The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work
Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil?
Back in May 2003, two months after the start of the American-led war in Iraq, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman appeared on the Charlie Rose TV talk show. The conflict was “unquestionably” worth doing, said the self-described liberal. He went on:
“What (Iraqis) needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.”
Friedman, a former Middle East correspondent for the Times, has cemented himself as a key foreign affairs commentator in America and is regularly re-printed in publications across the world, including Australia.
Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Friedman has supported American or Israeli wars against Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian West Bank, Lebanon, Gaza and covert American operations endorsed by both the Bush and Obama administrations. In the words of Belen Fernandez, author of this compelling book on Friedman – published in a new Counterblasts series by British publisher Verso – the Times writer “discredits himself as a journalist by championing the killing of civilians.”
Fernandez forensically dissects the career of Friedman and challenges the very basis of his currency. “Friedman’s accumulation of influence is a direct result of his service as mouthpiece for empire and capital”, she writes. “I.e. as a result apologist for US military excess and punishing economic policies.”
Friedman has championing the supposed glories of US-led globalisation – “Is this a great country or what?” and the Iraq war – “the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched”. He celebrated the financial insights of Goldman Sachs until finally in 2010 Friedman acknowledged the firm as “the poster boy for banks behaving for ‘situational values’ – exploiting whatever the situation…allowed”.
The Times journalist is passionate about reducing America’s reliance on oil and yet, as Fernandez pithily comments, “Friedman has managed to greenwash the institution that holds the distinction of being the top polluter in the world…The US military’s overwhelming reliance on fuel means that its presence in Iraq is not at all reconcilable with Friedman’s insistence that dependence on foreign oil reserves is one of the greatest threats to US security.”
The Imperial Messenger isn’t just arguing that Friedman is an indulgent Times spokesman and faux liberal who dresses up his desire for the US to shed foreign blood as “humanitarian”, but a broader point against the Times itself as the centre of supposedly quality journalism.
Dishonest myth-making is the key reason the paper should not be taken as gospel, argues Fernandez, and not least due to its constant defence of Israeli crimes. Witness Friedman in 1989 writing about his Zionist dreams: “I’ll always want [Israel] to be the country I imagined in my youth. But what the hell, she’s mine and for a forty-year old, she ain’t too shabby.” This was expressed during the First Intifada, a time when Israel was torturing and killing unarmed Palestinian civilians.
But Friedman isn’t the only “liberal” needing to be fought. Canadian human rights activist, writer and politician Michael Ignatieff is the subject of The Lesser Evil by journalist Derrick O’Keefe. Like Friedman, Ignatieff frames his concern for humanity by loving the smell of American fire-power in the morning.
Incendiary British historian Tony Judt opined in 2006 about “Bush’s Liberal Idiots”, and included Ignatieff in a stinging rebuke. He stated that, “intellectual supporters of the Iraq War…have focused their regrets not on the catastrophic invasion itself (which they all supported) but on its incompetent execution. They are irritated with Bush for giving ‘preventive war’ a bad name.”
O’Keefe uncovers a litany of comments from Ignatieff since September 11 that place him in the inglorious tradition of countless “liberals” desperate to unleash Washington’s war machine on “apocalyptic nihilism.” Unlike Christopher Hitchens, who continues to champion the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and encourages a military strike against Iran, Ignatieff has at least had a few moments of doubt.
The vital importance of both these small titles is to highlight that some of the worst offenders, and least accountable, in the “war on terror” decade has been the warrior-scholar-journalist desperate to prove toughness. This desired projection of F-18s and drone strikes was encapsulated by a typically callous comment by Ignatieff in 2003:
“If the consequence of intervention of a rights-respecting Iraq in a decade or so, who cares whether the intentions that led to it were mixed at best?”
The death of innocent Iraqis was clearly an irrelevance (the numbers of dead in that country now number likely over one million).
At a time of American economic, political and moral decline – and fear that the Chinese economic model may supersede the unequal and fundamentalist capitalist model pursued by Washington since World War II – it’s grimly amusing to note an infamous Friedman thought:
“Many big bad things happen in the world without America, but not a lot of big good things.”
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist writing a book on disaster capitalism