Illuminating Thomas Friedman

A webpage on Thomas Friedman, maintained by Farrar, Straux & Giroux, declares that as the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, he is in a “unique position to interpret the world for American readers. Twice a week, Friedman’s commentary provides the most trenchant, pithy, and illuminating perspective in journalism.”

My quarrel is not with why Friedman is in “a unique position to interpret the world for American readers.” That is plain enough: he writes for NYT, arguably the world’s most influential newspaper. But does he provide “the most trenchant, pithy and illuminating perspective” on foreign affairs, on Islam and the Middle East? I have the greatest difficulty with the third adjective. What does his commentary best illuminate: his subject or the biases that he brings to his commentary?

Consider his column, “The Reality Principle,” from June 15, 2003. With a quote from an Israeli political theorist, Yaron Ezrahi, he argues that only the United States, “an external force,” can rescue the Israelis and Palestinians from their self-destructive war against each other. United States of America is the “only reality principle.” Only United States can save the day “with its influence, its wisdom and, if necessary, its troops.”

How illuminating is this?

Is United States altogether “an external force” in its dealings with Israel? This is not a subject that any politician or mainstream columnist, concerned for his or her career, can safely bring into the public discourse. It is much safer to take the position that Israel is a client state of the United States, a strategic asset that polices America’s friends and foes alike in the oil-rich Middle East. This is also the premise behind Friedman’s description of United States as the “only reality principle” in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

This notion that Israel merely serves US interests is insupportable. At the least, it ignores three refractory facts. First, if US policy towards Israel is rooted in its national interest, it would be difficult to account for the vigorous activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-one of two most powerful political lobbies in the United States-dedicated to ensuring that the United States remains firmly committed to maintaining Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. Why would American Jewry engage in such a monumentally wasteful exercise? Second, there is the curious fact that United States was deeply concerned, during the two Gulf Wars, to keep its strategic asset out of the war. Third, on the rare occasion when a US President has opposed an official Israeli position, even when this was a mild rebuke, he has run into massive opposition from both parties in the Congress.

There are a few more glittering gems embedded in Mr. Friedman’s column. Consider his reason why Israel, though it has the right “pursue its mortal enemies, just as America does,” cannot “do it with reckless abandon.” “America will never have to live with Mr. bin Laden’s children. They are far away and always will be. Israel will have to live with the Palestinians, after the war. They are right next door and always will be.” Now that should be illuminating to an America that was “changed for ever” by the events of September 11, an America whose daily nightmare now is the looming threat of another attack on its home ground.

Next, consider Friedman’s worries that the Palestinians may be “capable only of self-destructive revenge, rather than constructive restraint and reconciliation.” Again, how illuminating that Friedman should exclude Israelis from this anxious train of thought. There is amnesia here too. It is odd (or is it illuminating?) that NYT’s foreign affairs columnist forgets some pertinent history. The Palestinians demonstrated seven years of “constructive restraint and reconciliation” between 1993 and 2000, even as the Israelis-in clear violation of the Oslo Accord-continued their colonization of the West Bank, confiscating Palestinian lands, and building and expanding settlements that encircled Palestinian communities. And in the end, what did the Palestinians get for relinquishing their right to 78 percent of historical Palestine? The Israelis made the now-notorious “generous offer” of Palestinian Bantustans. That is when the Palestinians, threatened with extinction, mounted their Second Intifada.

Friedman asserts that on the Israeli side, it is only the “extremist Jewish settlers” who oppose the two-state solution. Does he want us to believe that all the other Israelis, settled inside the green line, do not oppose the two-state solution? Could it be that a small minority of settlers, even when their numbers were microscopic, has imposed its extremist vision on the overwhelming majority of Israelis? How does that happen in the only democracy in the Middle East? Now, isn’t that illuminating?

Now, is there a subliminal message in Friedman’s discourse on “The Reality Principle?” I think there is one, and it is contained in the last word of his column: troops. The reference is to US troops. Friedman is suggesting-of course, he is only suggesting-that “if necessary” the United States should take its war on “terrorism” to Gaza and the West Bank.

The United States/Israel first chose Yasir Arafat and his “security services” to “discipline their own people.” When Arafat “proved unwilling to do that consistently,” Bush/Sharon replaced him with Mahmoud Abbas. It now appears that Abbas too may refuse to crush the Palestinian resistance. Of course, the Israelis could finish the job, but it would be too dangerous. As Friedman puts it, “If Israelis try to do it, it [the cancer] will only metastasize.” Friedman’s solution: offer the job to American troops.

Twice a week Friedman delivers his perorations on the Arabs, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the Middle East and Islamic world more generally. In addition, over the years, as the NYT’s regular commentator on the Middle East, he has built a reputation as America’s chief opinion-maker on the region. Is that reputation well deserved? Does he offer a balanced, objective, or American perspective on the region? Most Americans, of course, will answer in the affirmative, but I have some nagging doubts.

In a recent television interview with Charlie Rose-published in the Forward of June 6, 2003-Friedman confesses that “Israel was central to my life as it was to all my friends.” He was reminiscing about his years in high school. “Today,” he laments, “I’m probably the only one of my friends who is still emotionally involved in Israel.” Now, I would not have mentioned this if Friedman were not America’s journalistic sage on Arabs and Muslims. However, since he is, isn’t this confession pertinent to his sermons on the Middle East: and isn’t it illuminating?

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He may be reached at Visit his webpage at


M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at