u n c o v e r I r a q . c o m

[First published in the Minnepaolis StarTribune on October 22, 2005]

Thomas Friedman and the Glass-House Problem
by Drew Hamre

It's tempting to make excuses for Thomas L. Friedman. After all, his old high school is just down the street, he writes with verve, and he is the reigning king-of-all-media for foreign affairs.

But the atrocities that Friedman ascribes to the Sunni (Star Tribune, Oct. 14) are tactics he himself has advocated in the New York Times. Friedman has urged terror bombing to force regime change in Serbia ("Let's see what 12 weeks of less than surgical bombing does," April 6, 1999) and arguably in prewar Iraq ("bombing Iraq, over and over and over again," Jan. 31, 1998).

Friedman has advocated bombing electrical grids, knowing full well the mortal damage that results when refrigerators and filtration pumps die ("It should be lights out in Belgrade," April 23, 1999; "Blow up a different power station in Iraq every week," Jan. 19, 1999).

In Friedman's latest, he cries "genocide" in the context of a mosque bombing; he conflates a group of female war critics with mass murderers. All in all, this is a particularly nasty work.

Friedman simplifies the violence in Iraq to toe the "Sunni-Shiite" line, though he must know this is shorthand for Iraq's stew of clan loyalties, class differences, rising criminality, and the desperation of a wartime population. He appears intent on caricaturing a people, and then demonizing them.

This is worrisome, given Friedman's track record. Friedman has previously argued for war on a people, not just its government ("Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation"). On Sept. 28, he advocated what critics call the "Rwanda option" for Iraq: "If [the Sunni] come around, a decent outcome in Iraq is still possible. If they won't, then we are wasting our time. We should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind."

Perhaps a few of Friedman's excesses might be laid to the deadline pressures of his craft. But the larger charge Friedman makes (Sunni leadership tolerates genocide) is not only false, it's one to which Friedman and his paper are vulnerable.

As one example, in May 2000 following a conference in Seattle, Friedman was approached and asked to write more often about United Nations sanctions on Iraq. The hope, I suppose, was for Friedman to become a champion of Iraqi civilians, much like colleague Nicholas Kristof would later become a champion of the people of Darfur.

For Iraq and Darfur, the severity of the crisis is expressed in an "excess death" estimate. Currently, the State Department estimates that 98,000 to 181,000 people have died since March 2003 in Darfur and the camps of Chad. For Iraq at the time Friedman was approached, the U.N. itself estimated excess deaths during the sanctions decade at 500,000 children younger than 5. (Last month's final Volcker report reduces and undercuts the precision of this estimate, while underscoring the severity of the deprivations.)

That day in Seattle, Friedman took a packet of epidemiological information on Iraq, saying, "Perhaps you've planted a seed."

Well, perhaps not.

Finally on Oct. 7, Friedman wrote that America's biggest intelligence failure: "was the failure to understand just how devastated Iraq's society, economy and institutions had become -- after [two wars] and then a decade of U.N. sanctions."

Friedman's employer almost always includes the Darfur excess death estimate in its coverage. The comparable figure for Iraq has rarely, perhaps never, appeared. When pressed to clarify, one of the Times editors said in an e-mail: "the absence of one particular statistic (500,000 excess deaths) does not require a 'clarification' " by the Times.

Simply put, the Times is not the podium for a lecture on silence and genocide, nor is Friedman the speaker.

Civilians are civilians, and state-sponsored terror is still terror. For a reminder, read "Night Draws Near" by Pulitzer-winner Anthony Shadid, or browse the sanctions archive at Cambridge (www.casi.org.uk).

But no more excuses for Thomas Friedman.


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