During the dog days of last summer, as the national press corps went baying after the elusive Gary Condit, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a piece called "A Memo from Osama." Entertaining, ironic and caustic in the same instant, the "memo" warned of the consequences of a U.S. failure to respond to "the threat that already exists." The name of that threat, unfamiliar to most Americans at the time, would become a household word in a few short months.
After the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, this and several other pre-9/11 columns included in Friedman’s new book, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After Sept. 11, seem shockingly clear-sighted and prescient. They offer glimpses into the future that seem to surprise even Friedman himself. "Man," he says, sounding bemused, "there are lines in those columns that are prophetic. In terms of what happened, I was paying attention."
Since Sept. 11, as regular readers of his twice-weekly column know, Friedman has, if anything, been paying even closer attention. "I’ve been on a really unique journey," he says. "I’ve been to Pakistan twice, to Afghanistan, Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, Israel."
Probably no one else—journalist or diplomat—has pursued the complex threads of this story as relentlessly as Friedman. In fact, when we speak by phone, Friedman has just returned from Tehran, Iran, where he was exploring one of the recurring themes of this collection—the need to wage and support a war of ideas in the Arab Muslim world.
"I really try to get the point across that when we start calling people the ‘Axis of Evil,’ we miss the complexity of these societies and the number of potential partners we have inside these societies who share our world view," he says."We have to make sure we’re inviting these people into our future. Ideas matter. We can kill bin Laden, but somebody’s got to kill bin Ladenism. Somebody’s got to kill the ideas that not only nurture him, but create an environment in which so many people tacitly support him. We can help, but ultimately the Arab Muslim world has to do that itself."
As a result of such views—as well as his years of experience in the Middle East, first as a reporter for UPI and then for The New York Times—Friedman "gets a huge amount of email from the Arab Muslim world." Parts of those messages he reprints in the third section of Longitudes and Attitudes. That section is comprised of a series of diaries he kept between September 2001 and June 2002. The diaries make for fascinating reading because they contain anecdotes and analysis Friedman was unable to include in his regular columns, offering a behind-the-scenes look at issues Friedman is writing about and personalities he meets.
One of the surprises in these diaries is how many of Friedman’s contacts and correspondents are Muslim women. Another is the pointed description of a little power play by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that very nearly leaves Democratic Sen. Joe Biden and Friedman stranded at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Still another is an eye-opening portrait of the new Russia.
But most interesting of all—in the diaries and in the collected post-Sept. 11 columns that form the bulk of this book—is Friedman’s probing examination of Saudi Arabia. Probably the most important question motivating Friedman’s unique journey during the last nine months has been why 15 young Saudis were involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
"The Arab Muslim world is going through a hard time," he says, "and I have a lot of sympathy for them. They’re struggling with, and in some cases failing at, modernization. That’s because of three deficits that have been building up there for more than 50 years. I’m quoting here from a U.N. study that’s just come out that says it’s a deficit of freedom, it’s a deficit of education and it’s a deficit of women’s empowerment. Thanks to these three deficits they’ve dug themselves a really deep hole."
The dark side of all this, Friedman writes in his diaries, is that it leads to what he calls the "Circle of bin Ladenism, which is made up of three components: antidemocratic leaders, who empower antimodernist Moslem religious educators to gain legitimacy, who then produce a generation of young people who have not been educated in ways that enable them to flourish in the modern world."
Opinions like this—and equally direct criticism of actions by President Bush, Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat—have earned Friedman some powerful detractors. About this, Friedman is philosophical: "Being a columnist is not a friend growth industry. If you’re going to do this job, you have to pull the trigger on people, sometimes on people you like. If you’re not ready to do that, readers can smell it at a hundred paces. . . . A column is like currency, and you can really debase your own currency. I guard zealously the integrity and quality of the column every bit as much as the secretary of treasury does the integrity and quality of the U.S. dollar."
So while his critics may have grown more vociferous, Friedman’s popularity has also grown and changed since Sept. 11. "Before 9/11 the CEO read me; now his secretary reads me, too," he says. "Twice I’ve had bicycle delivery boys stop me on the street in Washington and comment on something they’ve read in my column. . . . This is not in any way exclusive to me. After 9/11, Americans understand that foreign policy is now a real life-or-death matter. It’s about the world their kids are going to grow up in, and as a result, they want to know what’s going on."
And, according to Friedman, what’s going on remains pretty dark. In his first column after Sept. 11, 2001, Friedman called the attacks the beginning of World War III. Although personally an "innate optimist who is constantly looking for solutions," Friedman stands by his initial assessment.
"Some big events, over time, end up being smaller than they first seem," he says. "My view is that 9/11 will turn out to have been bigger than it first seemed and it seemed—pretty big to begin with. It is a huge event in terms of the degree to which it will change our habits, our politics, international relations and the long-term internal discussion in the Arab Muslim world. As I say in the diaries, on 9/11 a wall of civilization was breached that we could not imagine would ever be breached. And the long-term implications of that are just enormous."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.