Tom Friedman Does Drugs

Tom Friedman is an easy target these days. His nonsense prose (“a genius of literary incompetence”), his wanton calls for “civil war” in the Muslim world, his endorsement of collective punishment in Lebanon ’06 and in Gaza, and so on and so on, ad nauseum.

And all this before he admits to doing drugs: “I’ve been chewing a lot of qat lately, and it makes me dreamy.” Qat, of course, is the leafy euphoric speed-like drug that drains the labor-manpower and water tables of impoverished countries in Eastern Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula — most notably in Yemen, where Friedman was recently visiting.

So, what are his dreams?

After this trip, we learn that Friedman no longer wants a “civil war.” Instead, he’s looking for a democratizing and reforming “big bang” (I hope it’s not this sort of banging, which Friedman also supported) to refute the on-going “meta-narrative” of Western collusion with Arab dictatorial regimes and Israel in order to control Middle Eastern resources.

Paul Woodward, of the excellent War In Context blog, chimes in to tell us that the biggest flaw in Friedman’s desire to overthrow the “meta-narrative” is that — and, holy cow! — it’s actually pretty derned close to the truth:

The problem with viewing the Middle East in terms of competing narratives is that it leads to exactly what Friedman does: present the region’s problems in terms of defective story telling. It discounts the possibility that the most obvious explanation for the iron grip of the so-called meta-narrative is that it provides a fairly good approximation of the truth.

The hold of this story is not a reflection of a weak Arab mind or of limited access to good education but on the contrary the facts that the region is indeed mired by autocratic rule, the West is indeed hugely invested in controlling the region’s carbon resources and the only country in the region towards which the West and especially the United States displays an unswerving loyalty is indeed Israel.

Friedman’s column is focused on a narrative to refute the narrative of 1979 — Islamist fervor says hello with the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Mujaheddin against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iranian Islamic Revolution.

Friedman does note the U.S. and Western role in these events: “And have no illusions, we propelled those trends. America looked the other way when Saudi Arabia Wahabi-fied itself. Ronald Reagan glorified the Afghan mujahedeen and the Europeans hailed the Khomeini revolution in Iran as a ‘liberation’ event.” But, as Woodward notes, he still misses the big picture.

The narrative that Friedman pooh-poohs had a flash point in 1979, but that’s not where its roots lie. Nor has it failed to evolve since then. Iran’s turn started in 1953, when a democratically elected secular government was overthrown by the CIA because of — you guessed it — oil! Where was the U.S. when Afghanistan and Pakistan failed to deal with the Mujaheddin backlash? No oil! The short sightedness of U.S. policy — ditching these countries when their immediate utility had expired — created trust deficits that still play into our tragic involvement there in the present day. Not to even mention that virtually no one in Western officialdom dares to address the 1948 roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Friedman pins his hopes on Iraq’s democracy, still in pediatric ICU and in the midst of ethno-sectarian tensions boiling beneath the surface; Iran’s Green Movement; and “young reformers… in every Arab country.” I doubt, somehow, that any of these groups would invite Friedman and cohort’s advice. Friedman’s globalization — Pizza Huts in India! Democracy bombs in Iraq! — is exactly the kind of imperialism that created the “meta-narrative.”

Friedman looks back into history only as far as he needs to in order to make some coinable drivel or cutesy turn of phrase, and use it to forward some awkward, incoherent prescription of his own (like calling for Drone strikes, while in Yemen chewing qat). Talk about false narratives. I can’t blame him for it, though. As I note again and again (and I feel like I’m the one chewing qat here), Friedman wins Pulitzers, sits on their board, and is the most respected columnist in D.C.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. What an interesting piece. As you are no doubt aware, there exist spiritual movements that explain the reality we experience as the result of the earth being a kind of purgatory, full of madness and bizarre incongruities. The more sensitive among us experience this every day, or at least on those days that Friedman’s column runs.

  2. I agree.
    Yet Friedman writes excellent comments on the policy of ecology, on global warming or weirding, on solar energy etc. – the best I know!

    In 2003 I wondered why he supported the Iraq adventure of the USA:
    He didn’t believe in WMD – indirectly he made that quite clear before March 2003.
    He also assumed lack of competence even before the invasion.

    – Was his basic motive for supporting the war a vague anticipation that Israel might profit from the toppling of a regime so very hostile to Israel?

    I’m not sure, but allow me to speculate: Friedman’s motive to rally for smarter US energy policy may have to do with his fear that too much dependence on oil could endanger the alliance the US-Israel — on the longer run. And to miss the chances of a huge future asset like energy-smart production and energy-smart infrastructure could weaken the USA’s capability to protect Israel in the long run.

    In this (I admit: playful) theory concerning Friedman’s motives I assume that IN THE BRAIN OF THE NUMBER ONE US COLUMNIST EVERYTHING !!! REVOLVES ROUND ISRAEL: He realizes that Israel is on a path toward suicide. He does what he can do to bring US politics to bear for Israel’s survival.

    He is a devoted patriot, indeed. Of Israel.

  3. I’m not sure Friedman is very good on environment or anything. He does less research than I do, generally he goes of MSM headlines for facts. Robert Bryce has a great article on Friedman on energy.

    We’ve been fed a lot of bs related to global warming. I am one who cares, a landscape designer who watches weather closely and who is an avid camper.

    The scientist don’t have an accurate model to predict anything longterm. They haven’t even begun to understand the contributions of sun spots, or many other factors. I am indeed concerned about these matters, and believe we should strive for greater efficiency and reduction of use, and recycling. I am almost all organic.

    There is much we don’t know, and much we can’t know. However, cars are vastly cleaner, no one builds fires for heat, we’ve improved vastly. Yet, there is much that remains to be done. We should strive to do so. Energy is vital to production and development.

    While we wish to have more energy for silly things 300million people have zero access to electricity in India, Pakistan, Brazil, China and Indonesia. Their energy consumption must increase not for i-pods but for clean water, and heat and cooking needs. This will actually be a net benefit because even coal fired plants (India is rich in coal) are more efficient than a Franklin Stove, less polluting.

    Our cities are vastly cleaner than they were. Litter alone has vastly improved. Cars which put out thousands of ppm of CO2 now put out single digits. We’ve come a long way and the work for efficiency will never stop. It’s ever been thus.

    We should craft sensible policies to perhaps simply tax energy even. But, to produce a financial instrument that can be manipulated is what’s been proposed and will be a boon only to Wall St. Ethanol is an utter disaster. Wind power works only 10% of the time. Solar has promise though hasn’t proved to be terribly efficient on a massive scale.

    The solution to energy lies with individuals. Our rooftops could be used for solar panels and could likely off-set peak electricity demand, especially in the South of the country. So long as roof tops are owned by individuals this won’t be pushed as it should. If electric companies could claim them under easements, perhaps that would get rolling.

  4. The problem is not the burning of fossil fuels per se (though we ought to conserve oil in particular, which has other important applications), but population. There are far too many people on earth, most of them striving to reach an American standard of living. Malthus’ timing was off because he couldn’t predict the technological advances that have so far prevented disaster. But just as the housing bubble had to burst at some point, so too must the population bubble. Birth control is an unsexy subject (no pun intended) and a political hot potato. But unless the human population shrinks, the world is in for big trouble.

  5. Jon, I think the solution to this is inherent in the problem. We are experiencing a great global leveling I believe. In a way the American Idea is about to kill this empire and threaten any future empires. Or at least that’s my hopeful narrative.

    Here’s the pessimistic one. If we do indeed experience major instability which would be the inevitable result of the Malthusian nightmare vast numbers of the most developed would perish. If we had power outages of just one to two weeks we could see MANY deaths to cholera, dissentary, and heat stroke/hypothermia.

    I, though born and bred in Dallas get wistful when I hear Hank Williams Jr’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” City folk wouldn’t do well. The most successful would be illegals, and the rural set.

    Anyway, these shocks would certainly ease the Malthusian pressures. This is one of those things like Terrorism and the war on Drugs that the more we do to prevent it will make it that much more formidable.

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