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Friedman at 50 Friedman Units: What Did We Do to Deserve This?

Thanks to his relentless service as a mouthpiece for US empire and capital, he’s permitted to continue churning out his pseudo-thoughts week after week.

It’s not only military punishment that excites our warrior-columnist; he also gets off on economic brutality.(Photo: Thomas Friedman/keso s/flickr/cc)

It’s not only military punishment that excites our warrior-columnist; he also gets off on economic brutality. (Photo: Thomas Friedman/keso s/flickr/cc)

In a recent dispatch on coronavirus, three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman complains that he is “stunned by the criticism that anyone talking about saving lives and jobs in the same breath is an unfeeling capitalist.” Given that Friedman has long opposed job security as an impediment to progress, innovation and national competitiveness—even lambasting the US Congress in 2004 for being “out to lunch—or, worse, obsessed with trying to keep Susie Smith’s job at the local pillow factory that is moving to the Caribbean” (how’s that for unfeeling capitalism?)—it’s not clear why he’s suddenly concerned with saving US jobs in the middle of a pandemic.

As for Friedman’s own highly remunerated job (as of 2009, his speaking fee alone was no less than $75,000), this year marks the 25th anniversary of his service as foreign affairs columnist at the Times, where he has held various posts since 1981. To put it another way, Friedman has been writing a column on international relations for more than 50 Friedman Units—to use the metric coined by blogger Atrios (5/21/06) in honor of the pundit’s penchant for declaring that “the next six months” were always the critical ones in Iraq (FAIR.org, 5/16/06).

Thomas Friedman: Beware of Icebergs

Unlike Susie Smith, Friedman’s livelihood has never been in jeopardy, despite his myriad professional defects. These range from rhetorical incoherence and continuous self-contradiction (e.g., Iraq was “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched,” even as Friedman self-defined as “a liberal on every issue other than this war”) to his tendency to imbue utterly frivolous jet-setting experiences with global political significance (e.g., that time on an Emirates Air flight from Dubai when the Pakistani passenger sporting a jacket imprinted with the word “Titanic” spontaneously evolved into a sign that Pakistan was the Titanic, or possibly the iceberg). (In the same article, Friedman cautioned that an American victory in Afghanistan was possible only if the US recognized that “Dorothy, this ain’t Kansas.”)

Then, of course, there’s the fact that he is certifiably wrong on a regular basis. (“There is never going to be any European monetary union,” he wrote on October 4, 1995, a little more than three years before the launch of the euro. “Forget it. Buy German marks. They’re all you’ll ever need.”) And yet, thanks to his relentless service as a mouthpiece for US empire and capital, he’s permitted to continue churning out his pseudo-thoughts week after week—even if, as he inexplicably joked in his 2005 ode to corporate globalization The World Is Flat, “some of my readers wish my column could be shipped off to North Korea.”

On the occasion of the silver anniversary of Friedman’s foreign affairs column, then, let’s recall some of his greatest hits from over the years, starting with the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. The seeds of this theory were sown, Friedman explains in his 1999 ode to corporate globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, as he “Quarter-Poundered [his] way around the world” for the Times, arriving somewhere along the way at this stunning insight: “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”

The Israeli and Lebanese McDonald’s establishments were brought up as alleged evidence of the theory’s soundness—never mind the state of war that has existed between Israel and Lebanon since 1948, or that, at the time he was writing, Israel was in its 21st year of military occupation of southern Lebanon.

The concept of the Quarter Pounder as key to world peace became even more difficult to defend when, shortly after the publication of The Lexus, 19 McDonald’s countries belonging to NATO went to war against Yugoslavia, which also hosted the fast food chain. In the end, fortunately, it was nothing that couldn’t be resolved with a minor update, and subsequent editions of the book explained that the “Serbian people” ultimately capitulated because “they wanted to stand in line for burgers, much more than they wanted to stand in line for Kosovo.”

Thomas Friedman: More Sticks.

Friedman, meanwhile, catapulted himself onto the frontlines of the NATO war, encouraging Times readers to “give war a chance,” and advocating for a “sustained,” “unreasonable” and “less than surgical bombing” of Serbia—in other words, war crimes. From his columnist’s platform-cum-imaginary fighter jet cockpit, he fired haughty threats at 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 too.” In typical Friedmanian fashion, though, he couldn’t keep his narrative straight, and alternately argued that Kosovar refugee evictions began both before and after NATO bombed.

This quasi-orgasmic reaction to indiscriminate military destruction is hardly an isolated incident in Friedman’s track record. In May 2003, two-and-a-half months into the war on Iraq, he appeared on Charlie Rose’s television talk show to announce that he had now understood the real reason for the conflict he had spent the duration of recent history championing: a “terrorism bubble” had emerged in “that part of the world,” which necessitated

American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society; you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well. Suck. On. This.”

Thomas Friedman: Because We Could

It was never explained how the collective oral rape of Iraq was going to rectify a “terrorism bubble,” when Iraq produced exactly zero of the 9/11 hijackers and Friedman’s beloved Kingdom of Saudi Arabia produced 15. And, of course, the “bubble fantasy” was merely one of an ever-changing list of reasons for the war, which was variously said to be about oil, not about oil, just “because we could,” simultaneously a neoconservative project and radically liberal, and a noble democratizing effort that was hands down the “most important task worth doing and worth debating”—although Friedman himself could hardly be bothered to maintain the democratic façade, as with his 2006 suggestion for dealing with elected Iraqi leaders:

We should lock them in a room and not let them out until they either produce a national unity government, so Americans will want to stay in Iraq, or fail to produce that government, which would signal that it’s time to warm up the bus.

Indeed, the Iraq endeavor provided Friedman with countless opportunities to douse the pages of the newspaper of record with journalistic atrocities and his own cringe-inducing brand of Orientalist, imperial hubris—like when he declared in 2012, nine years into the de facto obliteration of the country, that America had performed the much-needed role there of “well-armed external midwife.” But plenty of other nations and peoples have been on the receiving end of lethal Friedmanian obstetrics, as well.

There’s Afghanistan, the “special needs baby” that the US decided to adopt, where—shortly after the launch of the war on terror in 2001—Friedman was appalled by “all the nonsense written in the press—particularly the European and Arab media—about the concern for ‘civilian casualties.’” Without offering the slightest hint as to how he had arrived at his own conclusions, Friedman insisted: “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.” One can imagine the reaction if a non-English-speaking Afghan journalist were to interpret the pre-death prayers of, say, people in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Thanks in part to the handy dehumanizing component of Friedman’s Orientalist playbook, Arab and Muslim civilian collateral damage is rarely deemed to be of particular concern (except when Arabs and Muslims kill other Arabs and Muslims, in which case the events can be utilized to underscore the allegedly unique savagery of “that part of the world”).

Thomas Friedman: Suicidal Lies

In March 2002, for example, Friedman offered the following opinion on the subject of Israeli/Palestinian relations: “Israel needs to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay.” Three days later, the Israeli military undertook a major massacre in the Jenin refugee camp in the Palestinian West Bank. As veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk notes in his book The Great War for Civilization: “The Israelis certainly followed Friedman’s advice.”

Friedman has furthered the Israeli cause in innumerable ways over the decades, not least by promoting the idea that the Palestinians are “gripped by a collective madness.” In 2001, he wagered that the “only solution may be for Israel and the US to invite NATO to occupy the West Bank and Gaza and set up a NATO-run Palestinian state”—before self-defining two years later as “a long and cranky opponent of NATO expansion.” During Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-09 that killed some 1,400 Palestinians—the vast majority of them civilians—Friedman surfaced with another train wreck of a passage:

The fighting, death and destruction in Gaza is painful to watch.

But it’s all too familiar. It’s the latest version of the longest-running play in the modern Middle East, which, if I were to give it a title, would be called: “Who owns this hotel? Can the Jews have a room? And shouldn’t we blow up the bar and replace it with a mosque?”

In light of the usurpation by Israel of the bulk of former Palestinian land, it seems the issue of whether or not the Jews can have a room had already been definitively answered. Friedman’s theatrical mouthful furthermore failed to address the fact that the blame for the “fighting, death and destruction” lay entirely with Israel, rather than the wannabe bar blower-uppers, who were not the ones to blow up the ceasefire agreement then in effect.

A week later, Friedman was back with the conviction that Israel’s goal in Gaza must be the “education of Hamas”—based on what Friedman had determined to have been the Israeli military’s successful “education of Hezbollah” in Lebanon in July-August 2006, which entailed the slaughter of approximately 1,200 people, again primarily civilians. Contending that Israel’s Lebanese strategy was “not pretty, but it was logical,” Friedman summarized:

Israel basically said that…the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians—the families and employers of the militants—to restrain Hezbollah in the future.

Leaving aside the question of what the hell a militant employer is, it is categorically obscene to invoke the murder of 1,200 people as a positive example. Nor should prominent New York Times columnists be permitted to unilaterally dispense with the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting collective punishment and the targeting of civilians in wartime. Additionally, the Times itself reported “mushrooming public support for Hezbollah” in Lebanon during the war, which rather thoroughly invalidates the whole “deterrence” argument.

Other Middle Eastern landscapes have also inspired destructive “educational” missions in Friedman. Following a visit to Yemen in 2010—during which he chewed qat (the “mildly hallucinogenic leaf drug that Yemeni men stuff in their cheek after work”)—he devised a “new rule of thumb” that stated:

For every Predator missile we fire at an Al Qaeda target here, we should help Yemen build 50 new modern schools that teach science and math and critical thinking—to boys and girls.

According to Friedman’s hallucinations, “if we stick to something close to that ratio of targeted killings to targeted kindergartens, we have a chance to prevent Yemen from becoming an Al Qaeda breeding ground.” A more surefire formula would probably have entailed simply refraining from conducting “targeted killings” that often kill civilians.

Additional barbarism took place the next year, when Friedman produced his ludicrous list of “not-so-obvious forces” behind the Arab uprisings, which included Israel, Barack Obama, Google Earth and the Beijing Olympics. In her impeccable response at the time, British-Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr suggested some other underappreciated factors, such as the 2008 Cheese-Rolling Competition near Gloucester, England.

To be sure, it’s not only military punishment that excites our warrior-columnist; he also gets off on economic brutality. And what do you know: They go hand in hand, as Friedman himself alluded to in an uncharacteristically lucid passage in The Lexus and the Olive Tree:

Indeed, McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. And these fighting forces and institutions are paid for by American taxpayer dollars.

Thomas Friedman: We Are All French Now?

In Friedman’s view, American corporate prosperity is a sign that things are good on Planet Earth, even if certain cantankerous global populations refuse to adopt the required enthusiasm—see, inter alia, his 2005 scolding of French President Chirac: “Yo, Jacques, what world do you think you’re livin’ in, pal? Get with the program! It’s called Anglo-American capitalism, mon ami.”

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Although claiming in The World Is Flat that globalization is fundamentally good for poor people—and that “when I see large numbers of people escaping poverty in places like India, China or Ireland, well, yes, I get a little emotional”—Friedman is also known for producing such soundbites as: “You win the presidency by connecting with the American people’s gut insecurities and aspirations. You win with a concept. The concept I’d argue for is ‘neoliberalism.’” Seeing as neoliberal capitalism is predicated on vast inequality and the subjugation of the masses, Friedman might rethink his “emotions.” That line about the “unfeeling capitalist” would probably suffice.

It was in India, incidentally, where the CEO of Infosys Technologies Limited in Bangalore unwittingly set the world-is-flat wheels in motion in Friedman’s brain. In the ensuing monstrosity of a book, Friedman devoted much space to exulting over the perks of existence as an Indian call center employee—such as the ability to procure a credit card with which to purchase American goods—and entering into a fit of ecstasy over the unbelievably cool instructions he received at Bangalore’s KGA Golf Club: “Aim at either Microsoft or IBM.” After some 546 pages of unchecked metaphorical disaster, in which Friedman labored in vain to deliver his flat world from the realm of transparent nonsense, he produced the caveat:

Being flat is good but full of pressure, being unflat is awful and full of pain, but being half flat has its own special anxiety. As exciting and as visible as the flat Indian high-tech sector is, have no illusions: It accounts for 0.2% of employment in India.

Foreign Policy: Just How Wrong Can NYT's Friedman Be?

Ireland, meanwhile, is the site of another Friedmanian fiasco. In a 2005 article titled “Follow the Leapin’ Leprechaun,” Friedman asserted:

It is obvious to me that the Irish/British model is the way of the future, and the only question is when Germany and France will face reality: Either they become Ireland or they become museums. That is their real choice over the next few years—it’s either the leprechaun way or the Louvre.

One of the key “reforms” implemented by the leprechauns, Friedman told us, “was to make it easier to fire people” without making corporations like Dell fork over years of severance pay. But, he insisted, “the easier it is to fire people, the more willing companies are to hire people”—which sounds fine and dandy until, for example, Dell closed its manufacturing center in Limerick, laid off nearly 2,000 employees, and moved major operations to Poland.

Sean Kay, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, remarked at Foreign Policy (12/6/10) that Friedman might have averted his premature jubilation at how Ireland had supposedly become the “richest country in the European Union after Luxembourg” had he pursued a more comprehensive investigation than simply emailing with Michael Dell about Ireland’s “industrial and tax policy which is consistently very supportive of business.” Kay suggested that, because Friedman “promulgated a theory of globalization that reinforced a doubling down on damaging economic and political actions in a small and vulnerable country that is now suffering deep pain,” he owed both his readers and the people of Ireland an apology. One guess whether or not that happened.

Thomas Friedman: Root Canal Politics

At the end of the day, after all, Friedman is staunchly in favor of “deep pain”—as long as it’s being diverted onto the lower echelons of society. In 2010, he warned that “we are entering an era where to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people,” and lauded the slashing of pensions in Atlanta. In a bewildering dispatch that same year, he promoted “Root Canal Politics” as the proper response to the global financial recession and the excesses of the baby boomer generation—said to be the offspring of “the Tooth Fairy,” who was guilty of “bogus accounting and… deluding us” on the economic front. But because it now happened that “that Tooth Fairy, she be dead,” elderly patrons of the British public transportation system and other lowly humans who played no role in causing the recession needed to pay the price:

Under Greek law, anyone in certain “hazardous” jobs could retire with full pension at 50 for women and 55 for men…. In Britain, everyone over 60 gets an annual allowance to pay heating bills and can ride any local bus for free. That’s really sweet—if you can afford it.

As for the actual culprits in the whole mess, financial speculators were presented as “lords of discipline, the Electronic Herd of bond traders”—also known as “Mr. Bond Market of Wall Street and the City of London,” who, coincidentally, was the “one surviving sibling” of the Tooth Fairy, and who would “now look after her offspring alone,” i.e., oversee the draconian austerity measures that had to be unleashed against everyone except Friedman and his socioeconomic ilk. A root canal of an article, indeed.

And the pain never ends. There’s the time Friedman raved about the “Victoria’s Secret garment factory in Sri Lanka that, in terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work in”—this in a 1999 column about how there was nothing “more ridiculous in the news today than the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle.”

There’s the time he boasted of having blindly pushed a trade deal destined to wreak havoc on Central American livelihoods: “I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.” (Had he learned two more words, he might have known that “CA” stands for Central America, not Caribbean.)

And there’s the time he explored the causes of poverty in Africa by going on safari in Botswana—which was some years after he advised George W. Bush to call on US schools to raise money to donate solar-powered light bulbs with American flag decals on them to African villages, “so when those kids grew up they would remember who lit up their nights.” Not to mention the time he mused:

With all due respect to 1960s revolutionary ideology, the wretched of the earth want to go to Disney World, not to the barricades—if they’re given half a chance. If not, they will eat their rain forest, whatever it might be.

There’s also Mexico, where Friedman descended in 2010 to report that, although “about 40%” of Mexicans lived below the poverty line 16 years into NAFTA, “Wal-Mart de Mexico is expected to open 300 new stores in Mexico this year,” and NAFTA was still the answer. The sole person consulted for the article, it seems, was Luis de la Calle, former trade and NAFTA minister at the Mexican embassy in DC—a background Friedman did not deem worthy of inclusion in his article.

He did, however, find space to cite de la Calle’s study of the top 50 Mexican baby names in 2008: “The most popular for girls, he said, included ‘Elizabeth, Evelyn, Abigail, Karen, Marilyn and Jaqueline, and for boys Alexander, Jonathan, Kevin, Christian and Bryan.’ Not only Juans.” It is hard to think of any more compelling and nonracist evidence of the positive effects of free trade.

Thomas Friedman: As Energy Prices Rise, It's All Downhill for Democracy

No review of Friedman’s greatest hits would be complete without his “First Law of Petropolitics,” which I prefer to refer to by its convenient acronym. The FLOP, to which Friedman gave birth in 2006, “posits the following: The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in petro-ist states.” In his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, marketed as an environmental wakeup call, Friedman described how he went about converting the napkin on which the FLOP was initially conceived into a series of graphs:

On one axis, I plotted the average global price of crude oil going back to 1979, and along the other axis I plotted the pace of expanding or contracting freedoms, both economic and political—as measured by the Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report and the Fraser Institute’s “Economic Freedom of the World Report”—for Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria.

And voilà! As Friedman suspected, the price of oil was inversely related to the pace of freedom.

Almost as charming as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, this “law” holds just as little water. For one thing, “freedom” is a pretty sweeping word to use when, for example, the graph on Iran plotted crude oil prices against “Freedom to Trade Internationally,” which in this case obviously has more to do with US sanctions than with anything else.

The Nigeria graph plotted oil prices against “Legal System and Property Rights,” which was already sufficiently unrepresentative of general “freedom” before Friedman decided to use the 1993 privatization of a Nigerian oil field as one of contemporary history’s major freedom points. Add to this the fact that 1993 was precisely the year that Freedom House downgraded Nigeria’s Freedom Status from “Partly Free” to “Not Free,” and Friedman’s continued employment becomes ever more confounding.

Thomas Friedman's house

In the very least, the FLOP provided journalist Matt Taibbi with fodder for his own graphs, such as “SIZE OF VALERIE BERTINELLI’S ASS, 1985–2008, VS. HAPPINESS.” These occur in the course of Taibbi’s takedown (New York Press, 2/17/15) of Hot, Flat and Crowded, in which he drew attention to the irony of a:

resident of a positively obscene 114,000-square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world… reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Where, Taibbi asked, “does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles?”

Another good question is how a born-again environmentalist manages to promote the US armed forces to the vanguard of the green revolution—owing to the existence of, inter alia, “aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds”—when the Pentagon is the top polluter on the planet.

Thomas Friedman: Trump Kills Iran’s Most Overrated Warrior

In 2010, an Israeli television anchor told Friedman that, on account of the evolution away from print media, he was an “endangered species,” and proceeded to wonder: “Ten years from now, will an institution like Thomas Friedman be possible?” Alas, it’s now 2020, and we have the unfortunate answer to that question. Apparently apologists for empire and capital are not so easily made extinct.

In his inaugural dispatch of the new year, Friedman (1/3/20) weighed in on the illegal US assassination-by-drone strike of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Despite supposedly hating Donald Trump, Friedman opined:

One day they may name a street after President Trump in Tehran. Why? Because Trump just ordered the assassination of possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East.

Speaking of dumb and overrated, here’s hoping we’re not in for another 25 years. The next 50 Friedman Units will be decisive.

Belén Fernández

Belén Fernández

Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.

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