GREEN IS THE NEW RED
Thomas Friedman earned his stripes as a liberal Middle East correspondent, then backed the Iraq war. Now he advocates a US- led war on global warming, writes Ben Naparstek
OT long into my conversation with Thomas Friedman, it becomes clear we have different agendas. Friedman wants to talk exclusively about his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded , a call for a US- led global green revolution. I also want to discuss the Iraq war, which he cheered on in his twice- weekly column in The New York Times . ‘‘ Iraq is a whole other interview,’’ the three- time Pulitzer Prize winner objects.
His new book is an urgent primer on the need for a clean energy system, engagingly written in his usual folksy and anecdotal style. But as Iraq teeters on the edge of civil war and the US faces unprecedented hostility from the Arab world, it’s hard not to feel that Friedman — perhaps the most prominent liberal columnist to have boosted the invasion — is trying to turn over a verdant new leaf. He was never persuaded by George W. Bush’s argument that Saddam Hussein threatened US security with weapons of mass destruction, he says. Nor did he swallow the idea of links between Saddam’s regime and al- Qa’ida. The security risk, as he saw it, was not WMDs but PMDs ( people of mass destruction): the culture of hate, nurtured by repressive Islamic states, that spawned Osama bin Laden.
So why attack secular Iraq rather than an Islamist country such as Saudi Arabia or Iran? Because, as Friedman argued bluntly, the US could. He construed the attack as an opportunity to export American- style democracy to the Arab world, imagining that the toppling of Saddam’s Iraq would unleash democratic movements throughout the region.
Pressed, Friedman answers all my questions. The Minneapolis- born pundit is, in his own words, ‘‘ Minnesota nice’’: he never hits back at his critics. By phone, he has the relaxed bonhomie of a country club regular — allusions to golf, his favourite pastime, pepper his writing — and the upbeat temperament of an ad- man.
Indeed, with their glib metaphors and catchphrases, his columns can read like advertising copy. His writing is studded with brand names.
To name something is to own it,’’ he remarks. The jingle ‘‘ hot, flat and crowded’’, for example, describes the convergence of climate change, globalisation and over- population that defines our ‘‘ Energy- Climate Era’’ ( or ECE).
In his 1989 book, From Beirut to Jerusalem , the product of a decade reporting from Lebanon and Israel, Friedman coined the term ‘‘ Hama Rules’’, referring to the Syrian army’s massacre of more than 10,000 Sunni Muslims in the town of Hama in 1982. The phrase became popular shorthand for the arbitrary brutality of despotic Arab
Nregimes. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree ( 1999), his first book- length paean to globalisation, Friedman argued that countries invest in peaceful futures by accepting the ‘‘ golden straitjacket’’ of market liberalisation. Enmities arising from tribal, national and historical loyalties ( symbolised by the olive tree) disappear, he contended, when societies open up to the international marketplace and become in thrall to consumerism (‘‘ the Lexus’’). The Lexus and the Olive Tree posited the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, which has it that countries with McDonald’s outlets don’t fight each other. Shortly after the book was published, the US bombed Yugoslavia, thereby torpedoing the theory. But Friedman protests that he ‘‘ was not laying down physics but a principle of a broad trend’’.
So the hypothesis became the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention in The World is Flat ( 2005), with the computer company replacing McDonald’s. ‘‘ No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other,’’ he wrote.
Give Palestinians economic security and mate- rial distractions, the argument runs, and its extremists will no longer care enough about holy sites to blow themselves up. Yet the Palestinians have long perpetuated a conflict that impoverishes them. Atavistic sentiments run deeper than Friedman allows.
Flat reconceived the globalised world in terms of flatness. The dotcom revolution and the interdependence of markets, technologies and populations levelled the economic playing field, Friedman argued, giving people unprecedented access to the world market. In practice, though, globalisation often means trade within regional blocs rather than an integrated world economy. The US and Europe continue to protect their industries rather than compete fairly with less affluent countries, and international trade is dominated by power politics.
Friedman bats away the argument of Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz that globalisation has made the world less flat by furthering inequalities in the developing world. ‘‘ Socialism was a great system for making people equally poor and what markets do is make people unequally rich. The countries that are least globalised — North Korea, Cuba, Sudan pre- oil — are also the poorest.’’
As an internationally syndicated foreign policy guru, he benefits from the flat world. ‘‘ This is the golden age of being a columnist. Your opinion can go more places and reach more people. It is the most fun legally you can have that I know of.’’ Pushed for how he imagines illegal fun, the selfdescribed do- gooder states firmly: ‘‘ I’m not going to go there.’’
In the Middle East, his photo byline is so ubiquitous that he’s approached in the streets. Gail Collins, a former opinion editor of The New York Times , has likened travelling there with Friedman to walking through a mall with Britney Spears. It was Friedman who King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia ( then crown prince) used to float his Arab- Israeli peace initiative in 2002, proposing that Arab states give full recognition to Israel if it withdraws to pre- 1967 borders.
It’s not surprising that political and business eminences take to Friedman. His proglobalisation writings sometimes resemble puff
pieces for corporate chief executives. He reports the spin of political grandees with unqualified praise. A different picture would emerge if he gave similar airplay to those in the developing world impoverished by free market economics.
Friedman’s intimate voice, Panglossian forecasts and gimmicky phrases make him a winning middlebrow commentator. But his subjects often call for more sceptical treatment. Indeed, as the Iraq war went pear- shaped, he refused to pronounce it a disaster, emphasising the importance of ‘‘ the next six months’’, even as 2003 became 2006. The costs of the war, he now admits, have been staggering. ‘‘ I wrote what I wrote at the time because I believed it. I’m just hoping that the phase that it’s in right now will produce a decent outcome. Iraq may be coming out of this tailspin. Maybe a year from now things will look different.’’
His experience reporting on the sectarian conflict in Lebanon might have given him a hardbitten view of the Bush team’s plan to build democracy in bitterly factionalised Iraq. Friedman says that, in the build- up to the invasion, he experienced ‘‘ a struggle between hope and experience; the experience of Lebanon but also the hope, particularly post- 9/ 11, that the Middle East could give birth to a different kind of politics’’. Hope won out, leading him to embrace the Iraq war. But he’s not inclined to wring his hands or navel- gaze: ‘‘ My eyes tend to be focused straight forward and not behind. It’s the only way you can really survive if you’re sitting where I sit and having the number of people commenting on what you do.’’
Hot, Flat, and Crowded is likely to draw fire from Democrats and Republicans, with both parties convinced that petrol prices are the most pressing environmental issue of the presidential race. ‘‘ Our problem isn’t too high gas prices any more than a crack addict’s problem is too high crack prices,’’ Friedman says. John McCain proposes lifting restrictions on oil drilling to lower fuel prices and reduce American reliance on foreign oil, and Barack Obama has reversed his opposition to offshore drilling. ‘‘ You’d have to have your head examined to be optimistic that a campaign like this is preparing the country for what we need by way of a revolutionary change of energy systems,’’ Friedman says.
The book is subtitled Why the World Needs a Green Revolution — and How We Can Renew Our Global Future . His diagnosis? ‘‘ We’re addicted to a dirty fuel system based on fossil fuels or coal or natural gas. In a world that’s getting hot, flat and crowded, that addiction is increasingly toxic. It is driving five problems way beyond their tipping point; and they are climate change, petrodictatorship, energy and natural resource supply and demand, biodiversity laws, and energy poverty.’’
According to Friedman, the past two decades have seen the rise of ‘‘ dumb as we wanna be’’ politics in the US: the reluctance of political leaders to address big multi- generational problems. ‘‘ We’ve lost our way as a country and green for me is how we get our groove back, focusing on a green agenda the way we once did on a red anticommunist agenda.’’ The working title of the book was Green Is the New Red, White and Blue, but he changed it after concluding, ‘‘ we didn’t deserve that title’’.
Going green is also a security imperative, in Friedman’s analysis. US companies bolster the oil wealth of Middle Eastern states that sponsor Islamic fundamentalism. Developing renewable energy technologies would make oil cheaper, Friedman says, forcing Arab countries to build their economies through innovation, entrepreneurship and educating their people.
Friedman became interested in the Middle East after travelling with his parents to Israel when he was 15 in 1968, to visit his older sister who was on student exchange. After studying Arabic language and literature at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, he earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford. While in Britain, he met his wife, Ann Bucksbaum, heiress to a multibillion- dollar shopping centre fortune; a board member of Conservation International, she also edits his columns.
Fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, Friedman became The New York Times Beirut bureau chief in 1982 and was transferred to Jerusalem two years later. He openly identified as Jewish in his dispatches from the Middle East, which most of his Jewish- American colleagues avoided for fear of seeming biased. ‘‘ I wasn’t a self- hating Jew,’’ he says.
Even so, Friedman was a contentious figure among Jews. He exposed Israeli culpability for the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, and argued that terrorism played a necessary role in bringing the Palestinian cause to world attention. He was labelled an anti- Zionist by the same rightwing Jewish circles that, since September 11, 2001, have adored him for his excoriating writings on Arab dictatorships.
The editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz once joked to Friedman that they ran his column because he was the only optimist they had. His upbeat outlook is a product of his upbringing, Friedman says. ‘‘ I had a kind of Leave it to Beaver childhood. I always brought that Minnesota optimism to the world.’’
But life did not always resemble a sitcom. When Friedman was 19, his father, Harold, a ball bearing salesman and keen golfer, died of a heart attack. Harold had gained local celebrity for trailing his teenage son during his high school golf matches. Still his father’s son, Friedman contributes regularly to Golf Digest and toys with the idea of writing a golf book.
On turning 55 this year, Friedman qualified for the seniors’ championship at his local club. As the first competitive golf match he had played since high school, it unleashed his sentimental side. ‘‘ A huge limb broke off a tree adjacent to the tee and just came crashing to the ground,’’ he recalls. ‘‘ I suddenly had this realisation that that was my Dad, that he was watching. It made me start to cry. I think the old guy was very proud of me.’’
His mother, Margaret, died earlier this year, aged 89. In an obituary column, he called her ‘‘ the most uncynical person in the world’’. A champion bridge player, she had served in the navy during World War II, qualifying her for the GI Bill loan with which the Friedmans bought their home. Thomas Friedman has never lost faith in the ideal of America as a land of opportunity: ‘‘ I thank God every day that I was born in a country that has given me these opportunities.’’
The US remains more a force for good than ill for Friedman. It spends more on AIDs relief in Africa than any other country, he points out, adding that it was the Bush administration that pushed for UN sanctions on Zimbabwe ( blocked by China and Russia) in July. ‘‘ I don’t think the Iraq war is the be all and end all definer of the United States today,’’ he says. Which is perhaps another way of saying that it shouldn’t be the sole definer of Thomas Friedman.
Upbeat temperament: Thomas Friedman