The Media

Thomas Friedman: All Arabs/Muslims/Middle Easterners Are Alike

Soon,Thomas Friedman is going to have to take a spot along with Michelle Malkin and Conrad Burns on my personal list of people who are such absurd caricatures that I can’t bear to write about them any longer. As bad as Friedman’s previous work on the Iraq conflict has been, today’s column engages in a series of stereotypes, broad generalizations, and vapid observations that would make Tony Snow blush. Apparently, solving Iraq and the rest of the problems in the Middle East is easy: all we need to do is believe absurd generalizations about everyone who lives in the region. 

Given this framework, what advice does Tom have for President Bush?

People in the Middle East Are Liars

What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn’t count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Mideast, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.

And Idiots:

If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all

And savages, who fight uncivilized civil wars, unlike Americans:

Civil wars in the Arab world are rarely about ideas — like liberalism vs. communism. They are about which tribe gets to rule. So, yes, Iraq is having a civil war as we once did. But there is no Abe Lincoln in this war. It’s the South vs. the South.

And Irrational, Driven by Ego, Not Logic

The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation. The Israeli-Arab conflict, for instance, is not just about borders. Israel’s mere existence is a daily humiliation to Muslims, who can’t understand how, if they have the superior religion, Israel can be so powerful. Al Jazeera’s editor, Ahmed Sheikh, said it best when he recently told the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche: “It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about seven million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.”

I do find it interesting that Mr. Friedman, a columnist for what was once the most influential newspaper in the United States, can’t rise above sweeping generalizations to advance his argument about Iraq, but it’s even more fascinating that these little cultural tidbits weren’t available to him before the war he so whole-heartedly supported. Maybe this “rule” for President Bush in the Middle East would have been handy before the war: 

Our first priority is democracy, but the Arabs’ first priority is “justice.” The oft-warring Arab tribes are all wounded souls, who really have been hurt by colonial powers, by Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, by Arab kings and dictators, and, most of all, by each other in endless tribal wars.

Give it up, Tom. You were tragically and pathetically wrong about the war. The more you write about it, the more foolish you look.

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  • Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that Friedman was tragically wrong in his support for the war. But tell me something Mr. Montana; do you believe that because he was so wrong about one thing, everything he says is suspect?

    I do think Tom has a valid points in his latest column (which is largely a rehash of his thoughts on Sunday’s Face the Nation) in that the rhetoric that Arab leaders are telling their constituents in their native tongue is radically different from what they tell us when they come to DC. And if you have spent anytime in the region reading local print media you would see that everything, from a water main break, to the Iraq war is often set to the backdrop of some vast Zionist conspiracy.

    Are you really trying to say that the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations are the voices of reason?

    Your hatred for everything about this war has clouded your judgment and impaired your reason. Tom Friedman did spend years reporting from Lebanon. If I had to know about the quality of cafeteria food at Helena High I might listen a bit. But you are way off on this one.

  • You got me. I’m just a teacher. You’re an anonymous commenter on my blog. I guess that deals with the qualification to have an opinion argument.

    Let’s look at your argument, though. You claim that I say that the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East are “voices of reason.” That’s a clever strawperson, but entirely in your head. Made up. Imaginary. It provides cover for your defense of Friedman, though, because you don’t have to confront his absurd generalizations.

    As for the claim that the local media make every news event a Zionist conspiracy, read what Friedman said again. He didn’t say that the media and government are irresponsible; he claimed that to persuade any person from Middle East required the use of conspiracy theory. That’s an enormous difference. Someone as sophisticated as Mr. Friedman might be expected to make a more nuanced case.

    Finally, you claim that my “hatred for everything about this war has clouded [my] judgment and impaired [my] reason.” You caught me. I do hate this war. I hate the idea of people dying because of the lies of their government. I hate that the opinion makers like Friedman have the gall to suggest escalating this war, when they have sacrificed nothing for it.

    P.S.: I might just be a school teacher, but I was certainly a lot more correct about the war than ol’ foreign correspondent Tom, wasn’t I? 🙂

  • Easy, its blogging, not Lincoln Douglas format.

    The big problem that I have with you and the blinded by the war left is that you have lost all power to forgive or even listen to people who were at one time for the war and have seen the error of their ways. My case in point here is, you. You state, ” I hate that the opinion makers like Friedman have the gall to suggest escalating this war, when they have sacrificed nothing for it.” Tell me sir, when since August 6, 2006 has Friedman suggested escalating the war. I’m sure you remember Friedman writing this on that date, “whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, democracy is not emerging in Iraq, and we can’t throw more good lives after good lives.” I’m really afraid the left is going to implode over this war.

    And as far as Friedman’s “Absurd” generalizations are concerned. What ideas are being decided in this Iraq Civil War? Perhaps you take issue with Friedman’s illustration that the difference in Sunni and Shiite are largely tribal, or loosely based on events that took place fourteen hundred years ago. I simply don’t see where that truth can anger you.

  • Why should anyone listen to Friedman’s position on the war when it took him so long to see the plain truth? Why should we listen when he wrote on November 6, 2006:
    ‘Awful” would be carrying out that threat to leave Iraq by a fixed date because Iraqis prove too angry and atomized to reach any deal. The fires of madness now raging in Iraq — people beheading each other, blowing up each other’s mosques — would all intensify.

    It’s probably not fair to say he has called for escalation, though passages like calls for “a renewed surge” are certainly ambiguous enough to leave some doubt.

    The left is going to implode over this war? The last election would seem to suggest just the opposite. The GOP defections from the Bush hard line on the war have just begun.

    My anger at Friedman is not based on his reading of history, though I certainly hope he doesn’t think that the difference between Sunnis and Shiites is a tribal difference.

    My frustration with him is that, after having supported the war, rather than honestly admit his mistake, he is searching for alternative explanations for his error. How could he (and the others who supported the war) not have known these ‘truths’ before the conflict began?

  • Ok one last thing, no matter what you think about Friedman, one of my greatest memories of Donald Rumsfeld was Friedman totally owning him on Face the Nation, take a look, it’s classic.

    Oh and somebody posted a little of Friedman from last Sunday, where he summarized the column we have been talking about during his remarks.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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