Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Trouble With Thomas Friedman

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

When I was a student in the US, The New York Times and Thomas Friedman were my favorite read.
The distributor wouldn’t accept subscription in the area I lived in of Eugene, Oregon, so I had to “find” the paper every single day. Sometimes I had to travel all over town to get a copy.
I told Friedman that I was fan of his when I met him here in Jeddah and then in Washington. But that was three years ago. Since then, Friedman changed a few lanes that surprised even his colleagues in some Washington press circles, as I was told by some in Washington. He lost their and my confidence and loyalty as a result. We have good reasons.
Take for example Friedman’s stand on Iraq war. For months he was admirably moral in his insistence that this was a war of choice not necessity. He rightly warned the US administration of the illegality of a war based on unproved accusations. Time proved him right.
However, when the war tide became overwhelming, he suddenly changed lanes and took the opposite direction. Just before the invasion, he was advising on what to do after what he thought would be an easy war.
Some of his advices were valid and wise, but it shocked me and many of his admirers that he was now validating and approving the invasion.
Friedman is a crusader. He designs a mission for himself, and then keeps hammering on the issue forever.
Lately, he has become obsessed with lowering US dependence on Middle East oil, especially from Saudi Arabia. His rationale goes like this: Let’s punish those “medieval” nations for supporting “terrorism”, and force them to reform. Rich dictatorships tend to resist reform and support terror. Make them poorer and they will embrace Western democracy, America, the West and — of course — Israel. Poverty will make Saudis more educated, market-oriented, worldly, and less religious.
There are other domestic rationales of course, like making America greener, but that it is about less oil consumption, not dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Friedman wrote extensively and repeatedly about another of his obsession — globalization. His books “The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization,” and the latest best-seller, “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century,” is about, among other things, how it is becoming impossible to differentiate American from foreign products. You buy a computer and it is half-made in China, half-collected from different parts of the world, and sold with US logo. I agree. And I like Friedman’s stand that this is a reality we have to embrace and make the best use of.
But then he turns around and tells us that he could differentiate between Saudi oil and other oils sold in the open world market. To the best of my knowledge, they are all black!
Like cocoa, rubber and gold, oil is a global commodity. Producing countries sell it to international oil traders.
Those in turn sell it in the open market. Other traders, petrochemical companies and refineries buy it and resell it raw and manufactured.
These products may be sold as they are to consumers or used as feeders to make more sophisticated products.
So you may boycott a chocolate coming from a certain Swiss producer, but you cannot boycott cocoa.
The same can be said about all other basic natural products. International oil companies, who are mostly Americans, own or eat the greatest chunk of this cake.
The world is becoming one big hypermarket that mixes all things and sells to global citizens, as Friedman would say defending outsourcing to India, and free trade with China. Why it is a different story when it comes to Saudi oil?
Besides, who, with a straight face, would claim that poverty produces reformers and democrats, security and technology, but Friedman? If so, why democracy and scientific achievements thrive mostly in richer nations? Why wars are made on and in poorer countries? Why security is a privilege for richer neighborhoods like LA’s Beverly Hills not as much for poorer districts like New York’s Harlem? And why most graduates from elite schools come from richer families?
According to Friedman’s earlier views, the secret of Arab radicalism in recent years is severe unemployment and general poverty. If that is the case, how could a poorer Middle East make better, more sophisticated, civilized and secured neighborhood? With post-9/11 Friedman’s lane-changing, Israel-first attitude, one doesn’t have to wonder much. In his Saudi bashing and Israel serving, at least he is consistent.

1 comment:

Mark Klein, M.D. said...

Think your criticism of Friedman is fair. That said Friedman's opinions reflect the growing confusion in the west about the obvious failure of current policies. Suspect smarter people are beginning to realize how disrespectful we are to Islamic social conventions, particularly on marriage and family. Given our 50% plus divorce rate, decreasing marriage formations, and soon a majority of births will be out-of-wedlock it's no wonder our feminist political reform message falls on deaf years.