Sunday, November 29, 2009

Such Ingratitude


Tom Friedman's latest reminds me of the days when the Times Ombudsman defended the paper's coverage of Middle East issues by claiming that they received roughly equal amounts of criticism from both sides. No, being criticized by both sides doesn't automatically mean you're fair, balanced or accurate. Sometimes it means that everybody but you can see serious fault in your argument.
Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.
What say you, Glenn Greenwald?
Six months into the war, Friedman proudly proclaimed that "the real truth" was that we invaded Iraq to take out our "big stick" and tell them to "Suck On This," to take a 2-by-4 across their heads, and that we attacked them "because we could." In his 2003 explanation with Charlie Rose, did he even mention what he now claims was the war's "primary" purpose: "to destroy two tyrannical regimes ... and to work with Afghans and Iraqis to build a different kind of politics"? No. In a very rare moment of candor for this rank war-loving propagandist, he announced very clearly the real purpose of the war, only for him to now turn around and accuse Muslims of being blind and hateful because they heard his message loud and clear, and because they don't express enough gratitude for all the gracious Freedom Bombs we've dropped - and continue to drop - on their homes, their villages, their families, their children and their society. Apparently, they heard deranged, chest-beating bellowing like this from America's Top Foreign Policy Expert and took it seriously....
Well, let's hear a balancing comment from the other side of the political spectrum. Dan Larison?
One of the most irritating things I have noticed during the last decade has been the whining from American pundits about how ungrateful the world’s Muslims have been in response to our alleged beneficence on their behalf. The grimly amusing part of this is that the whining pundits accept the assumptions of pan-Islamists, but put them to different, limited use: Muslims everywhere must feel gratitude for any assistance we have ever rendered to a Muslim population. Of course, if our policies have ever adversely affected a Muslim population, Muslims everywhere should not think that they have any particular interest in this, but should instead resist the siren song of pan-Islamism.
And perhaps that illustrates my original point - sometimes when you're criticized from both ends of the political spectrum, and perhaps particularly where your critics are making the same point, it could be that you're wrong.

Friedman's conclusion seems narcissistic, a wish to place his words into President Obama's mouth:
"Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, 'This is not Islam.' I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn't. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us — and to yourselves."
Did you get that? Friedman doesn't believe that Islam is the source of all evil, but the problem is that everybody else needs to be told that it's not - including Muslims. And he wants to put that attitude into President Obama's mouth.

Please refresh my memory. When has Thomas Friedman ever complained when a Western-backed military has crushed a largely secular Arabic government or movement, even when it was obviously going to be replaced by an Islamic alternative? Where does he remind us of the benighted, enlightened regimes of Saddam Hussein and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, before they were toppled? (Wait, you say they were despots? But they weren't religious, so how can that be?) When has he ever taken notice of peaceful protest by Arabs in his columns, and if you can find an example how much impact did it have on his proposed "solution" to the issue they were protesting? Where can I find a single column in which he refuted the calumny that the secular Palestinian Authority and fudamentalist Islamist Hamas were "the same thing"?

How many times has he ignored exactly the type of statement he demands, likely rationalizing it away as insincere, not representative, or whatever else it takes to avoid changing his mind about Islam (even as he pretends that only others need persuasion)? Outside of the context of Islam, has he ever conflated the acts of any other people, individual or collective, secular or religious, with the dominant religious beliefs of their society - or would he reject such a conflation as bigoted?

I'm also curious - what was the last march Thomas Friedman attended, to demonstrate the supposedly peaceful, progressive nature of whatever opinions or positions he holds? (My bet is that he's never marched for anything, unless it was in college as part of an effort to impress a girl.)

Friedman seems to be offended that the Islamic world doesn't share his positive view of Western interventions and invasions in their nations. Perhaps he should reflect on that, as he seemed to be in the "candy and flowers" crowd at the start of the war: If you believe you are doing something because it's right, do it because it's right. But if you're going it because you expect or need gratitude, you're probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

Update: Another take on Friedman:
It's curious that while accusing Muslims of buying into an imaginary narrative, Friedman himself buys into an imaginary alternative one: the romantic idea that US foreign policy is altruistic – "dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny". That is nonsense. US foreign policy, like that of other countries, is based primarily on its perceptions of its own interests.

The kind of self-righteousness seen in Friedman's column – puzzling over Muslims' apparent ungratefulness towards the US – is not only simplistic but actively harmful, Walt says. It "makes it harder for Americans to figure out why their country is so unpopular and makes us less likely to consider different (and more effective) approaches".

Agonising about "why they hate us" – as Friedman and many others in the US do – is never going to be productive so long as it is framed within the notion of an altruistic foreign policy, but once self-interest is recognised, the picture becomes clearer.

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