The New York Time's Thomas Friedman

The Geraldo Rivera of the New York Times

by Edward S. Herman

Z magazine, November 2003


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 follow-up 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).

Edward S. Herman page

Index of Website

Home Page