Thomas Friedman - Imperial Messenger

by David Wearing

A review of a book that critically analyses the work of Thomas Friedman, leading advocate of neoliberal ideology and supporter of Western militarism

First published: 07 May, 2012 | Category: 

The Imperial Messenger – Thomas Friedman At Work, by Belén Fernández, Verso, 2012

Why, in the midst of a historically severe depression caused by a crisis in the least regulated part of the private sector, is the political class of the global north prioritising an assault on the free-market bogeyman of “big government”? Why, after a decade of military disasters in Western Asia, are so many prominent voices advocating a military response to the non-existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iran? One answer is that the material interests of class and state power are reinforced by an intellectual culture which advocates policies that serve those interests, irrespective of “externalities” such as the costs to the non-powerful. Power and wealth use the louder voice they can afford to drown out dissent and hardwire a set of assumptions, a conventional wisdom, a conceptual framework into the political discourse, which will tend to produce the same answers irrespective of the question, or the facts. It follows then, for those of us who choose to challenge power, that undermining, critiquing and disrupting that conventional wisdom is a vital task – a prerequisite to persuading the general public that another world is possible.

Few single voices play a greater role in propagating the dogmas of neoliberalism than Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and leading columnist on international affairs for the world’s leading English-language newspaper, the New York Times. In his articles and books, Friedman articulates a world view firmly grounded in the core assumptions of the dominant ideology. Corporate-dominated capitalism is seen as a progressive force for the general good, Western civilisation is taken to be obviously superior, and Western military power is viewed as a benign actor, securing and extending the reach of that civilisation. What Edward Said described as the “comic philistinism of Friedman’s ideas” is unavoidable. But so too, unfortunately, is their reach and significance. In engaging with Friedman’s body of work, and subjecting it to forensic critical analysis, Belén Fernández has produced a book that is sometimes entertaining, sometimes horrifying in what it exposes, always readable, always thought-provoking, and of clear political importance.


At one level, Fernández’s job is made easy by Friedman himself, whose writing style borders on the self-satirising. His penchant for cringe-inducing, quasi-corporate-speak reflects a lack of both substance and coherence, roughly forcing the world into clunky and simplistic concepts. “Two hundred pages into The World Is Flat”, Fernández notes, “Friedman defines Globalization 1.0 as the era in which he was required to physically visit an airline ticket office in order to make his travel arrangements – whereas, according to the definition he provides at the start of the book, Globalization 1.0 ended around the year 1800”.

Friedman’s critics are unavoidably drawn to his difficulties with logical consistency, and his illiterate use of imagery and metaphors. In his brilliant review of Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat”, Matt Taibbi quotes the following passage:

“The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been--but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.”

Taibbi comments as follows:

“How the fuck do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to the point, why would you open a window in a fallen wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they left the windows floating in place to be opened? Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?”

Fernández produces a fresh example of Friedmanesque nonsense along these lines every two or three pages, which focus on the laughably absurd also serves to emphasise by contrast the altogether less amusing aspects of his output.

Friedman is incoherent. Friedman is also wrong, often catastrophically, as in his proud declaration of 2005: “it is obvious to me that the Irish-British [economic] model is the way of the future”. Friedman the visionary also treats us to his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” which holds that “no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its own McDonald’s”. Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006 did little to reinforce the “theory”, and nor did the war between NATO and Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, which Friedman then attempts to dismiss as “not even a real war” despite having said at the time that “like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation”.

Friedman is incoherent, Friedman is wrong, and Friedman is prejudiced, holding some truths to be simply self-evident with blithe, unrepentant disregard for the facts. He proudly admits that “I wrote a column supporting the Caribbean Free Trade initiative [sic]. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade”. To be strictly accurate, Friedman didn’t know what was in it, what the “Central American Free Trade Agreement” was called, or even what geographical region it applied to.

Occasionally, one is almost moved to pity by the spectacle of a grown man perpetually baffled that the world does not conform to his preconceived ideas. In Brussels in 1999, he is confronted with the sight of “a Russian journalist, circling the Coke machine, under the CNN screen, speaking Russian into a cell phone, in NATO headquarters, while Kosovo burned – my mind couldn’t contain all the contradictions”. Later, the discovery in Kuwait City of the female owner of an internet café reduces the New York Times’ leading columnist to a quivering wreck:

“Look, I’m a little confused. Do the math for me. You are wearing an Islamic head covering, you are obviously a religious person, but you were educated in an American university and now you are bringing the Internet to Kuwait. I don’t quite see how it all adds up”.

It is when the bigotry in Friedman’s lazy thinking becomes unavoidable that the smile falls from the readers face, as when Fernández quotes his statement that “to be a French educated Arab intellectual is the worst combination possible for understanding globalization. It is like being twice handicapped”. The sinister side to Thomas Friedman is never far from the surface, and nothing brings it so comprehensively to the fore as the sight of his beloved Western militaries engaged in armed conflict.

Friedman speaks of war, from safe distances, with flippant displays of machismo (“give war a chance”), accompanied by repeated advocacy of tactics that – in aim and effect – are tantamount to state terrorism. In 1999, he recommends that Serbia be subjected to “sustained”, “unreasonable” and “less than surgical bombing” to prevent the people of Belgrade from going on “Sunday merry-go-round rides, while their fellow Serbs are ‘cleansing’ Kosovo”. The message to the Serbs was this: “Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverising you. You want 1950? We can do 1950? You want 1389? We can do 1389 too”. The aim was to create “a new Serbian ethic that understands how to live in 21st century Europe”, which exalted state is apparently characterised by holding an entire people responsible for the crimes of their government, and then punishing them with enough “less than surgical bombing” to send their country back six centuries. Presumably Friedman had worked himself up into such a state of excitement at this point that he was unable to reflect on whether this mentality distinguished him, in any real moral sense, from the likes of Slobodan Milosevic.

On Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, Friedman says that in order to effect “the education of Hezbollah….the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians – the families and employers of militants – to restrain Hezbollah in the future”. This was essentially a reflection of Israel’s own intentions. At the time, retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft described the goal of the campaign as to "create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters", the message being "If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land".  Of course, Israel did much worse to Lebanese civilians during that summer than switch off their air-conditioning and prevent them from going shopping. All with the apparent intention of communicating a political message through the medium of “less than surgical” violence.


In a similar vein, Friedman announces on a US talk show in 2003 that the reason for the invasion of Iraq was the need to burst a “terrorism bubble” that had emerged in “that part of the world”:

“We needed to go over there, basically, um, and….take out a very big stick, um, right in the heart of, of that world… What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, um, and basically saying: “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society; you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well. Suck. On. This

The presence of “girl” American troops presumably appears as a signifier of enlightenment in the Friedman universe, even as he advocates the collective punishment of Iraqi men, women and children (“house to house”). Again, it is not those actually responsible for the crime of 9/11 so much as their entire demographic group (defined loosely to the point of absurdity) that is to be held responsible. For Friedman, the US “coulda hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of the bubble. Coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth”. In principle, any Muslim country seems to suffice for house-to-house, gender-balanced US state-terrorism, with a Shia family in Basra qualifying as punishable for the crimes of a handful of Wahhabi fanatics, mostly from Saudi Arabia, on the grounds that they inhabit the same “bubble fantasy” (a phrase born of a tragic lack of self-awareness).

It’s worth pausing for a moment to note the resemblance between the sexualised humiliation of “suck on this” and the horrific images from the American torture chamber of Abu Ghraib. And while Friedman was doubtless as sickened by that episode as anyone else, his slanderous essentialising of whole ethnic and religious groups, his “othering” of them, his casual indulgence in violent revenge fantasies, and his sustained, high-profile, macho warmongering can hardly have served as counterveiling forces, decreasing the chance that such horrors might occur sooner or later. This is what is at stake when you play a leading role in forming the political discourse of the age.

Friedman uses the demographic make-up of the US armed forces rank-and-file to illustrate his view of American militarism as essentially a force for progress . The presence of women is invoked, despite the high-prevalence of unreported sexual assaults in the military suggesting that its status as an agent of women’s liberation is perhaps not all that it could be. And the multi-ethnic character of US troops is repeatedly referenced, despite the glaringly obvious fact that multicultural Thomas Friedman himself harbours a not-entirely-enlightened view of Arabs and Muslims.


Friedman puts the Iraqi public’s failure to appreciate the benefits of foreign occupation down to “the wall in the Arab mind”. As Fernández notes, “the Orientalist tendency to anchor Oriental subjects in antiquity, where they remain in perpetual need of civilisation by the West and its militaries, is viewable time and again in Friedman’s discourse”. Arabs and Muslims are “backward”. Iraqis “hate each other more than they love their own kids”. Shortly after the invasion of 2003, he opines that “it would be idiotic to even ask Iraqis here how they felt about politics. They are in a pre-political, primordial state of nature”.

For the American missionaries, the noble mission of raising the savages out of the swamp is not without its dangers. “While we would like an Iraqi national movement – building Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis – to coalesce, we don’t want it coalescing in opposition to us”. Evidently then there is a limit to which even this staunch advocate of enlightened Western values will support democracy, the limit being whether the liberated people then bow before the might of western power.

All of this would be of limited relevance were Friedman an isolated figure, rather than the ugly face of ideas and assumptions which have a much wider currency. His complaint that American occupying forces in Iraq “are baby-sitting a civil war” is a direct echo of Barack Obama’s promise during the 2007 presidential election campaign that “we're not going to babysit a civil war”, as though the bloodbath engulfing the country was attributable to the infantilism of its people and not to the effects of it being violently invaded by a foreign power. Elsewhere, Friedman’s likening of the US occupation of Afghanistan to the adoption of a “special needs baby” bears more than a passing resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld’s description of Washington’s role in teaching Iraqis how to run their own country:

“Getting Iraq straightened out was like teaching a kid to ride a bike: 'They're learning, and you're running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you're just barely touching it. You can't know when you're running down the street how many steps you're going to have to take. We can't know that, but we're off to a good start.”

The flip side of this casual racism is of course the chauvinistic view of the nature of Western civilisation; the paternal figure to the Iraqi and Afghan infants. For Friedman, “without a strong America holding the world together, and doing the right thing more often than not, the world really would be a Hobbesian jungle”, a faith in the benevolence of Western power which is shared right across the spectrum of mainstream intellectual opinion. 


Given that Friedman becomes enthused to a state of unreasoning arousal by physical displays of Western power, it should come as no surprise that, notwithstanding the pretence of his claimed liberal democratic values, he also finds himself drawn to certain autocratic rulers. "Frankly, I have a soft spot for Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who is a man of decency & moderation", admits our champion of modernity, in reference to the man who is now monarch of one of the most viciously repressive regimes in the world. Elsewhere, Friedman describes Bahrain as a “progressive state” with a “progressive king” and an “innovative Crown Prince” who he has “known and liked for many years”. The fact that these forces of innovation and progressive governance have spent the last year violently crushing a peaceful and broad-based pro-democracy movement, with the assistance of the Saudi autocrats for whom Friedman has a “soft spot”, should not be allowed to confuse the issue. The real test of modernity, for Friedman, is whether an autocrat maintains friendly relations with the West. In the case of those who do, any undesirable details can be put down to their being held back by “an entrenched Arab mind-set [on the part of their compatriots], born of years of colonialism and humiliation that insists that upholding Arab dignity and nationalism by defying the West is more important than freedom, democracy and modernization”.

While it may be objectively true that Arab democrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine and elsewhere have had to defy Western-backed tyranny precisely in order to gain their freedom, this does not trump the higher truth of the Friedman universe, confirmed to him when watching a “stunning interview” on Al Jazeera with an Arab American psychiatrist, who confirms that “a clash between civilisation and backwardness, between the civilised and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality” is occurring between the West and the Arab/Muslim world. Therefore, it appears, any Arab tyrant who sides with the West is a representative of rationality and forward-thinking, by definition, residing with us on the side of the angels.


All this impressive physical might exists to buttress what perhaps really matters to Friedman: Anglo-American capitalism. As he famously put it, “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps”. As in international affairs, so in economics, the basic Friedman value system holds: those with power are to be genuflected before, while those in their way are to be regarded with contempt.

Therefore, after the free-market model crashes and burns in the autumn of 2008, Friedman leaps with absolute predictability onto the austerity bandwagon, targeting “baby boomers” who “must accept deep cuts to their benefits and pensions today so their kids can have jobs and not be saddled with debt tomorrow”. As Fernández notes, this ignores the fact that “90 per cent of US public debt results from past military spending”, which does not discourage the millionaire war-enthusiast from lecturing the less fortunate of his generation, who had hitherto relied on meagre forms of social security, that “the Tooth Fairy, she be dead”. Friedman takes time off from his regular praising of transnational corporate CEOs, to helpfully explain the facts of life to British pensioners:

“In Britain, everyone over 60 gets an annual allowance to pay heating bills and can ride any local bus for free. That’s really sweet- if you can afford it. But Britain, where 25 percent of the government’s budget is now borrowed, can’t anymore”.

Elsewhere he proposes that the US adopt the system used in Singapore where “top bureaucrats and cabinet ministers have their pay linked to top private sector wages, so most make well over $1 million a year”. Filling the bank accounts of these particular baby boomers is, for Friedman, a sign of “taking governing seriously”, just as removing assistance for bus travel and heating bills from the considerably less well off is also a test of seriousness.

One doubts that Friedman is consciously using the inter-generational injustice narrative as a rhetorical sleight of hand to ensure that the 1% of which he is a member and spokesman is held harmless while the crisis it caused is paid for by the 99%. While this is clearly the effect, one doubts that he has the wit to execute such an intellectual manoeuvre deliberately. Rather, it is likely to be no more than a natural product of his unexamined, shrivelled world-view wherein social assistance to provide the basics of life for those who need them is seen as an outrageous extravagance, while the ever-greater enrichment of those who already wallow in obscene wealth is positively-advocated as a mark of “seriousness”.


In a powerful conclusion, Fernández draws a contrast between Friedman’s chosen approach to journalism and the work of those who write, not from the point of view of Israeli generals, Arab autocrats and Western CEOs, but from the perspective of those ordinary people affected by the actions of power. Journalists like Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Amy Goodman, Sherine Tadros, Dahr Jamail and Nir Rosen who risk their physical safety in the field and opprobrium in the mainstream for bringing moral integrity and a critical eye to their reporting and commentary. For example, in respect of Iraq, where Rosen acknowledges and details the fact that “an occupation is a systematic and constant imposition of violence on an entire country…..[constant] arresting, beating, killing, humiliating and terrorising”, Friedman manages to convince himself, and use his platform to inform the world, that while “we left some shameful legacies here of torture and Abu Ghraib, we also left a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together”. If the effective function of the dominant discourse is to provide a justificatory narrative for the exercise of raw state, military and economic power, then Friedman is a leading proponent of that same, dangerous mythology. But as Fernández points out, to play this role is to make a choice, where many other less celebrated and less well-remunerated writers choose a far more honourable alternative.

The amount of Friedman’s writing that Fernández has evidently read – the sheer volume of butt-clenchingly awful prose and hear-tearingly twisted logic that she has endured in her research – means at least that she will never have to prove herself to the global left in any other way. She brings to the task a delicious, dry wit, and a gift for perceptively and efficiently dismantling a bad argument. Her voice is a cool and authoritative one, and – from Friedman’s point of view - is all the more devastating for that. She is correct when she says that his position as one the world’s leading pundits is “testament to the degenerate state of the mainstream media”, and right to characterise him as a “mouthpiece for empire and capital” and “resident apologist for US military excess and punishing economic policies”. If the prevailing ideology is a conceptual cage, constraining our ability to understand the world and to find ways to alleviate its worst injustices, then reading this book feels like a small but significant experience in intellectual liberation, for which we have its author to thank.

David Wearing is undertaking postgraduate research on British foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa at the School of Public Policy, University College London. He is a co-editor of New Left Project.

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