Skip to main content

Thom has a uniquely insightful, rational, and reasoned view about the Middle East. I thought I'd share some of his editorials. Please read at your leisure.


The Land of Denial

I read in yesterday's Times that Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, says he
warned the U.S. of a plot by Al Qaeda before 9/11 and that he has a new plan
for a Palestinian state. I suppose that's all to the good, but frankly, none
of it leaves me feeling reassured, for one simple reason: We don't need
Egypt to be our policeman, we need it to be our progressive.

What I mean is that we need Egypt to play the role that it played in Arab
politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries - the role that history
assigned it and for which it has no replacement: to lead the Arab-Muslim
world into modernity with an ideological message that is rooted in Arab and
Muslim tradition but is progressive, pluralistic and democratic. That is the
most important thing Egypt can do for us, and that is precisely what it has
not been doing for decades now.

Let me be blunt. Egypt is the center of gravity of the Arab world. It has
the biggest middle class, the best-educated population and the people with
the most potential. Egypt should be the Taiwan of the Mediterranean. But it
is a country that has been stagnating, to a degree that smaller Arab
countries are now passing it by.

Jordan was the first Arab country to secure a free-trade agreement with
America; Bahrain is the Arab country doing the most innovative experiments
with democracy; Qatar was the pioneer of free satellite television, with
al-Jazeera; and Tunisia, despite its authoritarian regime, has led the way
in economic liberalization and in forging closer ties with the E.U.

All these innovations should have come from Egypt, and had they, they would
have had a modernizing effect on the entire Arab world, particularly its
other big stagnating countries - Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. But they are
not happening. Egypt, which in the last century produced such towering Arab
intellectuals as Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein and Tawfik al-Hakim, has
produced no successors to them. The intellectual air has gone stale in Egypt
from too many years of controlled press and authoritarian politics.

President Mubarak says, "We have all kinds of democracy." Really? All kinds
but genuine democracy, because a genuine democracy wouldn't be putting on
trial an Egyptian democracy expert, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, for wanting the
right to speak freely, press for social change and question official policy.

In the mid-1990's Mr. Mubarak seemed to realize that Egypt needed to reform
and privatize its economy, to keep pace with a population that will double
in 20 years. But after a little reform produced a little boomlet, he backed
off doing the really hard stuff. Since 2000, Egypt's economic growth has
been anemic; it has seemed unable to attract much foreign or domestic
investment. Costa Rica, with 4 million people, exports more than Egypt, with
68 million; and Thailand, with the same population as Egypt, exports 10
times as much.

Yes, Egypt has been threatened by Al Qaeda too. But Egypt's way of cracking
down has been to either arrest or expel radical Islamic leaders and then
leave an ideological vacuum in their wake. The reason a psychopath like
Osama bin Laden - with his Arab, Islamic but backward-looking message -
could gain such currency is because no one in the Arab world, particularly
Egypt, has articulated an Arab, Islamic, progressive, democratic alternative
to counter him.

The Bush team wants to spend money on TV or advertisements to broadcast our
message in Arabic to the Arab world. Frankly, there is no modern,
progressive message we could broadcast in Arabic that would begin to compare
in influence to one that would come from Egypt. But it's not coming.

Look, Hosni Mubarak is not our enemy. He is authentically pro-American and a
bulwark against another Arab-Israeli war. But if he really wants to help us,
and we really want his help, we don't need to talk to him about Al Qaeda or
Israel. We need to talk to him about Egypt.

If we've learned one thing since 9/11, it's that terrorism is not produced
by the poverty of money. It's produced by the poverty of dignity. It is
about young middle-class Arabs and Muslims feeling trapped in countries with
too few good jobs and too few opportunities to realize their potential or
shape their own future - and blaming America for it. We have to break that
cycle, and no one could help us do it more effectively than the Egyptians.
Does President Bush dare say that, or are we going to keep lying to
ourselves and to them?

Onward and Upward!

[This message was edited by MBM on June 05, 2002 at 05:35 PM.]


Original Post

Replies sorted oldest to newest

War of Ideas

I'm glad that frustrated F.B.I. agents are banging away at all the missed
signals that might have tipped us off to 9/11, but we need to remember
something: not all the signals for 9/11 were hidden. Many were out there in
public, in the form of hate speech and conspiracy theories directed at
America and preached in mosques and schools throughout the Muslim world. If
we are intent on preventing the next 9/11, we need to do more than just spy
on our enemies better in secret. We need to take on their ideas in public.

Frankly, I hope Saddam Hussein disappears tomorrow. But even if he does,
that's not going to solve our problem. Saddam is a conventional threat who
can be eliminated by conventional means. He inspires no one. The idea people
who inspired the hijackers are religious leaders, pseudo-intellectuals,
pundits and educators, primarily in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which continues
to use its vast oil wealth to spread its austere and intolerant brand of
Islam, Wahhabism.

But here's the good news: These societies are not monoliths, and there are a
lot of ordinary people, and officials, inside both who would like to see us
pressing their leaders and religious authorities to teach tolerance,
modernize Islam and stop financing those who won't.

Too bad President Bush has shied away from this challenge. After recently
visiting Saudi Arabia, I got an e-mail note from a young Saudi woman (who
signed her name) that began: "Thank you as a moderate Saudi for your efforts
to expose what's going on in Saudi Arabia. . . . Mr. Friedman, our schools
teach religious intolerance, most of our mosques preach hate against any
non-Muslims, our media is exclusively controlled by the government and
religious people. Our moderate ideas have no place to be presented. Our
government is not doing anything really to stop the religious control from
paralyzing our lives. Mr. Friedman, we need help."

On May 8, the Saudi-owned Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat ran an essay by an
anonymous Arab diplomat who asked: "What would happen if every Arab country
had, since 1948, turned its attention to building itself up from within,
without making Palestine its main issue? What would happen if every Arab
country focused on educating its citizens, and on improving their physical
and emotional health and cultural level? I am amazed at the clerics who
raise a hue and cry about Jihad against Israel and compete with each other
in issuing religious rulings [in support of] suicide, but do not encourage
their citizens to wage spiritual Jihad" to build up their own countries.
[Translation by Memri.]

In short, America and the West have potential partners in these countries
who are eager for us to help move the struggle to where it belongs: to a war
within Islam over its spiritual message and identity, not a war with Islam.

And that war within Islam is not really a religious war. It is a war between
the future and the past, between development and underdevelopment, between
authors of crazy conspiracy theories versus those espousing rationality,
between advocates of suicide bombing and those who know you can't build a
society out of gravestones. Only Arabs and Muslims can win this war within,
but we can openly encourage the progressives. Instead, we're looking for
some quick fix. Just get rid of Saddam and all the fanatics will fall. I
doubt it.

The only Western leader who vigorously took up this challenge was actually
the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated on May 6 - for other
reasons. Mr. Fortuyn questioned Muslim immigration to the Netherlands (which
by 2010 will have more mosques than churches), not because he was against
Muslims but because he felt that Islam had not gone through the
Enlightenment or the Reformation, which separated church from state in the
West and prepared it to embrace modernity, democracy and tolerance.

As a gay man, Mr. Fortuyn was very much in need of tolerance, and his
challenge to Muslim immigrants was this: I want to be tolerant, but do you?
Or do you have an authoritarian culture that will not be assimilated, and
that threatens my country's liberal, multicultural ethos?

Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of being the 20th hijacker, told a U.S. court
that he "prayed to Allah for the destruction of the United States." That is
an ugly idea - one many Muslims would not endorse. But until we and they
team up to fight a war of ideas against those who do, there will be plenty
more Moussaouis where he came from - and there will never be enough F.B.I.
agents to find them.

Onward and Upward!
Six Wars and Counting

It's clear now that the Israeli-Palestinian clashes that erupted in the
spring of 2002 qualify as the sixth Arab-Israeli war - going down in history
with the 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982 wars. The 2002 war doesn't have a
proper name yet (the Suicide War?). But like all previous Arab-Israeli wars,
it is having a proper aftermath - shaking up Arab, Israeli and Palestinian
politics as much as the five previous wars did.

Let's start with the Palestinians. Well before this war there was already
bubbling Palestinian criticism that their "al-Aqsa intifada" had no clearly
defined goals and that Yasir Arafat, instead of developing them, was just
surfing on his people's anger and trying to direct it away from his own
misrule. Yes, Mr. Arafat is still the most nimble survivor of his own
mistakes. But this time he has really hurt the Palestinian cause, and
Palestinians know it.

First, by provoking Israel with repeated suicide bombings, Mr. Arafat
triggered an Israeli retaliation that didn't just destroy Arab cities - as
he did in Amman in 1970 and Beirut in 1982. This time he provoked the
destruction of Palestinian cities: Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem.
Second, by encouraging this Suicide War - after rejecting a clear-cut U.S.
plan for a Palestinian state - Mr. Arafat has badly damaged Palestinian ties
with America. President Bill Clinton met with Mr. Arafat more times than
with any other foreign leader. Today Mr. Arafat couldn't get to see
President Bush if he signed up for a White House tour.

Third, this Suicide War has badly alienated the only party that can deliver
the Palestinians a state - the Israeli silent majority. The whole history of
the peace process can be reduced to one simple point: If the Palestinians
persuade the Israeli center that they are ready to live side by side in
peace, they will get a state; if they don't, they won't. Everything else is
just commentary.

The aftermath of the Suicide War on Israeli politics has been equally
profound. "It has ended the deep political debate between the left and the
right that has dominated Israeli politics since 1967," said Moshe Halbertal,
a Hebrew University philosophy professor and fellow of the Hartman
Institute. "The two big ideas that have dominated Israeli politics have both

Indeed, the idea of the Jewish right that Israel could maintain a colonial
occupation of the West Bank, and continue to seize Palestinian land for more
settlements, and that the Palestinians would just roll over and take it, has
been exploded. But the idea of the Israeli left that Mr. Arafat, if returned
to the West Bank, would build a decent government and civil society that
would end the conflict with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution has
also been undermined.

As a result, Israel today, instead of being divided around two ideas, is
united around two ideas: A clear majority of Israelis are ready to smash the
Palestinians as long as they persist in suicide bombings, and an equally
clear majority of Israelis are ready to consider the Saudi peace
initiative - full withdrawal in return for normal relations - as the basis
for a settlement if the Palestinians ever persuade them that they are ready
to end the violence.

The big impact on Arab leaders is their realization that the explosion of
Arab satellite TV stations and the Internet means they can no longer control
public opinion. The tabloid Arab media have inflamed the Arab street with
images of the West Bank fighting. No, this inflamed street won't topple any
leaders soon. But popular discontent over the Arabs' weakness in the face of
Israel is melding with popular discontent about the weakness of Arab
economies and dictatorial regimes, in ways that are worrying moderate Arab
leaders and making them eager to get this Palestinian show off the air.

Bottom line: The region is more ripe than ever for a big U.S. initiative.
Unfortunately, none of the leaders - American, Israeli or Palestinian - seem
willing to step up to what's needed. That is, to create a transition
structure in the West Bank and Gaza - a new mandate under U.S. or NATO
supervision - that would oversee the gradual building of a responsible
Palestinian Authority and the gradual unbuilding of settlements. If we shirk
that task we'll just be setting the stage for the seventh Arab-Israeli war.

In my May 15 column I referred to Eric Rouleau as the Middle East
correspondent for Le Monde. Although he served in that role for many years,
Mr. Rouleau is no longer associated with Le Monde.

Onward and Upward!
Webbed, Wired and Worried

Ever since I learned that Mohamed Atta made his reservation for Sept. 11
using his laptop and the American Airlines Web site, and that several of his
colleagues used, I've been wondering how the entrepreneurs
of Silicon Valley were looking at the 9/11 tragedy - whether it was giving
them any pause about the wired world they've been building and the
assumptions they are building it upon.

In a recent visit to Stanford University and Silicon Valley, I had a chance
to pose these questions to techies. I found at least some of their
libertarian, technology-will-solve-everything cockiness was gone. I found a
much keener awareness that the unique web of technologies Silicon Valley was
building before 9/11 - from the Internet to powerful encryption software -
can be incredible force multipliers for individuals and small groups to do
both good and evil. And I found an acknowledgment that all those
technologies had been built with a high degree of trust as to how they would
be used, and that that trust had been shaken. In its place is a greater
appreciation that high-tech companies aren't just threatened by their
competitors - but also by some of their users.

"The question `How can this technology be used against me?' is now a real
R-and-D issue for companies, where in the past it wasn't really even being
asked," said Jim Hornthal, a former vice chairman of
"People here always thought the enemy was Microsoft, not Mohamed Atta."

It was part of Silicon Valley lore that successful innovations would follow
a well-trodden path: beginning with early adopters, then early mass-appeal
users and finally the mass market. But it's clear now there is also a
parallel, criminal path - starting with the early perverters of a new
technology up to the really twisted perverters. For instance, the 9/11
hijackers may have communicated globally through steganography software,
which lets users e-mail, say, a baby picture that secretly contains a
300-page compressed document or even a voice message.

"We have engineered large parts of our system on an assumption of trust that
may no longer be accurate," said a Stanford law professor, Joseph A.
Grundfest. "Trust is hard-wired into everything from computers to the
Internet to building codes. What kind of building codes you need depends on
what kind of risks you thought were out there. The odds of someone flying a
passenger jet into a tall building were zero before. They're not anymore.
The whole objective of the terrorists is to reduce our trust in all the
normal instruments and technologies we use in daily life. You wake up in the
morning and trust that you can get to work across the Brooklyn Bridge -
don't. This is particularly dangerous because societies which have a low
degree of trust are backward societies."

Silicon Valley staunchly opposed the Clipper Chip, which would have given
the government a back-door key to all U.S. encrypted data. Now some wonder
whether they shouldn't have opposed it. John Doerr, the venture capitalist,
said, "Culturally, the Valley was already maturing before 9/11, but since
then it's definitely developed a deeper respect for leaders and government

At Travelocity, Mr. Hornthal noted, whether the customer was Mohamed Atta or
Bill Gates, "our only responsibility was to authenticate your financial
ability to pay. Did your name and credit card match your billing address? It
was not our responsibility, nor did we have the ability, to authenticate
your intent with that ticket, which requires a much deeper sense of
identification. It may be, though, that this is where technology will have
to go - to allow a deeper sense of identification."

Speaking of identity, Bethany Hornthal, a marketing consultant, noted that
Silicon Valley had always been a multicultural place where young people felt
they could go anywhere in the world and fit in. They were global kids.
"Suddenly after 9/11, that changed," she said. "Suddenly they were
Americans, and there was a certain danger in that identity. [As a result]
the world has become more defined and restricted for them. Now you ask,
Where is it safe to go as an American?" So there is this sense, she
concluded, that thanks to technology and globalization, "the world may have
gotten smaller - but I can't go there anymore."

Or as my friend Jack Murphy, a venture capitalist, mused to me as we
discussed the low state of many high-tech investments, "Maybe I should have
gone into the fence business instead."

Onward and Upward!
A Failure to Imagine

If you ask me, the press has this whole story about whether President Bush
had a warning of a possible attack before 9/11, and didn't share it, upside

The failure to prevent Sept. 11 was not a failure of intelligence or
coordination. It was a failure of imagination. Even if all the raw
intelligence signals had been shared among the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the
White House, I'm convinced that there was no one there who would have put
them all together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden was (or is) a unique character. He's a combination of
Charles Manson and Jack Welch - a truly evil, twisted personality, but with
the organizational skills of a top corporate manager, who translated his
evil into a global campaign that rocked a superpower. In some ways, I'm glad
that America (outside Hollywood) is not full of people with bin Laden-like
imaginations. One Timothy McVeigh is enough.

Imagining evil of this magnitude simply does not come naturally to the
American character, which is why, even after we are repeatedly confronted
with it, we keep reverting to our natural, naïvely optimistic selves.
Because our open society is so much based on trust, and that trust is so
hard-wired into the American character and citizenry, we can't get rid of
it - even when we so obviously should.

So someone drives a truck bomb into the U.S. embassy in Beirut, and we still
don't really protect the Marine barracks there from a similar, but much
bigger, attack a few months later. Someone blows up two U.S. embassies in
East Africa with truck bombs, and we still don't imagine that someone would
sail an exploding dinghy into a destroyer, the U.S.S. Cole, a few years
later. Someone tries to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 with a truck
bomb, and the guy who did it tells us he had also wanted to slam a plane
into the C.I.A., but we still couldn't imagine someone doing just that to
the Twin Towers on 9/11.

So I don't fault the president for not having imagined evil of this
magnitude. But given the increasingly lethal nature of terrorism, we are
going to have to adapt. We need an "Office of Evil," whose job would be to
constantly sift all intelligence data and imagine what the most twisted mind
might be up to.

No, I don't blame President Bush at all for his failure to imagine evil. I
blame him for something much worse: his failure to imagine good.

I blame him for squandering all the positive feeling in America after 9/11,
particularly among young Americans who wanted to be drafted for a great
project that would strengthen America in some lasting way - a Manhattan
project for energy independence. Such a project could have enlisted young
people in a national movement for greater conservation and enlisted science
and industry in a crash effort to produce enough renewable energy,
efficiencies and domestic production to wean us gradually off oil imports.

Such a project would not only have made us safer by making us independent of
countries who share none of our values. It would also have made us safer by
giving the world a much stronger reason to support our war on terrorism.
There is no way we can be successful in this war without partners, and there
is no way America will have lasting partners, especially in Europe, unless
it is perceived as being the best global citizen it can be. And the best way
to start conveying that would be by reducing our energy gluttony and
ratifying the Kyoto treaty to reduce global warming.

President Bush is not alone in this failure. He has had the full cooperation
of the Democratic Party leadership, which has been just as lacking in
imagination. This has made it easy for Mr. Bush, and his oil-industry
paymasters, to get away with it.

We and our kids are going to regret this. Because a war on terrorism that is
fought only by sending soldiers to Afghanistan or by tightening our borders
will ultimately be unsatisfying. Such a war is important, but it can never
be definitively won. Someone will always slip through. But a war on
terrorism that, with some imagination, is broadly defined as making America
safer by also making it better is a war that could be won. It's a war that
could ensure that something lasting comes out of 9/11, other than longer
lines at the airport - and that something would be enhanced respect for
America and a country and a planet that would be greener, cleaner and safer
in the broadest sense.

Too bad we don't have a president who could imagine that.

Onward and Upward!
Before Friedman accuses Yasser Arafat of supporting suicide bombers, he should first entertain us with CLEAR EVIDENCE of his complicity that is NOT clear-cut fabrications by a vindictive Israeli government (heck, the Israeli government couldn't even convince the Mitchell Commission that Arafat even started the current Intifada).

And furthermore, Friedman should consider the impact U.S. foreign policy has on the Middle East, particularly this country's one-sided support of an Israeli state that has been consistently hostile to the administration of Palestinian human rights, much less tangible and workable Palestinian sovereignty.

"colorblindness" is still a blindness.
June 9, 2002
Where the Buck Stops

In May 1948 President Harry Truman faced one of the most excruciating decisions of his presidency: whether to extend U.S. recognition to a newly declared Jewish state in Palestine, a recognition that was sure to complicate U.S. interests in the Arab world. What made the decision even more difficult was the fact that the president's two smartest advisers disagreed, and were passionately pulling him in opposite directions. Mr. Truman's secretary of state, Gen. George C. Marshall, strongly opposed recognizing Israel. But the president's most trusted political adviser, Clark Clifford, argued forcefully in favor of creating a Jewish homeland.

After much deliberation, Mr. Truman, the president who kept a plaque reading "The Buck Stops Here" on his desk, realized that he could not rely on his advisers. He had to go with what was in his own gut. He opted to recognize Israel.

Today offers us a somewhat analogous moment, only now the issue is whether President Bush should help create a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. And this time the general-turned-secretary-of-state, Colin Powell, is in favor. The State Department argues that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is vital for turning back the anti-American tide in the Arab-Muslim world, for preparing the groundwork for any attack on Iraq and for securing Israel's long-term future. It is good policy and good politics, say Powell aides, because the vast majority of Americans and American Jews (no matter what so-called Jewish leaders say) want to see this conflict resolved, provided Israel is treated fairly.

And this time around the president's trusted political adviser, Karl Rove, and defense secretary, Don Rumsfeld, are against any high-profile U.S. initiative, arguing that Yasir Arafat is just another terrorist, and that the real key to turning back anti-Americanism in the Middle East is changing the regime in Iraq. In a region where raw power is revered above all else, they argue, that's what would really secure U.S. strategic interests. It is good policy, they insist, and good politics, because Mr. Bush's Republican bases in the Christian and Jewish right don't want to see Israel pressured in any way to make a deal.

Mr. Bush signaled Friday that he intends to speak out on this issue as soon as he finishes his consultations with Arab and Israeli leaders. I hope he sides clearly with Mr. Powell. Mr. Bush and his aides are very good at smashing things, but so far they've shown little ability to build anything abroad "” because they don't want to get deeply involved anywhere for very long. A president should be prudent about foreign commitments. But diving in sometimes is the only way to create a stable status quo.

For months, Mr. Bush and Ariel Sharon have been looking for a stable status quo to emerge from the burning Mideast landscape. It is not going to happen. You will not get a stable status quo on the cheap. You will get it only by the U.S. president laying out a vision that restores hope and makes it very clear what we think the endgame should look like "” although the parties themselves will have to negotiate the details. That vision should include the rollback of most Israeli settlements; a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem by refugees returning to the West Bank and Gaza, not Israel; and a repartition of Jerusalem, with Jews controlling Jewish neighborhoods and Arabs controlling Arab ones.

But once we create that light, we need to construct a tunnel that will involve a serious transition phase, carefully monitored by the U.S., with clear performance requirements. As Aaron Miller, a senior State Department adviser, observed in a recent speech: In 1993, with the Oslo Accords, we created a tunnel of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, but no consensus on the light at the end of it. Now, is the time for America to create both the light and a new tunnel, since the old one has been destroyed.

The right way to shrink, or eliminate, Mr. Arafat is for Palestinians to do it themselves, and the only way they are going to do it is if they see him standing in the way of a real opportunity. And if the Arabs don't like Mr. Sharon, they need to grow up, reach out to Israel and create a real incentive for Israelis to want to go around him.

This is Mr. Bush's Truman moment. He has a chance not only to give birth to the Palestinian state, but to do it in a way that wins Israel the recognition it really needs "” not from the U.S., but from all its neighbors.

The buck stops here.

Onward and Upward!

Add Reply

Link copied to your clipboard.