Thomas Friedman was a bit late getting to our meeting. He had been working on his latest piece to be published in the New York Times. Forty-one years after having been recruited by the prestigious publication, the foreign affairs columnist is still enjoying his work.
“You’ve got to have an idea and be able to slam it into the home page of the New York Times,” says Friedman. “Sharing with so many people what was a daydream eight hours earlier is really fun. It is obviously high pressure if you want to get it right.”
Getting it right is a challenge for every journalist. But in the case of Friedman and for a publication like the New York Times, it is even more relevant.
“The one thing I have learned as a columnist is that the right opinion at the right time. When you have the right opinion, you explain something right at that moment when people wanted you to explain. It has an exponentially different effect,” says Friedman.
But that has not always been the case. Friedman was a supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Knowing the high cost of the military intervention both for Iraqis and Americans in terms of lives and impact on the economic and political levels, one wonders how the influential writer backed such a decision: Why would he not apologize for having supported it?
“I have nothing but regrets for what happened there,” admits Friedman. “I supported the Iraq War not for WMD (weapons of mass destruction) but for democracy.”
For him, it was more about helping Iraqis, with their different communities from Sunnis to Shias to Kurds, to create consensual politics in the heart of the Arab world — an example that could have radiated, according to Friedman, to other countries in the region. “This is why I had a little difficult time apologizing for supporting the invasion,” he says.
Friedman’s interest for the Middle East goes back to 1968 when he traveled for the first time beyond the border of Minnesota with Wisconsin and visited Israel. He was 15 years old.
“That trip would change my life,” he wrote in “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” “Since that moment, I have never really been interested in anything else. (…) In 1968 I knew then and there that I was really more Middle East than Minnesota.”
This deep interest in the region pushed him to study Arabic, to graduate in Middle Eastern Studies (Oxford) and to accept UPI’s job offer in Beirut to cover the Lebanese civil war in 1979. “With a lump in my throat and a knot in my gut I decided to jump at the opportunity,” notes Friedman.
After spending four years in Beirut, as he recounts in his book, Friedman moved to Jerusalem in 1984 only to discover that “Israel and Lebanon, Jerusalem and Beirut, had much more in common than I ever could have dreamed.”
His passion for both countries was reflected in his work. He was awarded two Pultizer prizes – one in 1983 for his coverage of the civil war Lebanon and the other in 1988 for his reporting on Israel.
Israel is still a major theme Friedman writes regularly about. The crisis that it has been witnessing for the past months pushed him to devote no fewer than seven columns to it. Friedman has been criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, accusing him of bringing Israel to the edge of a civil war and eliminating the hope of a two-state solution with Palestinians.
“I do think how Israel goes will affect very much Lebanon, Jordan and the whole region,” says Friedman. “If Israel goes autocratic, it will affect the whole Middle East.” Friedman supports the two-state solutions but considers that it is not going to happen anytime soon given the divisions between Palestinians and Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
As for Afghanistan, Friedman considers that despite the U.S.’s diplomatic failure, the seeds that were planted there were not insignificant. “You are seeing that right now with women and girls defying Taliban and going to secret schools. There is much more legitimate seeds because they are being carried by Afghans, not at the barrel of an American M 16,” says Friedman. “I think in five years from now Afghans will overthrow the Taliban or force them to institute some of the changes that they resisted so far.”
Thomas Friedman, soon to be 70 years old, seems to be worried about the current and maybe future of politics and journalism. In an analogy with the role that mangroves play in nature when filtering toxins out of water, preventing storm surges or functioning as a nursery habitats for crustaceans and fish, he considers that we have lost our mangroves in public life. Some of the examples he has in mind are related to Donald Trump’s public behavior. But this also applies to journalism as well with the news going from big media outlets to the readers.
“Local newspapers are hugely important mangroves, local editors are. The worst thing that happened to me during my career is that we have lost our mangroves,” said Friedman before rushing into another meeting.
With Thomas Friedman after our meeting in Washington D.C. (Photo: Tarek KAI)