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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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