1) When elephants crash land
Recently, I brought up an example of how Professor Barry Rubin handled a mistake. First he admitted it. Then he explained the forces involved. His behavior showed a few things.
1) He is serious about what he has written.
2) He respects his audience’s intelligence.
Neither of these qualities can be attributed to Thomas Friedman.
A few weeks ago, Friedman wrote a column in which he faulted the Muslim Brotherhood for failing to govern Egypt effectively. Nowhere, in the essay does Friedman acknowledge that he had misunderstood the revolution in Egypt from the start.
For example, two years ago in Postcard From Cairo, Part 2 Friedman wrote:
Well, that’s what happened here. The ferocity and popularity of Mubarak’s ouster should have told Israelis that they need to get to work immediately on building a relationship with the dynamic new popular trend here, not to be trying to cling to a dictator who was totally out of touch with his people. And, as we sit here today, the popular trend is not with the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, what makes the uprising here so impressive – and in that sense so dangerous to other autocracies in the region – is precisely the fact that it is not owned by, and was not inspired by, the Muslim Brotherhood.
In contrast, two weeks later Barry Rubin wrote:
Finally, there is the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood itself. While the likelihood of the Brotherhood taking power in the near future is very low, the chance of it gaining power in the long run is now enhanced. At any rate, the Brotherhood is going to be an important force in Egypt and perhaps an influence on the government. As it spreads its message of hate, this is not likely to lead to a love-fest for Israel. …
But won’t the Egyptians just concentrate on raising living standards and enjoying freedoms? Perhaps. Yet the problem is that there is no money for improving the Egyptian economy and angry frustration is more likely than prosperity. We have seen often in the Arab world how a government that cannot deliver the goods provides foreign scapegoats instead.
Last year, when it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood had emerged as the leading force of the revolution, Friedman wrote Watching Elephants Fly:
SOMEDAY I’d love to create a journalism course based on covering the uprising in Egypt, now approaching its first anniversary. Lesson No. 1 would be the following: Whenever you see elephants flying, shut up and take notes. The Egyptian uprising is the equivalent of elephants flying. No one predicted it, and no one had seen this before. If you didn’t see it coming, what makes you think you know where it’s going? That’s why the smartest thing now is to just shut up and take notes. If you do, the first thing you’ll write is that the Islamist parties — the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Al Nour Party — just crushed the secular liberals, who actually sparked the rebellion here, in the free Egyptian parliamentary elections, winning some 65 percent of the seats. To not be worried about the theocratic, antipluralistic, anti-women’s-rights, xenophobic strands in these Islamist parties is to be recklessly naïve. But to assume that the Islamists will not be impacted, or moderated, by the responsibilities of power, by the contending new power centers here and by the priority of the public for jobs and clean government is to miss the dynamism of Egyptian politics today.
The Islamists were taking power and here’s Friedman assuring us that they will be moderated by the responsibilities of governance. Note too, how he uses his authority as a journalist to assure us that he knows more than the rest of us. (I guess this is an implicit acknowledgement that he got the Egyptian revolution wrong at first. As an admission it’s a pretty weak one.)
In response to this column Barry Rubin wrote Friedman Cheers as Egyptians Are Enslaved:
But there’s even more irony here. These women are already living lives governed by Sharia and, as traditionalists, are happy (and told to be happy) with that situation. Thus, they have ample reason for supporting Islamists. There is nothing surprising in their political behavior, except to people like Friedman who predicted last year they would back liberal, Westernized Facebook kids.
The recent Friedman column was called The Belly Dancing Barometer:
The Brotherhood, though, doesn’t just need a new governing strategy. It needs to understand that its version of political Islam — which is resistant to women’s empowerment and religious and political pluralism — might be sustainable if you are Iran or Saudi Arabia, and you have huge reserves of oil and gas to buy off all the contradictions between your ideology and economic growth. But if you are Egypt and basically your only natural resource is your people — men and women — you need to be as open to the world and modernity as possible to unleash all of their potential for growth.
Barry Rubin mocked this attitude:
On top of that, Friedman uses that “needs to understand” phrase, so beloved by editorialists but totally absurd when dealing with dictators. Well, what if they don’t understand, Mr. Friedman?
Friedman’s latest does not acknowledge that he had been wrong for the past two years about Egypt. In fact the tone of his article is more a message to the Muslim Brotherhood, “Hey, guys, you’re getting this revolution thing wrong.” Worse, his final paragraph reads:
It would not be healthy for us to re-create with the Muslim Brotherhood the bargain we had with Mubarak. That is, just be nice to Israel and nasty to the jihadists and you can do whatever you want to your own people out back. It also won’t be possible. The Egyptian people tolerated that under Mubarak for years. But now they are mobilized, and they have lost their fear. Both we and Morsi need to understand that this old bargain is not sustainable any longer.
To Friedman, the problem isn’t even really with the Muslim Brotherhood but with the United States. The United States was so concerned about Israel it allowed Mubarak to oppress his own people for thirty years. Israel isn’t even a factor here. But Friedman brings it in because it sounds good to him. In Friedman’s world everyone is wrong but him.
That works for him. He has a great high profile job and lots of people pay good money to hear him speak. However since he has no capacity for self-criticism, it’s unlikely that you’ll learn anything of value from him except for a few meaningless pithy phrases.
If you want to learn something, read Barry Rubin. Unfortunately too many of our policy makers are drawn in by Thomas Friedman’s clever sounding but ultimately meaningless tropes.
2) The Friedman deficit
“What ails the Arab world is a deficit of freedom, a deficit of modern education and a deficit of women’s empowerment.” Thomas Friedman, A Festival of Lies, March 24, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, Thomas Friedman wrote The Scary Hidden Stressor:
Ditto in Syria and Libya. In their essay, the study’s co-editors, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, note that from 2006 to 2011, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced the worst drought ever recorded there — at a time when Syria’s population was exploding and its corrupt and inefficient regime was proving incapable of managing the stress.
In 2009, they noted, the U.N. and other international agencies reported that more than 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihoods as a result of the great drought, which led to “a massive exodus of farmers, herders, and agriculturally dependent rural families from the Syrian countryside to the cities,” fueling unrest. The future does not look much brighter. “On a scale of wetness conditions,” Femia and Werrell note, “ ‘where a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought,’ a 2010 report by the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that Syria and its neighbors face projected readings of -8 to -15 as a result of climatic changes in the next 25 years.” Similar trends, they note, are true for Libya, whose “primary source of water is a finite cache of fossilized groundwater, which already has been severely stressed while coastal aquifers have been progressively invaded by seawater.”
Friedman sees the water crisis as a major problem going forward.
As Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo of the International Institute for Strategic Studies conclude in their essay, “fledgling democracies with weak institutions might find it even harder to deal with the root problems than the regimes they replace, and they may be more vulnerable to further unrest as a result.” Yikes.
Friedman is great at quoting other experts. However, there’s one story he missed, How Israel beat the drought:
Kushnir’s answers: Yes, Israelis must still be wise with their water use. Yes, emphatically, this is a desert region, desperately short of natural water. And yes, we have indeed been worried for years about the possibility of water shortages provoking conflict.
But for Israel, for the foreseeable future, Kushnir says, the water crisis is over. And not because this happens to have been one of the wettest winters in years. Rather, he says, an insistent refusal to let the country be constrained by insufficient natural water sources — a refusal that dates back to David Ben-Gurion’s decision to build the National Water Carrier in the 1950s, the most significant infrastructure investment of Israel’s early years — led Israel first into large-scale water recycling, and over the past decade into major desalination projects. The result, as of early 2013, is that the Water Authority feels it can say with confidence that Israel has beaten the drought.
It’s true that Israel’s area is much smaller than any of the countries, so maybe solutions that work for Israel won’t work for Syria, Libya or Egypt. On the other hand Israel has the technology and know-how to alleviate the effects of drought. Maybe Friedman didn’t see the article about Israel’s success. But is it conceivable that he would have written something like:
Ironically the struggling governments of the Middle East could benefit by putting aside their irrational hatred of Israel and turning to the Jewish state to learn about desalinization and water management.
Of course not.
In 2002, Friedman’s most famous column was his “speech in the drawer” column in which he announced that (then) Crown Prince Abdullah would propose normalization with Israel at the upcoming Arab summit if Israel would agree to end the occupation on the terms dictated by the Arab League.
What was astounding about the column is how overwhelmed Friedman was by the proposal. Abudllah’s offer was very specific about its demands on Israel and very nebulous about what was promised to Israel in exchange. There was no unequivocal statement to the effect of “In return for complying with our conditions, the Arab League promises to treat Israel as it does any other nation.” Rather there were questions as to the degree of normalization promised.
What mattered to Friedman, was not how poorly Mubarak, Assad or Qaddafi were persecuting their own people at that time, but whether they were willing to make the Palestinian cause their first priority. It didn’t make a difference that Israel was now fighting a terror war directed by Arafat, Friedman promoted this proposal, which put pressure on Israel, rather than suggesting any alternative that would have pressured the Palestinians to stop their violence.
By promoting the Abdullah proposal, Friedman was normalizing the Arab rejection of Israel. He effectively endorsed the idea that Arab concern for the Palestinians was sufficient reason for them to treat Israel as a pariah. Concern for Arabs in Egypt, Syria, Libya or Saudi Arabia was absent from his writing back then.
Over the years Friedman would sometimes refer to the deficits of the Arab world. To be sure he’d recommend some form of Westernization as a cure for these deficits. Never, though, did Friedman suggest that accepting Israel and eschewing antisemitism would be a necessary step for these countries to take.
So when Thomas Friedman wrote about droughts in the Arab world it is inconceivable that he’d have suggested that Egypt or Libya turn to Israel for help. (Right now even water technology won’t help Syria.) To Friedman Israel is an inconvenience when it comes to the Middle East, not a benefit.