Thomas Friedman

What makes the Timesman a great columnist? Not that peace proposal.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

As everyone knows by now, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia used Thomas Friedman’s Feb. 17 New York Times column to outline his vision for Arab-Israeli peace: Arab states would offer full diplomatic relations to Israel if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories to its 1967 boundaries. The proposal—though incredibly vague and though certainly a PR gesture to restore Saudi Arabia’s reputation here—has been greeted as the only sign of hope in the ghastly war between Israel and the Palestinians. President Bush welcomed it, other Arab leaders have signaled interest, and even Israeli leaders—who suspect it’s pure PR—have sniffed curiously at it. (Friedman, who’s not famed for his modesty, hasn’t written or talked much about the Abdullah proposal since airing it. Here’s why he’s silent.)

Now that princes are testing peace proposals in Friedman’s column, it’s tempting to start comparing him to Walter Lippmann or Joe Alsop. After all, this diplomacy-by-newsprint is the kind of activism that was savored by old-school columnists. Friedman certainly seemed flattered that he and the Saudi prince had had the same idea for peace in the Middle East. The Saudi trial balloon suggests that he is the kind of newspaperman whose columns are dictated by whichever foreign-policy grandee called him that day.

In fact, the Abdullah affair has nothing to do with why Friedman has become the most important opinion journalist in America. Since Sept. 11, thanks to his column and numerous TV appearances, Friedman has emerged as the best explainer of how the United States should relate to the Arab, Muslim, and Israeli worlds. This is not because of ideology, or rhetorical brilliance, or even analytical power, but because of his gritty, intimate knowledge of the places he is writing about.

Before Sept. 11, Friedman’s twice-weekly column was steady but not spectacular. He proselytized about globalism (the subject of his last book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree), criticized missile defense, and had many kind words for the European Union. He was a maybe-read, not a must.

But Friedman, who’s 48, spent five years in Beirut for the Times and five more in Jerusalem (winning a Pulitzer in each city). For most of his journalistic career, Friedman thought about nothing but Arabs, Muslims, and Israelis. Sept. 11 reunited him with his one true love.

Friedman, who has always reported more than most columnists, has been a beaver since Sept. 11. He has made six overseas trips to 13 countries, including every important nation in the Middle East and Central Asia. It’s a good bet that since Sept. 11, Friedman has traveled more in the region and talked to more relevant people than any American official (or, for that matter, journalist). Friedman builds his columns on the details of this reporting. “I’m not smart enough to smoke a pipe, put on a cardigan, and throw down thunderbolts,” he says. Many reporters have all the facts, and many columnists have a pugnacious and bossy temperament: Friedman is the rare journalist who has both.

Friedman’s principal task since Sept. 11 has been explaining the failures of the Islamic world. Why did Saudi Arabia spawn Osama Bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers? Why is anti-Americanism so rampant in the Middle East? Why do so many Arabs and Muslims sympathize with Bin Laden? And what can we do about all this? Friedman, drawing on his reporting trips, has argued that the anti-democratic, authoritarian Arab regimes—notably our “friends” Egypt and Saudi Arabia—have encouraged anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism to prevent popular dissent. The Arab world obsesses over its grievances and relies on oil wealth rather than developing decent educational systems and build strong economies. Angry young men embrace radical Islam rather than heed their corrupt, bankrupt governments. The United States, Friedman insists, must stop coddling our friendly Arab dictators and demand openness, rule of law, better education, and more democracy. Globalization can drag these nations into the Lexus world, but only if their citizens reject the atavistic hatred and grudges that now shackle them.

Friedman’s columns, which are widely distributed in the Middle East, have enraged Egyptians and Saudis. It’s no accident that Abdullah chose Friedman as the conduit for his proposal. If the Saudis can mollify Friedman, their most persuasive and fierce critic, then their American public image might well improve.

Since Sept. 11, Friedman has demonstrated an admirable knack for making friends of his enemies and enemies of his friends. He has long been tolerated in the Arab world because he condemns Israeli settlement building and because he exposed Israel’s culpability in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres. For the same reasons, the Israeli and American Jewish right-wing detested him as a traitor, calling him “anti-Zionist.” Some right-wing Jewish leaders have suggested he shouldn’t be invited to speak to Jewish audiences, because he’s an enemy of the Jewish people. But these days, Friedman’s criticism of Arab regimes and Yasser Arafat has endeared him to Israelis and American Jews and cost him in the Arab world.

Unlike the Olympian columnists of yore, Friedman is an unabashed populist. He’s not much of a stylist. He endlessly repeats favorite themes: How many “open letters from blah to blah” can one columnist write? No philosophical foundation girds his work. He doesn’t quote Spengler or Gibbon. Friedman, a Minnesotan, is a proud small-d democrat (and probably large-D Democrat, too). He epitomizes the middle-browing of the Times.

But this does not mean his writing lacks power. Friedman’s skill is that he speaks in the voice of Madison Avenue. He’s effective not because he sounds like a historian, but because he sounds like an advertisement. Friedman has no ideas that can’t be expressed in a catchphrase. His work is salted with slogans and phrases in capital letters. They are gimmicky, too simple, and extremely useful. Some don’t stick: What is “Globalution,” a favorite term from his recent book The Lexus and the Olive Tree? But many do, and they are why Friedman lasts. He changed the way many Americans think about Arab governments with the phrase “Hama Rules,” his description of how Arab leaders ruthlessly extinguish dissent. “The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” which argued that countries with McDonald’s restaurants (that is, middle-class countries) don’t go to war against each other, is incredibly popular. “Fast World” and “Slow World,” his terms for understanding globalism, are memorable.

Friedman’s post-9/11 refrains are beginning to circulate, too. “Yes, but,” his term for Arab ambivalence about the 9/11 attacks, was quoted back to me repeatedly by admirers. Friedman lectured the Saudis that they need to train and educate their own citizens by drilling “human oil wells.” His line that America wants Osama Bin Laden “dead or dead” is snappy and vivid.

One of Friedman’s most appealing qualities is his essential pragmatism. Friedman is sometimes linked with Robert Kaplan, the other famous pop analyst of the Middle East and globalization. Kaplan is pessimistic and hopeless, believing that religious divisions, ethnic rage, and ancient hatreds inevitably doom most of the world to chaos. Kaplan’s idea of foreign policy sometimes seems to be a shrug and an M-16.

But Friedman has not an ideological bone in his body. He is willing to try anything. Some critics think that makes him a weathervane. But there is a more charitable view. In a region of persistent hatreds, a certain flexibility is necessary. Consider Friedman’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over the past two years. Friedman was a staunch supporter of the 2000 Camp David accords. They didn’t happen. When the Palestinians launched their recent, suicidal intifada, Friedman floated the idea that Israel hand over the occupied territories to NATO. That didn’t go anywhere. Now the situation is even more dismal, but Friedman has moved on to another idea. The Abdullah plan is sketchy, it’s got zillions of problems, and it’s probably doomed. It’s not even new: It’s practically the same plan that Saudis pitched unsuccessfully 20 years ago, and again 10 years go. But still, Friedman refuses to give up. If at first you don’t succeed, then write, write again.