Thomas Friedman Is What's Still Wrong In America

16 December 2014
Published in Blog

By Laith Saud

December 16, 2014

Thomas Friedman is at it again, displaying all of what is wrong in America. Upon this week’s release of the CIA Torture report, a report that should make us comprehensively rethink our policies in the Muslim world, Friedman turned the crises into yet another opportunity to lull us into a complacency. The report reveals the waste and lies that have perturbed American politics for ten years. But American pundits, like Friedman, encourage us to continue living the lie.

The CIA Torture Report: Raising Questions

Currently in Istanbul participating in policy events on the tragedy in Syria, I picked up an international edition of the New York Times. Friedman’s column is more prominent in the IE edition, above the fold, front page, with photo. I’m not sure why, perhaps it is presumed that a man so generously mustached may resonate in certain parts of the world. Regardless of Friedman’s fur, he is, in this case, the face of the Times. And the Times is the face of America. And this past week its most famous columnist celebrated the torture report as a showcase in American values.

The torture report outlines a decade of cruel abuse on the part of American servicemen and contractors on detainees. I say cruel, not to insist that torture is cruel, that would be redundant. It was cruel because the report makes it clear: it was entirely unnecessary. The CIA could not honestly report a single instance of torture resulting in intelligence; in fact, the CIA only obtained ‘actionable’ intelligence without torture. So the real question is why did we continue to torture, what was our obsession with continuing to torture detainees, even though years of experience demonstrated that it yielded nothing? In fact, members of the CIA deliberately lied to make it seem as if torture was the source of such intelligence. Again, why? If good intelligence was attained, why torture? And if torture failed at producing results, why lie about it to make it seem like it did? It would seem that somehow, someway, we wanted to torture those men and to continue to do so. This report is not an opportunity to be relieved that we found out, it is a responsibility to ask why and hold people accountable.  

First, why torture and pursue more reason to torture? The answer: Thomas Friedman.

American Media and American Thinking

When I say Thomas Friedman is the reason why we aimlessly tortured so many, I am obviously partly kidding. There could be only two possible reasons why torture continued at the rate it did, when there was absolutely no tangible benefit: A) The torture was a form of experimentation, to seek out the dynamics of torture if you will, to institutionalize it on those who are nothing more than ‘lab rats’ at Guantanamo Bay; or, B) those involved enjoyed it. Otherwise, why lie about the effectiveness of torture, when non-torture methods proved to be more effective? The ultimate underlying principle here however is Muslims are not human beings. They may be subject to torture for either experimentation or even fun.

The American media, illustrated by Friedman, have single handedly de-humanized Arabs and Muslims in this country. And this dehumanization is fueled by three general currents: arrogance, the Israeli narrative and economic interests. We see all three currents at work in the following statement by Thomas Friedman:

I think [the invasion of Iraq] was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie. I think that, looking back, I now certainly feel I understand more what the war was about […] We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. […] And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand? […] Well, Suck. On. This. That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth.

The context of this statement is post 9/11. Notice, for Friedman, it did not matter that the Iraqi people were innocent and had nothing to do with 9/11. We needed to “take out a very big stick” and tell innocent Iraqi women and children from “home to home” to “suck on this.” The problem with arrogance is not offense; its self-satisfying nature always leads to ignorance and ignorance is not a laudable quality in public intellectuals. Furthermore, it leads to disastrous policies. Friedman’s attitude here typifies an ignorant mentality, a racist who perceives Arabs and Muslims as animals to be trained. I wonder how well that tactic is going for western war advocates. Newsflash: Iraqis are human beings, with quite a deep history. When Americans unwarrantedly invade a country with “big sticks,” humans will strategize, recruit, plan and resist. America lost the illegal war in Iraq, billions lost and thousands dead; yet the media has not wagged a finger in Friedman’s face, let alone a stick, for his zealous and explicit enthusiasm for war against Arabs and Muslims.

Racism is a crutch for a compromised intellect. And many such thinkers proliferate American media. Their weak nature is difficult to detect because the ability to be racist is always associated with power. America is powerful, whites are powerful, NY Times journalists are powerful. Yet Friedman’s power has nothing to do with intellect or achievement; they are the result of inheritance and association. Friedman’s fame arouse with his association with the Western establishment. He is a status quo vigilante. But he has separated himself in being an “expert” on the Middle East. Historically, the media has been hostile to Middle East experts from Arab countries, so those familiar with Israel disproportionality fill the void. Friedman is such a figure; here he is advocating Israeli policy on Southern Lebanon: "It was not pretty, but it was logical. Israel basically said that when dealing with a non-state actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, 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."

Israeli experience will yield an Israeli view of the region. It seems to the likes of Friedman, Israel and Americas’ long-term strategy in the Middle East and world generally is to inflict pain on civilians with sticks.

Is it just me or is Friedman a maniac? Keep the mustache and change the name from Friedman to Hussein and Thomas would be considered a terrorist for speaking like that. Now, the CIA torture report reveals our continued failure to assess and correct bad policies that diminish America’s standing in the world. For all of Friedman’s inhumane non-sense, here would be an opportunity to call for accountability. But Friedman just pats us on the back for acknowledging wrongs, he does not call for a single person to be held accountable for what could only be considered a strangely sadist obsession with torturing Muslims. The message is clear, we care nothing for other lives. Such thinking, again, is not problematic because it is ‘offensive,’ it simply leads to bad policies.    

Friedman constantly defends an incompetent establishment. Without accountability, people do not do their jobs well. CEOs lie, then fail, then you lose your job. Presidents lie, then fail, then you lose your job. The CIA report is emblematic of a decade of wasted time, excessive spending on war and torture, while the American economy cannot provide healthcare and education to its citizens. Journalists should serve the public good, but Friedman:

The fact that no two major countries have gone to war since they both got McDonald’s is partly due to economic integration, but it is also due to the presence of American power and America’s willingness to use that power against those who would threaten the system of globalization–from Iraq to North Korea. The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. […] 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. (The Lexus and the Olive Tree)

This is a fundamental problem: A democratic society requires a vigorous press, debating different ideas. Today, the media, corporate America and the military industrial complex have coalesced around the idea that “everything is ok.” A provider of journalism Friedman is not; he is a marketing guru for the world as it is. And nothing dulls the edge of critical thinking more than the presumption that all is well. Credit cards give us the illusion of material success; Friedmans give us the illusion of moral and political success, while the public is dumbed down to a useless degree for a democracy. There are many things right about America. As I am in Istanbul now – an incredible, dazzling city – I can still see all of the things that makes America home and why I am grateful that is the case.

But when I speak to the average cab driver in Turkey, he is far more aware and nuanced about the region than Friedman is. Why? A cab driver struggles to live in a world, to survive. He has to think and adjust. When you write for the Times and are an establishment philosopher, you are untouched by challenge and continue to just live in your head. One of the weaknesses of being an American is the tendency to live in our own bubble. It is time we burst it towards a more prosperous future.         

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Laith Saud is a Senior Fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies and co-author of An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century. You can follow Laith on Twitter

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