Illuminating Thomas Friedman

A web page on Thomas Friedman, maintained by Farrar, Straux & Giroux, declares that as the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, he is in a "unique position to interpret the world for American readers. Twice a week, Friedman's commentary provides the most trenchant, pithy, and illuminating perspective in journalism."

My quarrel is not with why Friedman is in "a unique position to interpret the world for American readers." That is plain enough: he writes for New York Times, arguably the world's most influential newspaper. But does he provide "the most trenchant, pithy and illuminating perspective" on foreign affairs, on Islam and the Middle East? I have the greatest difficulty with the third adjective. What does his commentary best illuminate: his subject or the biases that he brings to his commentary?

Consider his column, "The Reality Principle," from June 15, 2003. With a quote from an Israeli political theorist, Yaron Ezrahi, he argues that only the United States, "an external force," can rescue the Israelis and Palestinians from their self-destructive war against each other. United States of America is the "only reality principle." Only United States can save the day "with its influence, its wisdom and, if necessary, its troops."

How illuminating is this?

Is United States altogether "an external force" in its dealings with Israel? This is not a subject that any politician or mainstream columnist, concerned for his or her career, can safely bring into the public discourse. It is much safer to take the position that Israel is a client state of the United States, a strategic asset that polices America's friends and foes alike in the oil-rich Middle East. This is also the premise behind Friedman's description of United States as the "only reality principle" in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. 

This notion that Israel merely serves US interests is insupportable. At the least, it ignores three refractory facts. First, if US policy towards Israel is rooted in its national interest, it would be difficult to account for the vigorous activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-one of two most powerful political lobbies in the United States-dedicated to ensuring that the United States remains firmly committed to maintaining Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. Why would American Jewry engage in such a monumentally wasteful exercise? Second, there is the curious fact that United States was deeply concerned, during the two Gulf Wars, to keep its strategic asset out of the war. Third, on the rare occasion when a US President has opposed an official Israeli position, even when this was a mild rebuke, he has run into massive opposition from both parties in the Congress.

There are a few more glittering gems embedded in Mr. Friedman's column. Consider his reason why Israel, though it has the right "pursue its mortal enemies, just as America does," cannot "do it with reckless abandon." "America will never have to live with Mr. bin Laden's children. They are far away and always will be. Israel will have to live with the Palestinians, after the war. They are right next door and always will be." Now that should be illuminating to an America that was "changed for ever" by the events of September 11, an America whose daily nightmare now is the looming threat of another attack on its home ground.

Next, consider Friedman's worries that the Palestinians may be "capable only of self-destructive revenge, rather than constructive restraint and reconciliation." Again, how illuminating that Friedman should exclude Israelis from this anxious train of thought. There is amnesia here too. It is odd (or is it illuminating?) that NYT's foreign affairs columnist forgets some pertinent history. The Palestinians demonstrated seven years of "constructive restraint and reconciliation" between 1993 and 2000, even as the Israelis-in clear violation of the Oslo Accord-continued their colonization of the West Bank, confiscating Palestinian lands, and building and expanding settlements that encircled Palestinian communities. And in the end, what did the Palestinians get for relinquishing their right to 78 percent of historical Palestine? The Israelis made the now-notorious "generous offer" of Palestinian Bantustans. That is when the Palestinians, threatened with extinction, mounted their Second Intifada.

Friedman asserts that on the Israeli side, it is only the "extremist Jewish settlers" who oppose the two-state solution. Does he want us to believe that all the other Israelis, settled inside the green line, do not oppose the two-state solution? Could it be that a small minority of settlers, even when their numbers were microscopic, has imposed its extremist vision on the overwhelming majority of Israelis? How does that happen in the only democracy in the Middle East? Now, isn't that illuminating?

Now, is there a subliminal message in Friedman's discourse on "The Reality Principle?" I think there is one, and it is contained in the last word of his column: troops. The reference is to US troops. Friedman is suggesting-of course, he is only suggesting-that "if necessary" the United States should take its war on "terrorism" to Gaza and the West Bank.

The United States/Israel first chose Yasir Arafat and his "security services" to "discipline their own people." When Arafat "proved unwilling to do that consistently," Bush/Sharon replaced him with Mahmoud Abbas. It now appears that Abbas too may refuse to crush the Palestinian resistance. Of course, the Israelis could finish the job, but it would be too dangerous. As Friedman puts it, "If Israelis try to do it, it [the cancer] will only metastasize." Friedman's solution: offer the job to American troops.

Twice a week Friedman delivers his perorations on the Arabs, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the Middle East and Islamic world more generally. In addition, over the years, as the NYT's regular commentator on the Middle East, he has built a reputation as America's chief opinion-maker on the region. Is that reputation well deserved? Does he offer a balanced, objective, or American perspective on the region? Most Americans, of course, will answer in the affirmative, but I have some nagging doubts. 

In a recent television interview with Charlie Rose-published in the Forward of June 6, 2003-Friedman confesses that "Israel was central to my life as it was to all my friends." He was reminiscing about his years in high school. "Today," he laments, "I'm probably the only one of my friends who is still emotionally involved in Israel." Now, I would not have mentioned this if Friedman were not America's journalistic sage on Arabs and Muslims. However, since he is, isn't this confession pertinent to his sermons on the Middle East: and isn't it illuminating?

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He may be reached at [email protected]. Visit his webpage at M. Shahid Alam

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Older Comments:
This is an excellent discussion of Friedman's hidden partisanship, his pro-Israeli politics, contrary to his image as being moderate or neutral.

A point that could have been made is that Friedman's secret is *packaging* entirely pedestrian, pro-Israeli arguments and propaganda as moderate and thought-provoking insights. He is a master of image over substance. I see him more as an adverstising salesman than a journalist.

Another point that could have been made is Friedman allergy to nuance and complexity. One of the resason he is so accessible and sound bite-friendly is that he makes huge oversimplifications.

BTW, another issue where Friedman is a high-profile apologist for the status quo is globalization. He debated LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE's Ignatio Ramonet in an exchange in FOREIGN POLICY a few years ago. Friedman was full of lively metaphors and witty quips, but short on actual facts. I thought Ramonet crushed him.

HAMMER said:
I think the author is right. Friedman's article is illogical. It is incorrect to say that Israel supports US interests. I think that Israel is a liability to the US. The US spends a lot of taxpayers' money on Israel. Israel sours the US's relations with the Muslim world. The US is a democracy and there is a groundswell of support for Israel. The activities of Jewish groups and AIPAC cannot explain US support for Israel. RAther the groundswell of support comes from the fact that the US is still largely a Christian society. Christians share the Old Testament with the Jews. This means that to Christians and Jews alike, Abraham (or Ibrahim) and Moses (or Musa)were Jews. This means that God gave the land to the Jews. Hence they sympathise with Israel. Of course, to Muslims, Abraham and MOses were Muslims.

tells you how the media is manupilated at the highest level of propagation.

Impartiality in Media was described by none other than Thomas Friedman, the award-winning Foreign Affairs columnist for the New York Times. He honestly revealed this over the opening session of the second Arab Media Summit at Dubai held in April 2002: "I'm paid to have an opinion, paid to be subjective and not objective, I'm paid to be biased, as it were." He spoke on behalf of most of his fraternity.

Read another enlightening article at:

It is a curious fact that dominant American newspapers journals such as the New York Times in spite of recent incidents which cast a pall over the credibility of their news such as the Blair affair, would aggressively market the glaringly biased opinions and allusions of columnists such as Thomas Friedman as salient biblical facts, when the reality is that such opinions are carefully and systematically advertised and glamorized by such American news journals and talk shows, such as 'The Charlie Rose Show'- where Mr. Friedman is a frequent guest, as the standard by which to understand and judge any geo-political situation where American/Israeli interests are at stake.

It distresses one to no end that Americans have surrendered their God given faculties of reasoning and analysis to self professed champions of reality and truth - the rightwing media whose Israeli sympathies and Evangelical tinge is only too evident. One would be hard pressed to find a journalist of the caliber of Bill Moyers of Public Channel 13, whose daring and courageous documentaries are regularly ridiculed by the likes of Hannity and Bill O'Rielly of Fox News, whose 'fair and balanced' credo makes one laugh mirthlessly, when their shamefully biased pro-Israeli reporting and anti-Arab and anti-Islam vitriol make any sensible and fair minded person recoil with unmitigated disgust from the hateful spirit which that American media and such journals so perseveringly evince.

Dear M. Shahid Alam and,
Thank you for your insights and comments that try to follow the revelations expressed in Quran 16:125.

I want to share my thoughts with you concerning the time that Jesus walked this earth 2000 years ago. Then, the Romans occupied the Holy Land. The Jewish Sanhedrin did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and caused the Romans to persecute him. Today, the new Romans (Americans and British) militarily, politically, and/or economically control the Middle East and much of the Moslem world. The Jewish Knesset is persecuting the Palestinians and has fooled the new Romans into persecuting the Moslems around the world and especially here in America. Not much has changed in 2000 years.

Dear M. Shahid Alam and,
Thank you for your insights and comments that try to follow the teachings of Quran 16:125.

I want to share my thoughts with you concerning the time that Jesus walked this earth 2000 years ago. The Romans occupied the Holy Land. The Jewish Sanhedrin did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and caused the Romans to persecute him. Today the new Romans (Americans and British) militarily, politically, and/or economically control the Middle East and much of the Moslem world. The Jewish Knesset are persecuting the Palestinians and have fooled the new Romans into persecuting the Moslems around the world and especially here in America. Not much has changed in 2000 years.

I agree with Hacene Haouas' comment.
I do respect Charley Reese.His article in Middle East conflict(Road Map To Nowhere)dated June 20,2003 illuminates the hole story in middle east.

Mr. Alam is very perceptive regarding the contributions of experts such as Mr. Friedman. The experts used by the media in the USA are generally biased, and the words used to define the issues at hand generally frame the discussion within limits that exclude the history and experience of those not favored by the media.

The inescapable reality is that much of the mainstream media in US or I should say much of the media in the US is Jewish owned or controlled. Even so-called conservative publications are really controlled by the likes of William Kristol etc. As long as America continues to let a very small minority control its entire media, it will continue to be manipulated to pursue a policy in the middle-east that may ultimately prove to be suicidal for the US.

A very illuminating article indeed.America is full of experts on the middle east.You just have to put yor T.V.on or read any news paper.The true experts will never be consulted by the media because they make too much sens and they tell the truth just ask "Faux news" the fair and balance one.Please keep up the true illuminating work Thank you.

I read many of the comments put forward by people who read the article and I have one thing to say: I am sick and tired of people blaming the US media for everything that is happening. Some of you are saying the media brainwashes the American public,American media are Pro Israel, really!!And things like that. I say the public let itself to be brainwashed because it is more convenient that way. Just accept their version of the truth and you can go about your daily life as usual. Hay who wants to accept responsibility for thousands of people who are killed everyday around the world just to keep the American economy and interests going. Who wants to admit, "It is your tax dollar that supports this vast army". Who wants to ......?
No it is not the New York Times or CNN or CBS or .... . It is every one who pays tax to this criminal government, and they have the audacity to talk about the actions of this government

Asalamu Alikum,
Well-writtne article illustrating how Americans are deceived everyday by so-called objective writers. One mistake, though. The authore writes that Palestinians had to relinquish their right to 78 percent of historic Palestine. It was actually 22 percent. After the partition, Israel got 78 and Palestinians received 22.

The tragedy is that Mr Friedman is seen as a moderate jewish american voice which means that
we are supposed to take what he says as more than
what most other Jews will offer to Muslims and Arabs especially in Palestine.
In reality,Mr Friedman and many others grow because Arabs and muslims have lost the battle for world opinion and before that have lost what's even more important :self respect and the respect of other nations.
Do not be surprised when you see and hear lies
about Arabs and Muslims in the media,we make that
possible when we let our nations be ruled by dictators and corrupt regimes and when we allow
ourselves to hate our fellow Arabs and Muslims
and even ally with outsiders against our brothers.
For now,the best reposnse to Mr Friedman and his likes is hard work and smart politics,may be then
we will manage to get someone in the new York Times who can see beyond his nose.

It is no secret that most American Media are strogly pro-Israel and people like Friedman is no exception. However, I am impressed about your well though and written article about Friedman. That sends a powerful message that you can't be a double agent. I believe that it is essential Muslims have people like you who would give a powerful answer in the Massmedia! Congratualtions and keep up the good work.

I never considered Mr.Thomas Friedman an honest broker for the Muslim & Israel conflict. I think Muslim should be very suspicious of his intentions, and recommendations in his articles/ or TV shows. The only reason he is advocating two states Israel, and Palestinian side by side is the prediction that the Muslims Arabs will out number the Jewish population in the next 4 years. Democracy as taught in the west, practiced in Israel ?( Big question Mark there) will give the Majority, and self determination to the Muslim in their land.

Salaam Alaikum,

Unfortunately, I would have to disagree with this article. I think this is the 1st article I do not agree with. Yes! there are times when he sounds "American" but give this guy some credit. He does have different views. If anyone has gone thru "From Beirut to Jerusalem" , they would know what type of guy Tom is. In that Book, he talks about the good side and the dark side about both the cultures , Arabic and Jewish. Infact, if you read his book with an open mind, you might feel that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and or "Terrorist" organizations are not that "terrorists" after all. It made me think of a key question, Is the PLO and IJ and Hammas fighting for "God" ? Majority of them are fighting for Palestine, some in revenge some for political reasons and some truly for the love of God.

I am a fan of this guy, but that does not mean I would agree with him all the time. Should there be a US force in Palestine? NO! Should there be a UN force? YES!

I personally think that Muslim Journalists should also strive hard like Tom to do Objectiev reporting in our and their societies.


Thanks for your illuminating commentary on Friedman. Too often "Islamic" experts who are biased against Islam are chosen by media. the Muslims who are Islamic experts are deliberately ignored.
I highly appreciate your comments in this article.

Mr. Alam,
I am quite impressed by your well thought-out article. I am also proud of you and your accomplishments as an economics professor. The story of Palestine has affected my life since childhood. There is not a day that goes by and I do not think and ponder about the fate of the Palestinians. Thomas Friedman at times disgusts me because of his manifest biases against the Arabs and the Muslims in general. I refuse to buy his books because of his slanted view on the Muslim world. I think he is doing the American public a huge disservice of a proportion like no other for two reasons. First, he does not speak fluent Arabic. Second, he has never lived in an Arab state. Therefore, he is not qualified to give his opinion no matter what his credentials are. Not being able to speak Arabic is a handicap in and of itself. How in the world can we have him as a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs? This is, my friends and I find, quite revolting.
Thank you for you insight.

A well writtn article that covers important issues and facts.
The problem is, the US has too many journalists in the mould of Friedman. Is it any wonder that its so pro-israeli biased?


Very good article, indeed! This time i'm just going to let the article speak for itself before making any comments...I'll comment again later against those trolls who come on this website and post their brainwashing comments, just to balance things out again.

Brother Shahid, more articles like this for sure in the future, Jazak-Allah Khairan!


Excellent article. Friedman should return his pullitzer, he is unworthy of it.
Its always amusing to see who Zionist jews owe their alligence to.

Adopting such an openly polemic attitude is not a good way to criticize the capacity of judgment of another writer. I see nothing in Shahid Alam's prose that can viably oppose Thomas Friedman's views. For example, to boast that "Palestinians demonstrated seven years of constructive restraint and reconciliation between 1993 and 2000" is subject to objection to say the least and doesn't exactly contribute to a constructive debate.
Now, what Thomas Friedman is saying is that an external force could be necessary in Palestine for imposing the formation of a Palestinian state in spite of the Hamas. Is that really worse, for the Palestinians, than the attacks of Israel's army among them or the complete failure of yet another peace plan? Why? The whole thing smells like an old grievance which has sparked and now is maintaining hatred.

assalamualaikum W.b.t dear prof.
I'm very pleased at your writing because jihad of the pen and critical analysis is very powerful. Allah has given you the gift, patience and mind to study intelligently, then comapare and contrast with what you already discoverd, understood and realized into this wonderful observation of yours. May Allah bless you. Thank you.

Jazak Allah Khair ! for this article.

Well witten article. Having that much insight how come you are not getting coverage in main-stream media?
This is very tough to write positive if everything you see is only the nagative.