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BOOK REVIEW
September 11 and the American journo
Longitudes and Attitudes. Exploring the World After September 11 by Thomas Friedman

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

The problem with multiple Pulitzer prizewinner and foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, is not his lack of articulation, but the fact that he wears far too much patriotism on his sleeve, and boasts about it. His views intersect (sometimes even presage) the American establishment's own thinking, a fact well illustrated by journalist Robert Fisk's comment that the lay observer need not ache for top-secret intelligence on whether and when America will start war in Iraq, because reading the New York Times is enough to know what the Bush team is planning.

Friedman is a "liberal" in the American sense of the word, but an old-fashioned "conservative" in the European sense. He gloats that America is the "Michael Jordan of geopolitics", the Middle Kingdom, and the most valuable player whose status and hegemony must be preserved for the good of the world. A fortiori, he champions globalization as a force for good since it is the mechanism through which American products, technologies, values, ideas, movies and foods are distributed, and American dominance perpetuated. His disdain for "anti-Americanism" is intense, occasionally veering so much to the right that the tag "liberal" does not always fit him.

It is owing to such attributes that Friedman makes important reading. He represents the hard core of Americanism and its much-hyped virtues. One may disagree with him, but it is important to see what the resident foreign policy pundit of the most important newspaper of the most powerful country in the world has to say. September 11 is to Friedman "a supremely American moment" and the advent of "World War III" (p295). Can there be a better lens to look at its ramifications for American policymakers than from the eyes of the leading opinion-making journalist? Friedman's favorite tune is the George W Bush song - how utterly evil and despicable Saddam Hussein is and how the Iraqi people must be "liberated". He even writes open letters on behalf of "President Bush" to the Arab League, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden. He has to be read.

In the prologue, Friedman threshes out his "super story", the canvas and generic background upon which September 11 unveiled to him. He calls it the "new international system of globalization". For all its benefits to America, it has been proven by September 11 that globalization "can be an incredible force-multiplier for individuals unmediated by a state". (p5) Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atta, Zacarias Moussaoui and many others who plotted the terrorist strikes are "super-empowered angry men" who utilized satellite phones, encrypted e-mails and the Internet to maximize the material and psychological impact of their horrific acts. New Age technology gives them the leverage to reach around the world and wreak havoc thousands of miles away.

The first part of the book is a compilation of Friedman's pre-September 11 columns in the New York Times, starting from January 2001. His preoccupation is with the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially as he considers himself an "orthodox Jew". He bemoans the one-point agenda of "who rules Palestine" and asks Arab countries to launch intifadas for education, free press and democracy. Indeed, as the recent United Nations Development Program report on Arab human development has highlighted, corrupt and authoritarian Arab rulers have used Palestine as a propaganda deviation from their domestic economic and social maladies. Friedman's number-one hate figure is Yasser Arafat, whom he accuses of radicalizing Palestinians with guns when what they need most is global investment and jobs. Arafat is held responsible for the failure of the "Clinton peace plan" that promised Palestinians 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, besides condominium in Jerusalem city. Oddly, he does not consider the plight of the 3 million Palestinian refugees, who have a right to return, and due to whom Arafat turned down that plan as incomplete.

One interesting realist trait that Friedman's pre-September 11 columns show is his impatience at the nanny image that the US projects. FBI hounds and American marines "retreated" in June 2001 from Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain on warnings of terror attacks, sending a message of softness to terrorists. Friedman asks rhetorically, "Is this a superpower"? American "weakness" after the Beirut bombings of 1985 and the Khobar tower attacks in Saudi Arabia (1996) are further assurances to terrorists of a soft American underbelly, according to Friedman. He advises "Rummy" (Donald Rumsfeld) not to waste time building missile defense shields. Instead, the US must show "real deterrence" and overwhelming military might without getting cowed down by terrorist threats.

The post-September 11 columns are devoted mostly to a critique of Muslim states and leaders who failed to openly condemn suicide terrorism and support a "fascist dictator" called Saddam Hussein. Friedman employs classic Cold War jargon by asking Bush to "strengthen the good guys" (read Pakistan, Jordan etc) in the war against terrorism, but not spare the "bad guys" like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt which are refusing to do any self-introspection and laying all the blame on Jewish conspiracies in the belief that America is controlled by Jews. "Barely legitimate Arab leaders have deliberately deflected domestic criticism of themselves onto us." (p.57) If a 10th grade textbook taught in Saudi public schools says, "it is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemies", the House of Saud is "not really on our side". (p.90)

Friedman wants Muslim rulers to acknowledge that the hijackers of September 11 are their "own creations" and move out of the "blame-others mode forever". He is appalled during travels to Pakistan where everyone asks for "proof" that Osama bin Laden masterminded the terrorist attacks, noting gravely wall posters in Peshawar reading: "Call this phone number if you want to join the jihad against America." (p.100) "Bin Ladenism" is flourishing thanks to the failure of Muslim societies to look inwards at the problems festering in their own backyards. Large Muslim communities in Indonesia or India are not as dangerous threats to America since they are "messy but loud democracies" that provide political voice and re-examine Koranic texts in modern contexts. Arab dictatorships, on the other hand, are recipes for jihad." (p.101)

On the domestic front, Friedman exults in a wave of nationalism that followed September 11. "What a great country," he marvels at his motherland, and proclaims that "Americans will fight for their country and they will die for their country". (p.61) Hearing the American national anthem is a "moving and soothing experience" to him ever since the terrorist attacks. He reiterates that terrorists did not know the animating vision of America in the world, which is "promotion of freedom - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of markets and freedom of politics". (p.70) He laments the lack of world support for American actions: "My fellow Americans, except for the good old Brits, we are all alone." (p.86) On world media concern for civilian casualties in the Afghan war, he has nothing but contempt. All that questions American militarism is "nonsense". The careful liberal also defends Attorney General John Ashcroft's military courts and Draconian surveillance laws as "not completely crazy". (p.119)

To round up the encomiums, Friedman avers, "I have nothing but respect for the way President Bush has conducted this war." Bush is credited with showing "steely resolve, imagination, leadership and creativity" (a highly questionable tribute, as Bob Woodward's new book Bush at War spills the beans). If the United Nations is against war in Iraq, it should not matter to the president, as "we should start by planning to do it alone". (p.135) Friedman wants more displays of "incredible power" that America showcased in Afghanistan as a deterrent to future terrorism. On the axis of evil speech, Friedman confesses that for all its demerits, "I'm still glad President Bush said what he said" because "we have to be as crazy as some of our enemies" to win the war. (p.178)

The author frets about the growing "cultural-political-psychological chasm between us and the Muslim world". (p.161) America is projected as a crass, materialistic country lacking morals by Arab satellite and radio stations. The US must make a big investment in "public diplomacy" in the Muslim world to vigorously challenge the bigoted views of the West circulated by mullahs. Tabloid Arab media, which show one-sided telecasts of Israelis brutalizing Palestinians, have to be countered to prevent anti-American rage from consolidating. There is also an obvious defect in Islamic radicalism, compared to other forms of fundamentalism. "Why is it that only Muslims react to our bad policies with suicidal terrorism, not Mexicans or Chinese?" (p.197) A lot of people in this world are desperate, "yet they have not gone around strapping dynamite to themselves". Friedman finds an antidote to Wahhabi Islamism in Iranian reformists, who have now captured world attention through Hashem Aghajeri. Even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is no longer opposed to Iran having diplomatic relations with America, seeing how young Iranians "react against an anti-American theocracy" and rebuke mullahs for imposing dress codes and conservative lifestyles on them. Iranian officials complain to Friedman that Bush is rewarding them with hostility for all the help they rendered in the Afghan war against the Taliban and despite the fact that "Iran has the most democracy and the freest press of any Muslim country". (p.283) Iran's climate of Islamic reformation that seeks to separate mosque from state has to be nourished, no matter how deeply the Iranian state and intelligence are involved in aiding al-Qaeda activities. Saudi Arabia, the most important Muslim country, is "essential to the solution", and Friedman suggests that Prince Abdullah should follow the reform model of his biggest strategic rival, Iran.

The third part of the book is an unpublished travel diary that Friedman maintained on several visits to the Islamic world since September 11. Just after the mega-terror events, he is in Jerusalem reflecting "the America I had grown up in would never quite be the same for my two daughters". (p.298) He takes pot shots at the culture of denial of responsibility and conspiracy theories that have weakened the social fabric of Muslim societies. No progress can be attained by a people "who want to blame others for all their troubles because they cannot face looking at themselves". (p.311) Friedman narrates the story of a Pakistani friend whose infant son is reprimanded in class for challenging the canard that 4,000 Jews were warned not to go to work in the World Trade Center on September 11. Not a single American flight to Afghanistan flies today which is not shot by tracer bullets from inside Pakistan by jihadis. Will the friend's son one day join those snipers?

Longitudes and Attitudes is informative in parts, especially the view that dark corners in Islamic societies require lighting through self initiative. But Friedman's biases and intense Americanism combine to bypass the same degree of self-reflection on America's own foreign policy. He is "liberal" enough to accept that "we do bad things and prop up bad dictators", but never once in the book does he elucidate on that.

If you are looking for a celebration of all things American or a crash course in eloquent op-ed writing, don't look beyond Thomas Friedman. But don't expect to read any honest analysis of American shenanigans.

Longitudes and Attitudes. Exploring the World After September 11 by Thomas Friedman, Farrar, Straus Giroux, New York, 2002. ISBN: 0-374-19066-6. Price US$26, 383 pages.

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Dec 14, 2002


 


 

 


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