Tom Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, is perceived to be a Middle East expert. Is he?
In January and June, 2000, on the eve of Bashar Assad’s ascension to power, Tom Friedman (T.F.) was charmed by Bashar Assad’s background: a British-trained ophthalmologist; married to a British citizen of Syrian origin; fluent in English and French; President of the Syrian Internet Association. He compared the eventual Butcher from Damascus, potentially, to Deng Xiaoping, who led China’s economic reforms, modernization and rapprochement with the USA. Swept by wishful-thinking, T.F. assumed that Bashar could liberalize Syria, attract international investors, normalize relations with Israel, end the Arab rejection of the Jewish State, thus demolishing the Iran-Syria axis and ending Iran’s involvement in Lebanon. The prerequisite for such an enterprising scenario was an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. However, as expected, Bashar chose to follow in the footsteps of his ruthless father, Hafiz Assad, slaughtering T.F.’s assumptions and Syria’s domestic opposition, irrespective of the Golan Heights, Israel’s policies or existence.
In August, 2006, T.F. told NPR Radio that Bashar Assad’s Syria was not a natural ally of Iran. He maintained that Syria could resume its traditional role as an ally of the pro-US Arab camp of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Thus, he rewrote Syria’s recent history, which has been consistently anti-US since 1946, as well as pro-Iran since 1979.
In June, 2009, T.F. stated that “for the first time, in a long time, [Middle East] forces for decency, democracy and pluralism have a little wind at their backs.” He identified a tailwind to pro-American elements, and a setback to Iran’s fortunes, in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran itself. According to T.F., “the diffusion of technology – the Internet, blogs, YouTube and text messaging via cellphones” – tilted the Middle East in favor of the US. He was determined not to allow the real Middle East to stand in the way of his vision of a Middle East consumed by globalization, modernity, democratization and the Internet. Unfortunately, the increasingly boiling seismic Arab Street from Morocco to the Persian Gulf has repudiated T.F.’s vision.
In February, 2011, T.F. determined that “the Muslim Brotherhood is not running the [anti-Mubarak] show…. Any ideological group that tries to hijack these young people will lose…. This uprising feels post-ideological…. The emerging spokesman for this uprising is Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive.”
Enthralled by the Arab Spring delusion, T.F. concluded that the Egyptian Street “tried [radical] Nasserism, tried Islamism and is now trying democracy.” He was convinced that “the democracy movement came out of Tahrir Square like a tiger…. Anyone who tries to put the tiger back in the cage will get his head bitten off…. Witness one of the great triumphs of the human spirit….. The first pan-Arab movement that is focused on universal values….”
T.F. underestimated the surge of the non-Facebook trans-national Muslim Brotherhood and its credo: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad [Holy War] is our way; and martyrdom for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” To T.F.’s frustration, the Muslim Brotherhood aims to consolidate Islamic Sharia’ as the legal foundation in Muslim and “infidel” lands, as a prelude to the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate.
T.F.’s pro-PLO, pro-Palestinian stance dates back to his active involvement, while at Brandeis University, in the pro-Arafat radical-Left “Middle East Peace Group” and “Breirah” organizations. It was intensified during his role as the Associated Press’ and New York Times’ reporter in Lebanon. There he played down Arafat’s and Mahmoud Abbas’ rape and plunder of Lebanon and their intense ties with international terrorism, while expressing his appreciation of the PLO’s protection of foreign media in Beirut.
In September 1993, T.F. welcomed Arafat as a peace-pursuing statesman. He established moral equivalence between the role-model of terrorism, the PLO, and the role-model of counterterrorism, Israel, as well as between Arafat and Rabin: “Two hands that had written the battle orders for so many young men, two fists that had been raised in anger at one another so many times in the past, locked together for a fleeting moment of reconciliation.” T.F. provided a robust tailwind to Arafat’s strategy of deception and bamboozling September 1993 statement at the White House: “Mr. President, I am taking this opportunity to assure you and to assure the great American people that we share your values for freedom, justice and human rights — values for which my people have been striving….”
In July, 2000, T.F. posed the question: “Who is Arafat? Is he Nelson Mandela or Willie Nelson?” However, Arafat’s track record is compatible with another metaphor: “Who is Arafat? Is he Jack the Ripper or the Boston Strangler?”
Has Tom Friedman been mistaken? Or, has he been, deliberately, misleading?