Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman; drawing by David Levine


The debate on the war with Iraq has become a global referendum on American power. The Bush administration wanted to call the attention of the world to the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein’s defiance of UN resolutions only to discover that the world was far more worried about the dangers posed by American use of force. The US threat to use force made inspections work in the first place, but now that inspections are finally yielding tangible results, most of the Security Council wants them to continue. Peaceful disarmament of the regime is only possible if a credible threat of force remains in place. But since the French, Russians, Germans, and Chinese are reluctant to authorize force, Saddam may believe that he can cheat even more intrusive inspections and get away with it. Unless, that is, he is certain the Americans and British would act unilaterally, without UN approval. So if they genuinely want disarmament and not regime change, there may be some logic in the American and British threat to use force unilaterally, since this is the threat that makes inspections work. But that logic has not won over the Council or the world. Nobody but the British and American governments think it is worth going to war over this issue, either now or in the future. The great coalition created by September 11 has collapsed.

The administration must now be hoping that American success in battle will reduce its critics to impotent silence. In a war on terror, however, the key battle is for opinion. The aim is to drain the pool of angry young people willing to die to avenge the humiliations they believe are inflicted by American power. If reducing this pool is a vital strategic goal, winning on the battlefield alone may produce only a Pyrrhic victory. In one battlefield of ideas—Europe—the war of opinion has already been lost. Even if America retains the political support of key leaders, like Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Britain’s Tony Blair, together with the leaders of emerging democracies like Bulgaria, the electorates of these societies are convinced that America, and not its enemies, poses the chief risk to world peace. In Europe, moreover, there are not only disillusioned local populations that have become anti-American. The mosques contain more than a few willing young Muslim recruits for terror.

The battle for opinion in the Arab and Muslim worlds is in the same worrying state. When American writers and journalists venture out into these worlds—as Thomas Friedman and Jedediah Purdy have done—they return with alarming tales of disenchantment among former friends of America, together with fury among its enemies.

Ever since his award-winning 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem, The New York Times’s foreign affairs columnist, Thomas Friedman, has been the single most influential editorial voice shaping American attitudes toward the Arab world. Corny, sentimental, folksy, he comes on like the beer drinker on the next stool at the bar, with an opinion about everything. But unlike the man pushing up against the bar, he just happens to have been visiting in Crown Prince Abdullah’s tent last week and to be on first-name terms with the rulers of the whole region. A typical Friedman column begins: “So I’m at the Davos World Economic Forum two weeks ago, and Shimon Peres walks by.” Friedman’s editorial voice is a shrewd confection, combining the plain-talking American patriotism of the guy at the bar with privileged information accessible only to the ultimate insider. One indication of insider status is that Friedman had a hand in the so-called Saudi peace plan in which, through his column, the Crown Prince first floated the idea of Arab nations recognizing the state of Israel in exchange for Israel’s return to 1967 borders.

In the columns that he has written since September 11, gathered in Longitudes and Attitudes, together with previously unpublished diary entries, Friedman argues that American foreign policy in the region is built on sand. The Arab regimes are clinging to power, frightened that their ties to America are causing support to leach away to the fundamentalists in the mosques and bazaars, yet unable to take on any of the challenges they face: finding jobs for the millions of unemployed, opening up opportunities for women, and above all, developing a democratic dialogue with their own people.

“What these Arab regimes still don’t get,” he wrote in November 2001,

is that September 11 has exposed their game. They think America is on trial now, but in fact it is stale regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which produced the hijackers, that are on trial. Will they continue to let Islam be hijacked by antimodernists, who will guarantee that the Arab world falls further behind? Will they continue to blame others? Or will they look in the mirror, take on intolerance, and open their societies to a different future?

Because his columns are reprinted throughout the Arab world and read on the Web—the Times on the Web has 1,500,000 regular readers, plus an estimated 15,000,000 occasional visitors—he has picked up a lot of e-mail from Arabs throughout the region who agree with him privately but can’t say so publicly. One sign of this pattern in Arab public opinion is the finding in the recent Arab Human Development Report, produced by the United Nations Development Program, that 51 percent of the same middle-class Arab youths who denounce American policy also wish to emigrate from the region to the United States, among other countries, since they feel their careers and lives are being wasted in the airless confinement of blocked societies.1


Even if America is still seen as a land of opportunity, Friedman argues, the United States is losing a battle of ideas throughout the region:

Just go anywhere—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan—and you’ll hit your head against this wall. You say the problem is Islamist terrorism; they will say it is Israeli brutality to Palestinians. You say America liberated Afghans from the Taliban; they will say we bombed innocent Afghan civilians. You say Saddam Hussein is an evil; they will say Ariel Sharon is worse.

Mention of Ariel Sharon brings Friedman to the core of the obstacle that stands in the way of presidential intentions to reorder the Middle East following victory in Iraq. Friedman’s columns record the incalculably high cost to American security of the failure of successive presidents to secure a stable Middle East peace. Friedman is sure where the blame lies. Arafat had an offer at Camp David and at Taba that gave him more than 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and wouldn’t close the deal. Arafat could not bring himself to say the struggle was over and abandon the fight for a Palestinian state in the entirety of Palestine. This was also, Friedman writes, why he did not use his authority to stop the suicide bombers. In so doing, he and his top leaders permanently disqualified themselves as future partners for peace.

Friedman essentially accepts former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s explanation for the failure of peace at Camp David and does not consider the account of commentators like Robert Malley and Hussein Agha who have maintained that the ideas presented at Camp David by President Clinton actually “fell well short” of the minimum the Palestinian leadership could accept.2 But Friedman does recognize that Israeli settlement activity throughout the Oslo process poisoned trust in Israeli promises about peace. In January 2002, he wrote:

Be advised: these settlements are a cancer for the Jewish people; they threaten the entire Zionist enterprise. If Israel tries to retain them, it will end up either as a non-Jewish state, because it will be absorbing so many Palestinians, or a nondemocratic apartheid state, because the only way to rule so many Palestinians will be à la the old South African model. So let us root for the rapid emergence of a real Palestinian peace partner. It is not only the Palestinians’ future that rides on that, but also the Israelis’.

Friedman doesn’t go far enough. The larger issue is whether since September 11 the United States can continue to afford aligning its national security interests as closely as it has done with the Israelis. At first sight, September 11 bound together the security interests of the US and Israel. Both are threatened by Islamic fundamentalism and Arab rejectionism. For the US, maintaining a stable Israel within secure borders has long been seen as both a matter of national interest and moral commitment. But the question is not whether to continue guaranteeing Israeli security, but which Israel to guarantee: the Israel of the 1967 borders or the Israel that some settlers want extended to the Jordan river. The latter is an Israel whose realization would draw America into a hundred years war which no one can win. Friedman, for all his inclination to prophecy, does not say this. But it seems obvious that an American occupation of Iraq combined with the freedom of Israel to expand permanently into the West Bank and Gaza is a recipe for more terrorism, which will produce mass casualties, not only in Israel but in the US.

Of course, many in the administration and on the Israeli right do not see it that way. The intentions of the new government of Ariel Sharon are unclear, but many in the Cabinet would like a victory in Iraq to be followed by American willingness to stand by while Israel extends settlements further and eventually extinguishes by slow strangulation the last hope of Palestinian self-determination. Some Israelis believe, moreover, as Avishai Margalit has recently reported, that Sharon and some of his allies have a longstanding desire to expel a large proportion of the Palestinians from the West Bank.3 Whether this is true or not, it is clear that the parties of the Israeli right believe that a Palestinian state could only serve as a base for terror against Israel and against the United States, and that the sooner American policy shifts toward unequivocal support of Israeli expansion, the safer it will be at home.


The fundamental national security decision that follows a victory in Iraq is whether to tolerate Israeli expansion or to impose a two-state solution, under American guarantee, and possibly under American or NATO military supervision. Nobody, especially not the Palestinians, likes American power in the region, but the Arab world’s only remaining chance of a Palestinian state resides not in a continuing dance of death with the Israelis but with getting the Americans to back a two-state solution and police its borders once peace has been signed. A Palestinian state, moreover, cannot become a stable partner for peace with Israel if it is a Bantustan, divided up by settlements, checkpoints, and security corridors.

The administration is formally, at least, committed to a two-state solution, but it may conclude that tacitly authorizing Israeli expansion is easier than the arduous task of imposing peace on a proud and stubborn ally and an enraged and defeated enemy. Time is not on the side of peace. In his speech of February 26, Bush said, “As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end.” This was in effect an endorsement of current settlement activities, rather than a call to roll them back. As conditions deteriorate on the West Bank and Gaza, there will soon be no one on the Palestinian side with the capacity to negotiate anything, not even surrender. Sharon, as Henry Siegman wrote recently in these pages, “has been highly successful in destroying virtually all of the essential supporting institutions of Palestinian national life.”4

This can only endanger Israel’s own security in the long term. Friedman sees this clearly enough, but seems not to fully grasp the catastrophic strategic consequences for Israel that follow from abandoning even the slightest attempt at a political strategy of engagement with the dwindling band of Palestinians still prepared to make peace with Israel. In a column of March 31, 2002, he condemns the Palestinians for being “blinded by their narcissistic rage.” He does not say, at least in his new book, that over 1,500 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks since the beginning of the second intifada. The rage of the Palestinians may be politically self-destructive, but it is not an exercise in self-indulgence, any more than Israeli rage at their own losses—more than 640 civilians in the past two years—is self-indulgent. On the Palestinian side, it is the justified rage of a people betrayed by their own leaders, by their supposed partners for peace, and by the studied inaction of the American administration.

It would be naive to suppose that Middle East peace would end the threat of terror against Israel and against the United States. Friedman says that “terrorism was being planned because America was trying to build Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, not because it wasn’t.” If this is true, a settlement between Palestine and Israel would not eliminate suicide bombers, but it would radically reduce the obsessional hatred of America associated with its support, not for Israel, but for the Greater Israel of the extremists.


Jed Purdy, who made a name for himself in his twenties with For Common Things, an attack on irony in American popular culture that was praised for its precocity and ridiculed for its sententiousness, has set off on much the same errand as Friedman’s: to travel around the world trying to figure out why America is hated, why secular modern institutions are under attack, and what can be done about it. Purdy begins well with a keenly observed visit to Egypt, where he remarks acutely that Mubarak’s government teaches Egyptians a lesson in what to expect from politics: deception, betrayal, and occasional satisfaction in public expressions of anger. Political life, Purdy goes on, “is mostly theatrical, a stage for improbable conspiracy theories that suggest the stagnant economy and civil life are the fault of someone other than the corrupt and unresponsive government.”

In Jakarta, Indonesia, he makes the useful point that corrupt and inegalitarian forms of capitalism do nothing to endear Muslims there to modernity and America. In China, he meets students who tell him that globalization is all very well in economics, but in culture and politics it is just a “fig leaf” for (American) invasion and exploitation. If anti-Americanism rises wherever capitalism threatens local ways of life, power structures, and elites—and this appears to be a conclusion to be drawn from Purdy’s travels—then it’s not at all obvious what can be done. Anti-Americanism certainly goes beyond hatred for who Americans are and dislike for what Americans do. It is rooted in the deeper fact that America appears to get richer from a global economic system that uproots the local, the traditional, and the national, and makes some people in society richer and a great many other people poorer. The President seems to think that support overseas for “American values” advances in step with the progress of capitalism and free markets. Purdy’s analysis has the merit of questioning this idea.

He also questions the highly ideological innocence of America, its astonished and astonishing incapacity to understand why anyone should dislike it at all. Innocence is an old theme in the world’s dislike of America. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, it is Pyle’s guileless belief that murderous meddling in the affairs of Vietnam is justified because his own intentions are for the best that rouses Graham Greene to his most vividly anti-American passages. As Greene’s narrator remarks, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” Purdy sees that American protestations of innocent good intentions abroad make it difficult, in turn, to believe Americans when they take responsibility for their mistakes. “Believing in our own innocence,” Purdy writes, “only suggests to others who cannot believe in it that we must be smug about our guilt.”

There is much to learn from Purdy’s observant eye as he travels the world, an innocent American on guard against innocence, but the book has the flaws that Greene saw in Pyle, especially a weakness for sermonizing. Purdy tells us that “the spirit of patriotic hesitation, which sees circumspection and self-scrutiny as the duties of power, is old and eminently American, and without it we are off our balance.” It’s hard to see anyone who actually exercises power of a serious kind, Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, for example, being convinced by the virtues of “patriotic hesitation.”

Whenever Purdy has to tell us what to do about a problem, he reaches for the incense. After taking us to India, his mystifying conclusion is: “The proportion between dignity and humiliation, pragmatic optimism and despair, is often enough to decide a country’s future.” At the end of a book that quotes Montesquieu, Smith, Madison, and Jefferson, and shows a real grasp of their ideas, he makes a mistake that none of these worthy ancients would ever commit, namely, to ascend into the vacuous. Purdy’s concluding words, at the end of his travelogue of ideas, are: “There is no Age of Reason, and history can have no end that is happy; but in every time, in the space between memory and oblivion, still lives the hope of earth.” Purdy’s recurrent confusion of solemnity with depth detracts from what is otherwise a serious attempt to think about what it is to be America and American in a world that so often hates both.

Dealing with hatred of America is not really about becoming more humble, becoming less hubristic, or throwing money at better public relations overseas. It is fundamentally a political problem: changing policies that create hatred, like supporting authoritarian Arab regimes that repress democracy and dissent at home; like stationing troops where they arouse discontent; like failing to secure a peace in the Middle East that guarantees Israel’s security and the Palestinians’ right to a state of their own. Aligning American foreign policy with human freedom, as the President says he wants to do, means recognizing, first of all, that it is not aligned with freedom in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and that it must be. Beyond that, it would be a good idea to remember Thomas Jefferson’s remark about paying decent respect to the opinions of mankind.

This Issue

April 10, 2003