Thomas Friedman: Imperial Messenger of the Arab Spring
By: Belén Fernández
Published Thursday, September 29, 2011
It took Thomas Friedman — New York Times foreign affairs columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient for reporting and commentary on the Middle East — approximately 46 days after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Tunisia to weigh in on the matter.
Noted champion of the notion that Iraqis should be made to “Suck. On. This” by the US military in order to “try to build one decent, progressive, democratizing society in the heart of the Arab East” eventually turns up in a Tel Aviv hotel to discuss ramifications of the Egyptian uprising with a retired Israeli general. He then makes it to Egypt itself, an experience that subsequently merits significant reflection:
When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings. The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: ‘Do you have a corporate rate?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.’ There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: ‘Can I ask you something?’ Sure. ‘Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.’
I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person, the kind of young woman who would have been in Tahrir Square. We’re just now beginning to see what may have been gnawing at her — in Egypt and elsewhere.
Friedman’s recounting of his telephone experience sets the stage for additional assessments of the regional revolts, such as: “When we say ‘democratic reform’ to Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, we might as well be speaking Latin.”
The sudden inability of the Bahraini monarchy to comprehend democratic reform is especially curious given Friedman’s own previous praise of the same monarchy for its “innovative experiments with democracy,” thanks to its “progressive king,” and “innovative Crown Prince.”
The innovative prince appears in Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded eating pizza at a Bahraini bistro with Friedman, while the daughter of a woman in a head-scarf at the table next to them is “dressed like an American teenager and had what looked like a tattoo on her left shoulder.” The bearer of the possible tattoo presumably belongs to the same category as the modern-sounding Egyptian hotel receptionist and other desirable types of Orientals, like “emphatically pro-Western Saudis, who have studied in America, visit regularly, and still root for their favorite American football teams.”
The relative familiarity of these ‘Orientals’ to the Western observer earns them Friedman brownie points vis-à-vis other contenders in the struggle for the soul of Arab/Muslim civilization, such as Palestinians “gripped by a collective madness” and Iraqis opposed to the US “occupation” of their country, who are written off as members of the “Iraqi Khmer Rouge.” Though Friedman eventually starts referring to the US occupation without quotation marks, he never explains why it is that the destruction of Iraq “to try to build one decent, progressive, democratizing society in the heart of the Arab East” is necessary when he has already advertised Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco as “progressive Arab states” and decreed that “whatever happens with the Iraq experiment — but especially if it fails — we need Dubai to succeed. Dubai is where we should want the Arab world to go.”
Friedman’s credibility for assessing regional democratic progress have been further undermined over the years by such events as his endorsement of Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf. Friedman describes Musharraf as the orchestrator of a potentially exemplary “mind-set-shattering breakthrough for the Muslim world” by recognizing that Muslim extremism is partially rooted in the “ruling arrangements of many [Muslim] societies, and [that] it has left much of the Muslim world in a backward state.” The alleged breakthrough does not, naturally, alter the ruling arrangement of Pakistani society, or Musharraf’s position as dictator. Meanwhile, in 2003, Friedman confesses to having “a soft spot for the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, who is a man of decency and moderation,” in the same article in which he curiously determines that “the problem with Saudi Arabia is not that it has too little democracy. It’s that it has too much.”
By the time the Arab Spring arrives, Friedman is forced to rethink his position on the democratic merits of those he previously lauded. While visiting Jordan, for example — until now the territory of the “visionary young King Abdullah,” whose free trade agreement with the US Friedman has relentlessly plugged as the key to economic prosperity — our columnist discovers that “my ears are ringing today with complaints about corruption, frustration with the king and queen, and disgust at the enormous gaps between rich and poor.”
As for the “progressive” tag originally assigned to Jordan, Bahrain, and Morocco, this is a result of Friedman’s admiration of these monarchies’ forward-looking policies. Rather than succumbing to the efforts of the Palestinians to appear as victims of Israeli brutality on satellite television and to “seduc[e]… the Arab world into postponing its future until all the emotive issues of Palestine are resolved,” these three regimes “want to build their legitimacy not on how they confront Israel but on how well they prepare their people for the future.” Given that Friedman himself states on more than one occasion that the lack of Arab democracy is due in part to US support for despots and monarchs on the condition that they be “nice to Israel,” it is not clear why he intermittently suggests that democratic modernization will be facilitated if despots and monarchs are nicer to Israel.
Friedman meanwhile continues to assert in the midst of the Arab Spring that the US has consistently “treated the Middle East as if it were just a collection of big gas stations,” and that it is this attitude that has “enabled the Arab world to be insulated from history for the last 50 years — to be ruled for decades by the same kings and dictators.” This chronological analysis is, of course, somewhat difficult to reconcile with Friedman’s haughty pronouncement in 2005 on the occasion of the Asian tsunami. Back then, he warned Americans not to “hold [their]...breath waiting for a thank-you card” in response to tsunami aid to Muslim nations, that it "is not an exaggeration to say that, if you throw in the Oslo peace process, U.S. foreign policy for the last 15 years has been dominated by an effort to save Muslims—not from tsunamis, but from tyrannies, mostly their own theocratic or autocratic regimes.”
Back when he arrived in Cairo in February, Friedman was thrilled to discover in Tahrir Square “[you] almost never hear the word ‘Israel,’ and the pictures of ‘martyrs’ plastered around the square are something rarely seen in the Arab world — Egyptians who died fighting for their own freedom not against Israel.” That Egyptians may not have forgotten the role of the “Israel” in regional oppression is subsequently suggested by a storming of Israel’s embassy in Cairo. Friedman, however, prefers to go from excising concern for the Palestinians from Egyptian consciousness to arguing that the Jewish state is itself one of the catalysts for the Arab Spring, because when “you live right next to a country that is bringing to justice its top leaders for corruption and you live in a country where many of the top leaders are corrupt, well, you notice.”
You probably also notice when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is charged for corruption, but not for his role in the 2008-2009 deaths of 1,400 people, primarily civilians, in another territory you live right next to, Gaza, or the deaths of 1,200 other neighbors, primarily Lebanese civilians, in 2006.
The primary issue over which Friedman is fairly consistently critical of Israel is that of settlements, which he manages to cast variously as the work of “renegade settler groups against the will of Israel’s government”, the work of the Israeli government itself, and the work of “the rejectionists” — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas — whose “main goal…is to lock Israel into the West Bank — so the world would denounce it as some kind of Jewish apartheid state.” The lock-in project is presumably facilitated by Israel’s willingness to erect hundreds of miles of concrete barrier in accordance with rejectionist goals.
Friedman’s concern, of course, is not for the injustice suffered by victims of apartheid, but rather for the fact that, “[as] Palestinians find themselves isolated in pockets next to Jewish settlers — who have the rule of law, the right to vote, welfare, jobs, etc. — and as hope for a contiguous Palestinian state fades, it’s inevitable that many of them will throw in the towel and ask for the right to vote in Israel.” Such a scenario must be averted at all costs, because “if American Jews think it’s hard to defend Israel today on college campuses, imagine what it will be like when their kids have to argue against the principle of one man, one vote.”
Lest readers doubt the democratic convictions of pundits whose contemporary archives include such announcements as “I don’t want to see the Saudi regime destabilized,” Friedman’s unabashed endorsement of the perpetuation of ethnocracy over democracy in Israel clearly invalidates his professed belief in the importance of the installation of the latter system elsewhere in the region.
Belén Fernández is an editor at PULSE Media. Her book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work will be released by Verso in November 2011.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.