The NYT’s Thomas Friedman: The Geraldo Rivera of the NYT


The
principal diplomatic correspondents for the New
York Times
, from Cyrus Sulzberger through Flora Lewis, James
Reston, and Leslie Gelb to Thomas Friedman, have always and necessarily
been apologists for U.S. foreign policy. The NYT is a self-acknowledged
establishment paper and hardly makes any bones about its close connections
with policy-makers. James Reston was greatly honored for his intimacy
with high officials and even co-wrote one of his NYT opinion
columns with Henry Kissinger. Another Friedman predecessor, Leslie
Gelb, had stints in the State Department and Pentagon interspersed
with his position as diplomatic correspondent. 

Thomas
Friedman has served consistently in this apologetic tradition. He
differs from his predecessors mainly in his brashness, name-dropping,
and self-promotion, and with his aggressive, bullying tone; e.g.,
WTO protesters are “ridiculous…a Noah’s ark of flat-earth
advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their
1960s fix.” In these respects he brings a now fashionable,
Geraldo Rivera in-your- face touch to the NYT, which has
borne his effusions stoically for the last three decades. Of course,
Friedman has also brought honors to the NYT with his three
Pulitzer Prizes—which some argue have done for the reputation
of Pulitzer what the Nobel Peace Prize award to Henry Kissinger
has done for the reputation of the peace prize. 

Friedman
made his reputation and received two of his Pulitzers for his reporting
on the Middle East. Given the U.S. policy of underwriting Israeli
ethnic cleansing over a half century and, adding to this the consistently
strong NYT support of that policy, Friedman has necessarily
followed an Israel-apologetic course. For Friedman, Israel only
retaliates whereas the Palestinians engage in terror, which is the
causal force in the conflict—not Israel’s “redeeming
the land” and ethnic cleansing, nor its occupation policies
in general, which have been in gross violation of the Fourth Geneva
Convention (which he never discusses). Just a few months after Arafat
called for mutual recognition and negotiations with Israel in 1984,
Friedman wrote, “By refusing to recognize Israel and negotiate
with it directly, the Arabs have only strengthened Israel fanatics…” 

As
Noam Chomsky has noted, the NYT refused to publish a word
about Arafat’s offer, but there can be no question that Friedman
knew the facts (even if the NYT suppressed this information
for its readers) and that he ignored them in favor of the oft-repeated
lie of the time (and Times), that Israel couldn’t find
a negotiating partner (see Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions
and Pirates and Emperors for more on this case and on Friedman’s
bias). 

Friedman
has been a long-standing apologist for Israeli state terror and
ethnic cleansing. His expressed doubts never reach beyond the pragmatics
of Israeli state violence—does it work or is it counterproductive?
He has periodically berated the Palestinians for failing to recognize
that they have been defeated and should humbly surrender and accept
large-scale expropriation and de facto transfer. Friedman has also
lauded Israel’s sponsorship of terrorism—one of his recommendations
for bringing security to Israel (he has never recognized the need
for security for Palestinians) has been that Israel use more widely
the tactic it employed in South Lebanon of sponsoring a proxy force,
the South Lebanese Army, to pacify the local population and fight
any indigenous groups hostile to Israel (“The Man Who Foresaw
the Uprising,” Yediot Ahronot,
April 7, 1988). This arrangement fits precisely the definition of
terror organization and terror sponsorship, but as Israel was the
sponsor those terms are not applied here. Instead, Friedman applauds
their use and presents this as a model. 

Friedman
is also a racist, regularly denigrating Arabs for their qualities
of emotionalism, unreason, and hostility to democracy and modernization.
His classic remark, in the same interview in which he lauds the
proxy terrorism model, was that we mustn’t go too far in forcing
Palestinian concessions because, “I believe that as soon as
Ahmed has a seat in the bus, he will limit his demands.” As
always, the implicit assumption is that the problem is excessive
Palestinian demands, not any unreasonable actions or demands by
the Israelis. But the racist language is telling. A remark about
“Hymie” made Jesse Jackson a moral outcast for the NYT
and media establishment; but Friedman’s “Ahmed” remark
is not reported or criticized in the mainstream, which reflects
the normalization of anti-Arab racism in the United States. All
this is consistent with Pulitzer Prizes for “balanced and informed”
reporting. 

Friedman
has been an enthusiastic supporter of “free trade” and
corporate globalization, serving effectively as a media-based ideologue
for corporate expansion abroad. In the course of this service, he
has presented a simplified and idealized model of how the market
operates, ignoring or downplaying market power and the interplay
of corporate power and politics, the growth of inequality at home
and abroad, the effects of imperial power on the development options
of poor countries, and externalities (including environmental damage).
In assailing WTO and globalization protestors, Friedman claims that
they hurt the interests of the global poor (“The Coalition
to Keep Poor People Poor,” NYT, April 24, 2001), suggesting
that he, the IMF-WB-WTO, and Western corporate elite are really
serving those interests. But Friedman never confronts the facts
on the growing inequality, the disproportionate gains of Western
corporate elites, the slackened growth of the poor countries, the
admissions of surprised “disappointment” by IMF and WB
officials that their pro-corporate policies have done so little
to help poor people. It is not hard to understand why, in a letter
of March 31, 1999, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay recommended a Friedman
article on globalization to his friend George Bush as “an excellent
account of most of the basic issues.” 

In
a widely quoted line from his book The Lexis and the Olive Tree
(1999), Friedman says, “The hidden hand of the market will
never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish
without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15,
and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s
technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy
and Marine Corps.” This is not said with any hint that it might
be wrong to use force to impose the market on people who don’t
seem to want it. It recalls Kissinger’s famous line justifying
the U.S. intervention in support of the Chilean coup and followup
terror and mass murder, that the Chilean people had been irresponsible
in voting in Allende. 

Friedman
is an enemy of democracy at home as well as abroad. The Lexis
and the Olive Tree
is a celebration of corporate globalization,
which he sees as bringing the triumph of market ideology and market
domination of both the economic and political world. Money and capital
flows will prevent any policy deviations from “the core golden
rules” of the market; “political choices get reduced to
Pepsi or Coke” and any government trying to serve its poor
people or protect the environment in opposition to the consensus
of capital will be brought to its senses by capital flight. For
Friedman these are admirable developments and he lauds Maggie Thatcher,
who “should be remembered as ‘the Seamstress of the Golden
Straitjacket’” (“All About Maggie, NYT, May
5, 1997). 

The
weakening of labor also pleases Friedman, who mentions this as one
of Thatcher’s accomplishments. He regards Reagan’s breaking
the air controllers strike in 1981 as his finest achievement, “helping
break the hold of organized labor on the U.S. economy.” Friedman
rhapsodizes over the prospects of a “flexible labor market”
where employers will someday be able “to hire and fire workers
with relative ease.” The weakening of labor’s countervailing
power and ability to oppose full-scale domination by capital doesn’t
faze him at all. Only oppositional groups like the WTO protesters
arouse his ire. Democratic theorists have long stressed the importance
of intermediate groups like labor unions in making for effective
pluralism and a genuine democracy. But for Friedman, nothing should
stand in the way of market power, which he has idealized with a
cover of a laissez-faire model that begs all the difficult questions
(see Thomas Frank’s dissection in One Market Under God).
Thomas Friedman’s ideal is plutocracy, not democracy. 

Friedman
has also been an open proponent of the commission of war crimes
abroad. He is aghast at the crimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban—at
least during the periods when we were not allied with them—and
when the leadership makes them an official target, he would hit
them hard. During the bombing war against Yugoslavia, Friedman recommended
telling the Serbs, “Every week you ravage Kosovo is another
decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want
1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389.” Of course,
pulverizing a country to force its surrender is calling for the
commission of war crimes, but here Friedman, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly,
and the Clinton-Albright team were as one. Friedman was also gung-ho
for the B-52 bombing of Afghanistan. In another classic he asserted,
“It turns out many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were
praying for another dose of B-52s to liberate them from the Taliban,
casualties or not.” Note that he can’t resist putting
“civilians” in quote marks, even while he suggests that
they were good guys eager for obliteration. He doesn’t explain
where he gets this information on what those Afghan “civilians”
were praying for. 

For
Iraq, too, Friedman has urged the commission of war crimes. He had
not a word of criticism for the “sanctions of mass destruction”
that killed vast numbers of Iraqi civilians in one of the great
cases in history of the terrorist use of hostages—23 million
hostages, as compared to the 53 U.S. citizens held by the Iranians
in 1979-1980, and those 53 were not starved. In 1998 Friedman urged
“bombing Iraq, over and over again,” and a year later
advised that policy-makers “blow up a different power station
in Iraq every week, so no one knows when the lights will go off
or who is in charge.” 

Writing
recently on Iraq, Friedman has outdone himself in ennobling the
invasion-occupation. We came there “with the sole intention
of liberating its people” and we are fighting for Iraq’s
“sovereignty” (“Worried Optimism On Iraq,” NYT,
September 21, 2003). We, along with Iraq’s “silent majority,”
want Iraq to “become a decent, modern-looking Iraqi alternative,”
not another “Iran.” The people resisting us are “Saddamistas,”
not people who want to see us gone and Iraq independent. There is
a Shiite majority who might favor Iran, but Friedman knows what
the “silent majority” thinks, just as he knew that those
Afghans wanted more B-52 bombings. 

Isn’t
it wonderful that the seemingly reactionary Bush administration,
so miserly with money for its own civilian population, has invaded
Iraq and is spending these huge sums for the liberation of the Iraqi
people? All those pre-war documents by the Bushies that talked about
geostrategic advantages to the United States in regime change in
Iraq; all the evidence of Bushie officials’ and advisers’
links to Likud and eager service to Israel; the long Clinton-Bush
sanctions policy that killed so many civilians and actually served
to consolidate Saddam Hussein’s power. These all disappear
for a Friedman, wallowing in crude apologetics. 

Of
course “liberation” must proceed slowly and Friedman agrees
with Bush, rather than those traitorous French and an awful lot
of Iraqis, that self-rule must not be bestowed too hastily. It doesn’t
seem to cross Friedman’s mind that the Bush desire for a slow
pace might be based on the desire to restructure Iraq in accord
with Bush-Cheney-related economic interests and to make sure that
control remains in friendly Iraqi hands. Those words “decent”
and “modern-looking” are perhaps a giveaway on the Friedman-Bush
approach. To be “modern-looking” requires privatization
and entry into the global market, with foreign investment and free
trade. To be “decent” means that respectable people who
can win the trust of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the IMF should
be in power. This might require a period of non-democracy that will
keep out radicals and Islamists who have not seen the light, oppose
privatization and U.S. bases on Iraqi soil, and want closer relations
with Iran. We must keep in mind that Musharaff, Karimov, and Putin
are apparently sufficiently decent and modern-looking to deserve
support, and so was Suharto for 32 years. Once decency and the modern
look prevail, the market will rule and, if there are elections,
they will offer that choice of only “Pepsi or Coke” that
Friedman finds quite acceptable. “Liberation”—for
subservience to the market, at best.

On
Tim Russert’s CNBC program of September 13, Friedman gave a
different version of U.S. motivation. It turns out that WMDs and
the “moral reason” were not the “real reason,”
which Friedman explained as follows: “There were three great
bubbles in the 1990s: the Nasdaq bubble, the Enron bubble…and
the terrorism bubble.” The terrorism bubble is illustrated
by the 9/11 event and “blowing up Israelis in pizza-parlors”—not
the “sanctions of mass destruction” or Sharon’s policies
that were killing three Palestinians for each dead Israeli. Lots
of Arabs believed in this bubble and, “We need to go into the
heart of their world and beat their brains out, in order to burst
this bubble.” We’ve done that with the invasion of Iraq
and “the people in the neighborhood got it, all right.” 

So
the Bush war was not for liberation after all and certainly not
to control Iraqi oil and project U.S. power for U.S. (and Israeli)
interests. It was to “stop terrorism.” This is occasionally
claimed by the Bush team and its supporters, but no credible analyst
accepts it as a motive and the non-Bush-affiliated analysts almost
uniformly argue that the Iraq war will stimulate anti-U.S. feeling
and terrorism. 

Friedman
reached what might be a new low in chauvinist apologetics for the
invasion-occupation in his “Our War With France” (NYT,
September 18, 2003). France, he tells us, is not just “annoying,”
it is “becoming our enemy.” They made it “impossible
for the Security Council to put a real ultimatum to Saddam Hussein
that might have avoided a war” and they seem to want us to
fail in the hope that France “will assume its rightful place
as America’s equal.” What they should have done is agree
to help rebuild Iraq, while asking for “a real seat at the
management table.” But this intransigence is also to be expected
because “France has never been interested in promoting democracy
in the modern Arab world…” 

The
implication that the United States has been promoting democracy
in the Middle East is almost too funny for words, given the U.S.
record of support of the Shah of Iran, the Saudis, the Gulf emirates,
and even Saddam Hussein when he was in a serviceable mode. Friedman’s
further implication that that is what the Bush administration is
aiming at in Iraq is also straightforward official propaganda, as
noted above. The business about a “real ultimatum” and
avoidance of war fails to take account of the fact that there were
no WMDs and that the Bushies were using all those tricks as an excuse
to invade and occupy. The “real ultimatum” would only
have accelerated and put a UN gloss on the invasion that was going
to happen no matter what. Friedman’s assertion that France
just wanted to enhance its status in opposing the Bush program omits
several facts and possibilities: one fact is that the French people
and most people of the world opposed the Bush policy; the other
fact is that the Bush invasion-occupation plan was a planned aggression
in violation of the UN Charter. The French were speaking for many
governments, most of the world’s people, and for the rule of
law. These considerations are of no interest to Friedman, whose
suggestion that the French should have joined in to rebuild and
asked for a seat at the management table fails to recognize that
such cooperation would be sanctioning an unprovoked aggression-occupation.
It is also hypocritical in that the Bush team has already shown
that, while it might let somebody sit at a management table, they
intend to run the show (see Peter Slevin, “Reluctance to Share
Control in Iraq Leaves U.S. on Its Own,” Washington Post,
September 28, 2003). 

In
sum, the diplomatic correspondent for the NYT supports ethnic
cleansing and terrorism, but only when done by the United States
or one of its clients; he repeatedly supports policies that involve
the commission of war crimes, again only when the United States
or one of its clients engages in them; he is hostile to real democracy
at home or abroad, preferring a plutocracy and sharp market restrictions
on popular sovereignty; he assails countries like France for failing
to support the United States, always attributing dubious motives
to the U.S. opponent, while putting a benevolent and chauvinistic
gloss on the objectives and actions of his own country. His analyses
of matters such as globalization and the current Iraq crisis are
full of rhetoric, contradictions, ideological assumptions, and intellectually
they barely make it into the featherweight class. That he is an
institution at the NYT, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner,
and is well-regarded elsewhere reflects the degraded state of U.S.
mainstream commentary and intellectual life.


Edward S. Herman
is an economist, author, and media analyst. His most recent book is
Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis
(Pluto Press).