In June 2000, on the eve of Bashar al-Assad’s ascension to power in Syria, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman was charmed by Assad’s resume: a British-trained ophthalmologist; married to a British citizen of Syrian origin; fluent in English and French; president of the Syrian Internet Association. He compared the eventual Butcher from Damascus to Deng Xiaoping, who led China’s economic reforms, modernization and rapprochement with the U.S.
Consumed by wishful-thinking, Friedman assumed that Assad could liberalize Syria, attract international investors, normalize relations with Israel and end the Arab rejection of the Jewish state — thus demolishing the Iran-Syria axis and ending Iran’s involvement in Lebanon.
The prerequisite for such an enterprising scenario was an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. However, as expected, Assad chose to follow in the footsteps of his ruthless father, Hafez al-Assad, slaughtering Friedman's assumptions and Syria’s domestic opposition, irrespective of the Golan Heights, Israel’s policies or even its existence.
In August 2006, Friedman told NPR Radio that Bashar al-Assad’s Syria was not a natural ally of Iran. He maintained that Syria could re-assume its traditional role as an ally of the pro-U.S. Arab camp comprising of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In this way he rewrote Syria’s recent history, which has been consistently anti-U.S. since 1946, and pro-Iran since 1979.
In June of 2009, Friedman stated that “for the first time, in a long time, [Middle East] forces for decency, democracy and pluralism have a little wind at their backs.” He identified a tailwind to pro-American elements, and a setback to Iran’s fortunes, in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran itself. According to Friedman, “the diffusion of technology — the Internet, blogs, YouTube and text messaging via cellphones” — tilted the Middle East in favor of the U.S. He was determined not to allow the real Middle East to stand in the way of his vision of a Middle East consumed by globalization, modernity, democratization and the Internet.
Unfortunately, the increasingly boiling seismic Arab Street from Morocco to the Persian Gulf has repudiated Friedman's vision.
In February 2011, Friedman determined that “the Muslim Brotherhood is not running the [anti-Mubarak] show… . Any ideological group that tries to hijack these young people will lose ... This uprising feels post-ideological ... The emerging spokesman for this uprising is Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive.”
Enthralled by the Arab Spring delusion, Friedman concluded that the Egyptian Street “tried [radical] Nasserism, tried Islamism and is now trying democracy.” He was convinced that “the democracy movement came out of Tahrir Square like a tiger. ... Anyone who tries to put the tiger back in the cage will get his head bitten off. ... Witness one of the great triumphs of the human spirit. ... The first pan-Arab movement that is focused on universal values ...”
Friedman underestimated the surge of the non-Facebook transnational Muslim Brotherhood and its credo: "Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; jihad [holy war] is our way; and martyrdom for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations." To Friedman’s frustration, the Muslim Brotherhood aims to consolidate Islamic Shariah as the legal foundation in Muslim and “infidel” lands, as a prelude to the re-establishment of the Islamic caliphate.
Friedman’s pro-PLO, pro-Palestinian stance dates back to his active involvement in the pro-Arafat radical Left “Middle East Peace Group” and “Breirah” organizations, back when he was at Brandeis University. It was intensified when he was stationed in Lebanon as the correspondent for The Associated Press and The New York Times. There he played down Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas’s rape and plunder of Lebanon and their intense ties with international terrorism, while expressing his appreciation for the protection that the PLO afforded members of the foreign media in Beirut.
In September 1993, Friedman welcomed Arafat as a peace-pursuing statesman. He established moral equivalence between the role-model of terrorism, the PLO, and the role-model of counterterrorism, Israel, as well as between Arafat and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: “Two hands that had written the battle orders for so many young men, two fists that had been raised in anger at one another so many times in the past, locked together for a fleeting moment of reconciliation.” Friedman provided a robust tailwind to Arafat’s strategy of deception and the bamboozling remark he made at the White House in September 1993: “Mr. President, I am taking this opportunity to assure you and to assure the great American people that we share your values for freedom, justice and human rights — values for which my people have been striving. ...”
In July 2000, Friedman posed the question: “Who is Arafat? Is he Nelson Mandela or Willie Nelson?” However, Arafat’s track record was compatible with another metaphor: Who was Arafat? Was he Jack the Ripper or the Boston Strangler?
Has Tom Friedman been mistaken or has he been deliberately misleading?