Thomas Friedman: On the Eve of Madness

Quite simply the best column Friedman’s ever written.

On the Eve of Madness
Published: July 28, 2006

Over Turkish coffee the other morning, I picked up a copy of The Syria Times, the local English-language paper, and my eye immediately went to a small box at the top of the front page. It said, “The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity … P. 5.”

I thought: What a perfect way to describe the Middle East today – going back to some pre-modern era? Alas, The Syria Times was not trying to be ironic. It turned out the headline was the title of a book about Aleppo in the 18th century. But had it been a news headline it would have been apt.

Condoleezza Rice must have been severely jet-lagged when she said that what’s going on in Lebanon and Iraq today were the ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East.’ Oh, I wish it were so. What we are actually seeing are the rebirth pangs of the old Middle East, only fueled now by oil and more destructive weaponry.

Some of the most primordial, tribal passions, which always lurk beneath the surface here – Sunnis versus Shiites, Jews versus Muslims, Lebanese versus Syrians – but are usually held in check by modern states or bonds of civilization, are exploding to the top.

There is nothing that you can’t do to someone in the Middle East today, and there is no leader or movement – no Nelson Mandela and no million-mom march – coming out of this region, or into this region, to put a stop to the madness.

And I mean madness. We’ve seen Sunni Muslims in Iraq suicide-bomb a Shiite mosque on Ramadan; we’ve seen Shiite militiamen torture Sunnis in Iraq by drilling holes in their heads with power tools; we’ve seen Jordanian Islamist parliamentarians mourning the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, even though he once blew up a Jordanian wedding; we’ve seen hundreds of Palestinian suicide bombings of Israeli cafes and buses; and we’ve seen Israel retaliating by, at times, leveling whole buildings, with the guilty and the innocent inside.

Now we’ve seen the Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, take all of Lebanon into a devastating, unprovoked war with Israel, just to improve his political standing and take pressure off Iran.

America should be galvanizing the forces of order – Europe, Russia, China and India – into a coalition against these trends. But we can’t. Why? In part, it’s because our president and secretary of state, although they speak with great moral clarity, have no moral authority. That’s been shattered by their performance in Iraq.

The world hates George Bush more than any U.S. president in my lifetime. He is radioactive – and so caught up in his own ideological bubble that he is incapable of imagining or forging alternative strategies.

In part, it is also because China, Europe and Russia have become freeloaders off U.S. power. They reap enormous profits from the post-cold-war order that America has shaped, but rather than become real stakeholders in that order, helping to draw and defend redlines, they duck, mumble, waffle or cut their own deals.

This does not bode well for global stability. A religious militia that calls itself ‘the party of God’ takes over a state and drags it into war, using high-tech rockets – mullahs with drones – and the world is paralyzed. Those who ignore this madness will one day see it come to a theater near them.

In part, though, this madness is home-grown. I sat at a swank rooftop restaurant the other night with some young Syrian writers and listened to a discussion between a young woman dressed in trendy clothes, talking about how she would prefer to see Israel disappear, an Arab journalist who described the ‘pride’ and ‘dignity’ every Arab felt at seeing Hezbollah fight Israel to a standstill, and another writer who argued that Nasrallah was an Arab disaster.

When will the Arab-Muslim world stop getting its ‘pride’ from fighting Israel and start getting it from constructing a society that others would envy, an economy others would respect, and inventions and medical breakthroughs from which others would benefit?

There will be no new Middle East – not as long as the New Middle Easterners, like Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, get gunned down; not as long as Old Middle Easterners, like Nasrallah, use all their wits and resources to start a new Arab-Israeli war rather than build a new Arab university; and not as long as Arab media and intellectuals refuse to speak out clearly against those who encourage their youth to embrace martyrdom with religious zeal rather than meld modernity with Arab culture.

Without that, we are wasting our time and the Arab world is wasting its future. It will forever be on the eve of modernity.

The Discussion: 23 Comments


July 27, 2006 @ 10:32 pm | Comment

“the best column hes ever written”. Well, thats not saying too much. I would’ve agreed with you if he’d put a little more blame on the Likuds, but hes too much of a wuss to do that.

Not bad, though.

July 27, 2006 @ 10:35 pm | Comment

Agree with Mark. With this attack on Lebanon, The Israeli government has squandered any moral capital it once possessed.

July 27, 2006 @ 10:46 pm | Comment

I never thought the day would come when richard links glowingly to a NY Times article and I agree.

So is Friedman officially recanting the ‘lexus and the olive tree’ notion of middle-east peace?

My god, we’re all becoming Derbyshires…

July 28, 2006 @ 12:52 am | Comment

An open letter to all American citizens reading this blog:

From one American citizen to another, can someone please tell me why I should care about Israel more than any other country in the world that is fighting one of its neighbors?

Is there something about Israel that deserves more of my attention compared to the next waring country? Granted, Israel is sucking up my tax dollars faster than you can say “boo”, so I guess I should care about that (and I do).

I’m not trying to be smug. I’m looking for a serious answer to this question. All opinions welcome.

July 28, 2006 @ 1:27 pm | Comment

“From one American citizen to another, can someone please tell me why I should care about Israel more than any other country in the world that is fighting one of its neighbors?”
— helpsfo


This is so simple that everyone can see it. Jews are the most powerful people in this country. They are rich and they control the media and corporations and government. There is nothing wrong with it because Jews are super smart and they work hard. Without them, America will not be the world’s super power. Isreal is their baby and they will be fiercely protected of it. Plus, Isreal is a democracy (All right, for Jews only) and we are the leader of the free world. Of course, we will support them against those backward Arabs from the middle age.

July 28, 2006 @ 3:16 pm | Comment

[quote]Is there something about Israel that deserves more of my attention compared to the next waring country? Granted, Israel is sucking up my tax dollars faster than you can say “boo”, so I guess I should care about that (and I do).[/quote]

Because America (under Harry Truman) had a crucial hand in the creation of the state of Israel.

And because what’s going on right now is an absolute trainwreck you can’t tear your eyes away from.

I wish Friedman would stop using phrases like “primordial, tribal passions lurking beneath the surface” though, as if the problems are rooted in century-old enimities that have always threatened to bubble over. It’s feeding into the ‘clash of civilizations’ hype, and it’s what writers who have no idea of what’s really going on write. I’m sure some similar hack also used similar catchphrases to explain the political context of the tragedies in Rwanda.

July 28, 2006 @ 3:41 pm | Comment

Whoops. Apparently the question was addressed to American citizens. I’m not one. Sorry.

July 28, 2006 @ 3:44 pm | Comment

I guess my question was somewhat rhetorical. I have my own opinions about Israel. However I’m always looking for other opinions whether in agreement or not.

Having a frank discussion about Israel isn’t easy primarily for the reasons mentioned above:

Isreal is their baby and they (the US corporate & political elite) will be fiercely protected of it.

My biggest problem with Israel is the amount of $$ sent to Israel by US taxpayers. I don’t know the exact number, but I’ve heard it’s huge – more than all the foreign aid sent to all other countries combined. Debating this issue would probably take hours, but it’s a discussion I haven’t heard anyone willing to embrace. Friedman on occasion is critial of Israel, but in general I think he supports the fact that the US supports Israel.

July 28, 2006 @ 4:03 pm | Comment

(Jews) control the media…

Yeah, like that Jew Rupert Murdoch.

I have a problem when discussions about Israel, the current Israeli government, the oversized role that AIPAC plays in American politics and the confluence of interests between Likudnik Israelis and PNAC turns into a generalized discussion of “the Jews who run everything.” That kind of rhetoric plays right into the hands of those who will dismiss any objections to US policy vis Israel as “anti-Semitic.”

I’m just sayin’

July 28, 2006 @ 6:05 pm | Comment

The Israel Lobby does have undue influence in Washington. But that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, in its current conflict against Lebanon, I think Israel has at least just cause, if not just conduct.

July 28, 2006 @ 6:45 pm | Comment

Whatever the rights or wrongs of America’s relationship with Israel, at this point the main reason why you should be concerned about recent events in Israel is because Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons. Consider that situation in light of the law of unintended consequences, and the essential unpredictability of human behaviour, and then the reasons for worry should become far more clear.

July 28, 2006 @ 7:30 pm | Comment

For those questioning why America seems to have a love affair with Israel, I would suggest picking up Anatol Lieven’s book “America Right or Wrong – An Anatomy of American Nationalism” He does a brilliant analysis on American Nationalism and its root causes. He devotes a chapter on American Israeli relations and its negative consequences. America sees Israel as a fellow democracy in a land of dictatorships, a white people who are like them fighting brown savages. Here are a couple of passages from the book.

“The terms of the U.S.-Israeli alliance are not a case of the tail wagging the dog; they represent the tail whirling the unfortunate dog around the room and banging its head against the ceiling.”

“Over the past four decades U.S. policy has in consequence become bogged down in a glaring contradiction between American public ideals and partially U.S.-financed Israeli behavior. On one hand, America preaches to Arabs contemporary civic ideals of democracy, modernity and the peaceful resolution of disputes. On the other, it subsidizes not only a brutal military occupation but the seizure of land from an established population on the basis of ethnoreligious claims which in any other circumstances would be regarded by U.S. governments and a majority of public opinion as utterly illegitimate.”

“If the result of U.S. entanglement in the Middle East is also unprecedented embroilment in a series of conflicts, then this is likely to severely damage not only U.S. global leadership, but the character of U.S. nationalism and even perhaps of U.S. democracy. Prolonged war may bitterly divide American society and create severe problems for public order, as it did during the Vietnam War; and it also may help push the U.S. government in the direction of secretive, paranoid, authoritarian and illegal behavior.”

July 28, 2006 @ 7:34 pm | Comment

Ivan, I’m curious. Just whom do you think Israel is going to attack with nuclear weapons? I don’t know the weather patterns of the Middle East but I think some radioactive fallout has to land on Israel.

July 28, 2006 @ 7:47 pm | Comment

wki, I have a feeling that the Israeli dismemberment of Lebanon is going to have a lot of Americans questioning this unconditional alliance. Photos of the destruction on the front page every day.

July 28, 2006 @ 8:04 pm | Comment

As a Jew growing up in a white middle-class neighhborhood, I’d have to agree with wkl. I was taught at a very early age to hate Arabs, even if it wasn’t intentional on my parents’ part – they were simply discussed as enemies and as bastards. By everyone. While Israelis were saints. Things are never that simple.

July 28, 2006 @ 8:10 pm | Comment


1. Iran
2. You should never presume that any Human Being will do what is in his “rational” self-interest.
Most of History is the history of willful stupidity.

July 28, 2006 @ 8:31 pm | Comment

Believe it or not, the real answer to this mayhem lies in the END OF OCCUPATION, end of the expansion of jewish settlements on choicest Arab lands.

Everything else is just noise.

July 28, 2006 @ 8:33 pm | Comment

US liking for Israel (pre-911) true has some to do with effective lobbying, but the Palistinian’s have done a great job of shooting themselves in the foot at every chance they can get with the perception that Arafat chose the gun over OK peace treaty. After 9-11 the degree of anti-Americanism in the Arab world has become very apparent. Why are there still Palestinian refugee camps over 50 years later in Arab countries? In the War of Independence, Israel actually got a lot of help from the USSR. Weapons from Czech, etc.

July 28, 2006 @ 8:45 pm | Comment

Peking Duck,

You call that usual Friedman’s garbage the best column ever!! You really disappoint me.
Friedman is a zionist racist preujudiced bigot
who hates the Arabs and who is an unappologitic supporter of Israel no matter what atrocities it commits. If Israel accept a viable state for the palistinians instead of the scattered and isolated ghettos is offering them here will be peace in the middle east. The conflict is very recent in history and is not premordial!!


July 29, 2006 @ 6:06 am | Comment

The ones who asked about Israel are always the same and indeed have a very short memory of history.

But at the end of the day, does Israel threaten the US? no.
Does the US want Israel to do what it wants, no?
To the second question, by subsidizing Israel, the US gets some leverage, w/o it, Israel will lead its wars on a very different way, a quicker way should I say. For instance in 1973, there would not have been any Cairo or Damascus left, and now, it is very likely that South Lebanon would just be a pile of rubble. And for the ones who think that it has to do with US weapon, they should remember that Israel is able to manufacture its own weapons and assuming that they are not as good as the US, they would still be good to level a full village. At least with laser guided you can choose what building to bring down.
Do we really want Israel to go berserk, I am not sure, which is what would happen if it was cornered. I certainly don’t want, do you?

But on another note.

Do we as Americans, would have accepted that Mexicans rebels come kidnap 2 soldiers and then shell our cities, because 100 something years ago, Texas was theirs, I would not, would you?

Look what we did to Cuba when they decided to put some missiles on their territory.
The embargo is still valid after more than 40 years, and Cuba is obviously not a threat to our existence.

July 29, 2006 @ 9:29 pm | Comment

Get away from politics and look at the economy. Berkshire just purchased an Israeli company for billions, HP just purchased an Israeli company, their largest purchase since Compaq, Israel is the USs 23 largest trading partner ( more than all the oil producers combined except the Saudis ), Israeli companies are the largest block of foreign companies on the NYSE and are ourperforming the index – – – get a grip – the alliance with Israel is good for the US, good for retirement investment, good for medical advances (unlocked the nuclear make up of DNA fragments last week)
The PA and Leabanon and Syria et al don’t contribute anything but oil to the conversation – and, in the end, I bet an Israeli scientist invents a substitute for that and sinks the Arab economies into the goopie muck upon which they now float. Too damn bad about the non-innocents on both sides that are killed by mistake – – and it’s only by mistake when the IDF does it – the 235 children murdered by the HamasHezbollah etal groups in the past 6 years are purposeful acts – the 10 year old murdered last week by their rocket was a victim of ball-bearings that wrap the explosive charges.

July 30, 2006 @ 2:42 pm | Comment

>>Believe it or not, the real answer to this mayhem lies in the END OF OCCUPATION, end of the expansion of jewish settlements on choicest Arab lands.>>Believe it or not, the real answer to this mayhem lies in the END OF OCCUPATION, end of the expansion of jewish settlements on choicest Arab lands.< Israel ended its occupation of South Lebanon in 2000, and what did it get? The election of an Islamic regime dedicated to Israel's destruction, and a barrage of missles. Israel ended its occupation of Gaza last year, and what did it get? The election of an Islamic regime dedicated to Israel's destruction and a barrage of missles. The arabs' response to Israeli withdrawals has been to INCREASE the violence, not decrease it and engage in further negotiations. How can one expect the Israeli public to support further withdrawals from the West Bank given the arabs' responses? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me thrice . . . ain't going to happen anytime soon.

August 3, 2006 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

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