophisticated U.S. approach that uses both sticks and carrots with Syria, Iran and America’s Arab allies could still shape a decent election in Iraq, but we have to get in gear right now, and be smart. Does this administration have anyone who knows how to play this game? Attention: Iraq is having an election. Elections are rare in this part of the world, so when they happen, everyone in the neighborhood tries to vote. We need to make sure our friends do as well.

And then again on December 20, 2006:

For a long time, I let my hopes for a decent outcome in Iraq triumph over what I had learned reporting from Lebanon during its civil war. Those hopes vanished last summer. So, I’d like to offer President Bush my updated rules of Middle East reporting, which also apply to diplomacy, in hopes they’ll help him figure out what to do next in Iraq. . . .

Rule 2: Any reporter or U.S. Army officer wanting to serve in Iraq should have to take a test, consisting of one question: “Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?” If you answer yes, you can’t go to Iraq. You can serve in Japan, Korea or Germany — not Iraq.

Query: What does this mean? In neither column do I understand what point Friedman is trying to make with this straight line business. Two years ago the Friedman Theory of Short Distances supported optimism about Iraq, today it supports pessimism. But what is the theory? I can’t even tell what metaphorical claim Friedman is trying to make here. Is it that a straight line is never the shortest distance between two points (in some sense) and this fact has a special significance in the Arab world that it lacks in Japan, Korea, or Germany? Or is that in Japan, Korea, and Germany (and, presumably, here in the USA) a straight line is the shortest distance between two points but this is not the case in the Middle East? And either way what idea is he trying to express? And why is he trying to express it this way?