- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2002

As a rule, newspaper columns don't fare that well between covers. It's hard to read them in bulk. Glitches and boo-boos become apparent; misperceptions and mispredictions, the same. This fall's mini-genre columns on September 11 and its aftermath have, by and large, elevated that rule to the status of an axiom. One anthology, by a well-known conservative academic, was simply so awful that, out of respect for the author's other accomplishments, I declined to review it.
Then there's Thomas L. Friedman's "Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World after September 11" as brilliant and as intensely readable as most of the other books are bad. Mr. Friedman, a thrice-Pulitzered journalist, best-selling author, and saving remnant of The New York Times op-ed page, knew whereof he spoke long before September 11. His early post-September 11 columns were as shaky as anybody's, and sometimes as maudlin. Who could blame him? But he recovered quickly, returning to his old habit of telling it like it is, especially about the Arab world and Middle Eastern politics in general.
Mr. Friedman's unique. A practicing Jew with seemingly unlimited access to Muslim leaders and thinkers, a man of no small chutzpah, total freedom to write as he chooses (and an expense account to match), he spent the six months after September 11 mostly in the Muslim world. His perceptions and conclusions merit careful consideration, especially by those who view America as the source of all the world's evil, and everybody else as aggrieved and righteous, or at least aggrieved, victims.
Mr. Friedman regards the Arab world as neither an inevitably failed civilization nor doomed to endless anti-Americanism. He writes, and apparently tells Arab leaders to their faces, that, whatever America's and Israel's misdeeds and failings, their real problem is themselves.
Instead of maintaining power by building modern societies, they bolster themselves by fomenting dissatisfaction and hatred in the Arab street a street they must fear even as they manipulate it. Instead of learning to trade with the world, as Mr. Friedman puts it, they "barely trade with each other." They blame everyone but themselves for their problems, when the harsh fact is that, were Israel and the United States to disappear tomorrow, these nations and these peoples would be no different.
So, why do they do it? Why do they deceive and delude themselves, at such horrific cost in treasure and in blood? Mr. Friedman knows the Arab world too well, and respects it too much, to offer psychobabble explanations. But he does intuit a deadly gap between the Arab/Islamic sense of superiority and their real-world weaknesses failures that can only be overcome by opening their societies to the perils and allures of globalization, and thereby further endangering their self-esteem … not to mention the lives and fortunes of so many of the ruling elites.
Mr. Friedman's solution: a combination of tough love and patience.
Yes, we've backed the despots. Now, maybe help the moderates. We can't go tromping through the Middle East, bestowing democracy upon the grateful masses. But let's do what we can. As for the region's anti-Americanism let's tell our story better, while accepting that anti-Americanism will exist so long as Arabs feel they need it.
As for the terrorists … destroy them. Preferably quietly, covertly, working through and with the locals and those who know their phone numbers.
But what makes these columns so permanently important is less their analysis than their sensibility. Mr. Friedman manages to be a realist without worshipping Realpolitik, a hopeful man who needs no illusions to sustain his hope. A man who knows the world, and therefore cherishes his own land all the more. This comes through most eloquently in the final section of the book, selections from a private diary. He writes:
"Because, as a journalist, I often travel to war zones and other not particularly nice places, coming home to America has always had a special feel for me. Often I would come home … and my wife would ask me how it was, and I would answer: 'You know, honey, the wheels aren't on very tight out there.'"
Well said, by a man who keeps going back. And well worth remembering.


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