Washington D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat- New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman talks to Asharq Al-Awsat on the situation in Iraq, his views on the Middle East and his journalistic writing process.
The Following is the full text of the interview:
Q: Let us start with your position on Iraq, you were in favor of going to war while ‘The New York Times’, which is liberally inclined was against the war – how has that affected your readership?
A: Have you actually read my columns before the war? We should not look at things in black or white, i.e. either ‘for’ the war or ‘against’ it. Let us talk accurately about my columns. My columns before the war were really complicated. They showed someone struggling between his belief and hope for the process of democratization in the Arab world and how hard it would be to achieve that. Before the war let us remember what the debate was regarding the Arab world; the French position was that the Arab world was not capable of democracy. However, I had a different view. I believe that starting the process of democratization was important in the heart of the Arab / Muslim world.
But on the other side, I had covered the war in Lebanon and I knew about the Shia and the Sunnis, I didn’t just discover that [issue] last year. This is where you see the other side of my column, which is that it would be very difficult to achieve democratization in the Arab world, which would take a lot of patience and we should not go down that track without allies and time.
Q: How did readers react to your position?
A: Some of my readers understood that, some of the readers don’t understand that. I’m not a ‘neo-con’. I never believed in the WMD argument. For me it was all about creating that opportunity. My view was that George Bush is going to lead this war. I had two choices; to lay my body down in front of him and to take a very moral and noble position, which many of my colleagues did or, as he was going launch this war anyway, I could use my voice to direct this war in the right way then that would be worthwhile because it would have been a right war in the right way.
Q: So you believe you were put on the same bandwagon as the rest of the journalists who hailed the war?
A: Exactly! I’ve been lumped in the same category as people who I completely disagree with. I’ve been a critic of the way the war has been conducted from the first day. My first column that I had written two weeks after the war started, do you know what it was called? It was entitled ‘Hold your Applause’ and the day it was published was the day Saddam Hussein’s statue fell!
Q: Many people look at your column as a thermometer to gauge what is happening. I know the situation in Iraq is complicated even to strategists and military experts; however, there has been criticism about your analysis. There has been this whole debate about your use of the term, ‘the next six months will make or break it.’ What do you think went wrong with your reading of the situation?
A: I wish someone could tell me what I should have written! Should I have declared that after six months this was a complete failure? Maybe I should have but would that have been correct? Should I have said, well there had been an election but who cares because we can’t actually see whether they can actually get a government together and whether that government would function. Would that have been the right journalistic thing to do?
What I was waiting for was to see if there would be an elected government that could function. I drew the conclusion a year ago that it was time for plan B. I didn’t need to see any more time periods. When I concluded that it just wasn’t working and that my skepticism over here had triumphed over my hope, I wrote. I wrote that what I hoped for isn’t working.
Q: Despite the fact that this is intended as a media interview, politics dominate over everything which leads me to ask; in your opinion how do you see the situation ending in Iraq?
A: The truth is I don’t know. I am worried. It makes me really sad. I would describe the situation like Russia after communism. My hope for that part of the world is that if you’re a generation that grew up under democracy as opposed to that, then you can really begin a long-term process of changing politics in that part of the world.
The reason I don’t like to give media interviews. [is because] There is an underlying reality. Let us look at Iraq this week. How many people wrapped themselves in dynamite and blew themselves up in a market, near a school, hospital. I don’t think that that is just a product of the American occupation and pardon me for this. I think that that is the product of a severely troubled civilization right now. If we are not talking about [that], if it’s just a media story, I’m sorry but I wont be part of that. To me there is an underlying issue. 9/11 didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened because of a context and you have to talk about that context.
Q: It is very easy for the Arab media to blame the ‘Other’ for the problems in the Arab world, what is your view on this matter?
A: Yes, and in our part of the world, it is very easy to just say you were just spun. Anyone who reads my column would see that I was really wrestling with what I thought was the underlying issue, which I call the “the wheel of Bin Laden”. This could [be] defined as when autocratic anti-democratic regimes empower anti-modernists, religious leaders and educators and so basically the deal in so many of these countries is that those religious leader[s] bless those regimes and the regime blesses them with official titles and money and the people are kept out of it.
Those anti-modernists, religious leaders and educators ensure that the education system remains backwards and that Islam does not embrace modernity. All this produces young people who really aren’t able to realize their full aspirations in a modern and ‘flat’ world [a reference to Friedman’s book ‘The World is Flat’]. Then, the anger and the frustration of those young people is taken by the regimes and directed towards America, Israel and outsiders and away from them. Thus, the wheel of Bin Laden goes round and round and that’s how I look at that part of the world.
So, pardon me if I said let’s find a way to break that wheel and actually get a way for a region that was ruled by vertical monologue, colonial powers and actually produce the first horizontal dialogue where the people of an Arab country could write its own social contract.
I thought that if you could do [that] in the hardest place of all, Iraq, it would mean that democratization might be possible in other places. So pardon me if I didn’t think that the wheel of Bin Laden would be a good thing for my Arab friends, for the Arab world, for the world, in which my daughters will grow up. So I actually thought about that and I said it’s a really high risk and I thought about all the risks and dangers but its high opportunity, if we can pull this off the right way then we could tilt this region in the right direction. You know what? I make no apologies. Next time I will be a good Frenchman, I will believe that Arabs are incapable of democracy.
Q: You just paved the way for my next questions, you know that many people in the Arab world despise your viewpoints, how do you deal with that?
A: I would love for you to come with me some time to the Arab world and see how people react to me when they see me. As you know, my picture is published along with my articles in Arabic in your newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat and they also see me on Arabic satellite channels, they stop and they say to me ‘Mr. Friedman, please keep doing what you are doing, you say what we feel.’
I am also not under the illusion that what is written in a lot of these official newspapers really reflects the real view of the entire people of that region. I think a lot of people there actually understand that I am on their side. Whatever I say and whatever I write, it is because I want them to succeed not because of contempt and there is a lot of that here. I lived in Lebanon for five years and it was some of the happiest years of my life.
I’ve known the friendship and the diversity and the richness in that part of the world and that is why I want it to succeed, perhaps more than it itself wants to succeed and that may be what I got wrong.
Q: In terms of your column, where do you get your ideas and how do you approach it?
A: Well I start my day by reading the BBC website; I like to get my news from non-American sources and I have a lot of respect for the BBC and I believe that its global news coverage in terms of television and radio is second to none. Then I read ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Washington Post’ websites and I also look at the ‘Financial Times’ online. I also read ‘The Economist’. Then I would go to the office and the rest depends. For example, today, I had breakfast with Craig Mundie; he is the man who will be taking over from Bill Gates as the head of Microsoft. Then I came to meet you. I think it’s really important that I am out there answering questions, particularly for the Arab press.
By the way, it is very important that Asharq Al-Awsat publishes my column to a non-English speaking audience through a respected publication because that allows me to reach an audience that I wouldn’t usually be able to reach.
Q: But how do you get ideas for your columns?
A: Today I will have lunch with the former foreign minister of Jordan, Marwan al Muasher who is now at the World Bank and I will ask him, ‘what shall I believe?’ If you asked me about what’s on my mind right now it’s what do I believe. Do I believe in the necessity, opportunity and hope for more [a] accountable government [in Iraq]? I know democracy will not come overnight in that part of the world. What should I believe in? Should we go back to the generals? Isn’t that what got us the wheel of Bin Laden in the first place?
I am thinking to get Iyad Allawi on the phone to ask him. This is how I work. I start by giving my thoughts. In the end, how can I tell you what to believe if I don’t know what I believe myself?
Q: What other sources do you rely on for information?
A: I have my ‘brain trust’, a group of people that I really trust and I test ideas on and I am always talking to. For example, what I did with Craig Mundie this morning is test one of my columns.
What Arab media do you regularly follow?
Unfortunately, my Arabic is not strong enough, so I rely on translations. I get an Arabic translation service from London, and I also use the Israeli MEMRI service. Between the two I get a pretty balanced view.
Q: You have your column; you write books and recently started working on documentaries, how many people assist you in achieving all of these things?
A: Just my assistant who you have met, I do my own research and work on my own ideas. There is also ‘Google’ (smiles).
Q: I am not sure if you are aware that there is a myth of the ‘Thomas Friedman Research Team’ that allegedly does all the work for you and you just ‘edit’ the material for your column?
A: (Laughing) God, I wish! You are here (in my office); do you see the ‘Thomas Friedman Team’ anywhere? You are welcome to stay here all day in case they show up. Seriously, I do all the work… I am working all the time, on planes; on trains… I take no time off.
Q: On the subject of myths; there is another one that says you are always getting ‘leaks’ from government sources?
A: I have been writing since 1995, which means I published about a thousand columns. Let us go through those 1,000 columns and I will give you USD $100 for every one that quotes a ‘senior administration official’, if you give me USD $100 for every one that quotes someone by name.
Q: Should I be worried that this will be costly for me?
A: I will not say never, but I will say I almost never quote anonymous sources, it is my column – why would I give it to any one else? By the way there is another myth, which is that I go around the world interviewing world leaders… again, all my columns are out there, how many of them are with world leaders? There is certainly one with the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, but other than that I am not too sure what number two is. What I want to say is, you have myths and you have reality.
Q: Since you mentioned King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, what is the ‘story behind the story’ of your interview with him four years ago in which he disclosed to you his peace initiative, now the Arab Peace Initiative?
A: The whole story began at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2002, which was being held in New York in honor [commemoration] of what happened in 2001 (September 11 attacks). I was talking to a Moroccan official and I was asking, “why doesn’t the Arab world draft a peace initiative, a full peace proposal?”
Later, I had coffee with my friend (Arab League Secretary-General) Amr Moussa; we disagreed on a few things and agreed on other[s]. I suggested that I write a letter from George Bush to the Arab World and Moussa said, ‘You should do that’, so I did and write a column in the form of a letter from George Bush to the Arab League.
Then I went to Saudi Arabia and met Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah. We were at his home at 2:00 am; it was just him, Adel al Jubair, who is now the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and me. We talked about the initiative idea and King Abdullah said, ‘as if you have been into my office and into my drawer’. Then he talked about it and laid it all out.
Initially, King Abdullah wanted it attributed to ‘a Saudi official’ but then I said that it would only have [an] impact if he puts his name on it. So, he thought about it for a day and then agreed. After that the column was published and I got out of the picture.
Q: I remember many were confused, especially since the news broke out in the form of a column rather than an interview. You also kept a low profile after that, why is that?
A: There were many Saudis who were even shocked; I just thought that because I really wanted this to work I had to get out of the picture. I did not want to make this about ‘The New York Times’ or me, a Jewish columnist, because I did not want to give anyone ammunition to de-legitimize it. I really thought all credit should go to the real author… King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz.
Q: Do you know that this has turned you into a ‘school’ in the eyes of many when it comes to professional column writing?
A: My rule is ‘If you do not go, you will not know’. The best opinions come from reporters and the best columnists were field reporters originally.