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Thomas Friedman: Imperial Messenger of the Arab Spring

(Photo: AFP-Mark Ralston)

The following is an article I wrote for the Beirut-based Al Akhbar English.

It took Thomas Friedman — New York Times foreign affairs columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient for reporting and commentary on the Middle East — approximately 46 days after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Tunisia to weigh in on the matter.

Noted champion of the notion that Iraqis should be made to “Suck. On. This” by the US military in order to “try to build one decent, progressive, democratizing society in the heart of the Arab East”, Friedman eventually turns up in a Tel Aviv hotel to discuss ramifications of the Egyptian uprising with a retired Israeli general. He then proceeds to Egypt itself, an experience that subsequently merits significant reflection:

When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings. The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: ‘Do you have a corporate rate?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.’ There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: ‘Can I ask you something?’ Sure. ‘Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.’

I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person, the kind of young woman who would have been in Tahrir Square. We’re just now beginning to see what may have been gnawing at her — in Egypt and elsewhere.



Drugs and justice in Panama

Former US installed president Guillermo Endara enabled Panama to become a province of the Cali drug cartel (Photo: EPA)

The following is my latest article for Al Jazeera:

Prior to his death in 2003, my grandfather – a former intelligence officer in the US military and a veteran of D-Day, Korea, and Vietnam – experienced regular flashbacks to his bellicose career.

These manifested themselves in various ways, such as via his suspicion that the other inhabitants of his assisted-living facility were using their oxygen tanks for communist purposes. In other cases, the ideological foundations of perceived threats were less readily detectable, and he exhibited intermittent concern about potential plots being concocted by the Mexican Air Force.

Another recurring fear was that of being dropped from a helicopter by ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who had in his pre-dictatorial incarnation as director of military intelligence under Omar Torrijos been a frequent visitor to my grandfather, himself the director of intelligence from 1971-76 for the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), then headquartered in the Panama Canal Zone. The visits often took place in the “Tunnel”, the local US nuclear bunker at Ancon Hill, which was equipped with numerous amenities useful in the event of Armageddon, such as air conditioning, a church, and an SUV-sized paper shredder.

Though accused by some of orchestrating Torrijos’ death in a plane crash, Noriega was not known for dropping human beings from aircraft into bodies of water – the practice of which art was generally restricted to US-backed dictators in the Southern Cone and was concurrent with the curriculum of the US-run School of the Americas, also located in the Canal Zone. According to my grandfather, however, Noriega dabbled in the application of such techniques as well, capitalising on the convenient proximity of the Bay of Panama prior to being deposed by the US invasion of 1989.


Guatemala’s September 11

Poised to win Guatemala’s presidential elections tomorrow is right-wing former army general Otto Pérez Molina, who is accused of genocide and torture during the epoch of state terrorism in the 1980s and is unsurprisingly an alumnus of the U.S.-run School of the Americas—alma mater of various Latin American dictators, death squad leaders, and other talented persons.

Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman recently managed to interview Pérez Molina about narcotrafficking in Guatemala without supplying any of these contextual details. In the interview, the former general surmised that 35-40 percent of Guatemalan territory is currently controlled by drug traffickers but failed to mention the drug ties of his own party.

The U.S. war on communism legitimated the elimination of over 200,000 Guatemalans via “internal conflict”. The full extent to which the new narco menace and increasing militarization of Central America will facilitate the eradication of large swaths of the area’s unnecessary human population remains to be seen, as does whether Guatemala will join the list of countries with memorable 9/11s.

Financial Times betrays Thomas Friedman

Today marks the release of yet another book by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ prolific foreign affairs columnist whose articles over the years have exposed such trends as the “collective madness” of Palestinians and the progress in Mexican baby names to more NAFTA-friendly alternatives than Juan, such as Alexander and Kevin.

Friedman’s latest book, endearingly titled That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, is coauthored by Friedman’s “intellectual soulmate”, the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum—a longtime staple of Friedman columns and a purveyor of such predictable notions as that “The real threat to world stability is not too much American power. It is too little American power”.

Despite having admitted to an audience in Istanbul that his two previous bestsellers—The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded, marketed as wakeup calls concerning globalization and clean energy, respectively—really “have nothing to do with technology or environment at heart” and are instead “basically cries of the heart to get my country focused on fixing itself”, Friedman managed to advertise That Used to Be Us as “the first book I’ve really written about America” during an interview with Fox’s Don Imus earlier this year.

Slightly more surprising than Friedman’s continuing habit of self-contradiction is a recent less-than-favorable review of the new book on the website of the Financial Times, the institution that in 2005 partnered with Goldman Sachs to bestow upon Friedman the first annual £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award for The World Is Flat. Friedman responded to the honor by referring to the pair as “two such classy organizations”, before finally conceding two years after the 2008 financial crisis that Goldman Sachs is perhaps in fact “utterly selfish”.


Calling all ultimate missionaries to Israel

Trial of "Hamas terrorists" in IDF military court, one of many exotic activities awaiting the ultimate missionary

I first learned of an intriguing excursion known as “The Ultimate Mission to Israel” in 2009 while perusing an article on the website of the Jerusalem Post.

The article, which outlined Israel’s sudden concern for the fate of UNIFIL despite its repeated targeting of UN personnel and institutions in Lebanon, cited Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak as warning that—in the event of a significant gain by Hezbollah in the upcoming Lebanese elections—Israel would no longer “feel the restraints it did in 2006 about attacking Lebanese infrastructure”.

Barak refrained from explaining how the 2006 destruction of much of Lebanon, including apartment complexes, milk factories, bridges, children in the backs of pickup trucks, and approximately 1200 other people qualified as infrastructural restraint. I was distracted from pondering the issue myself by a large advertisement featuring soaring warplanes in the bottom right-hand corner of my computer screen.

Clicking on the planes, I arrived at an invitation to “explore Israel’s struggle for survival” via the weeklong Ultimate Mission to Israel, which focused on closer-to-home infrastructural threats to the Jewish state. The itinerary included such activities as:

  1. briefings by Mossad officials.
  2. an inside tour of the IAF targeted killings unit.
  3. attendance at a military trial of “Hamas terrorists”.
  4. a “live exhibition of penetration raids in Arab territory”.
  5. a barbecue.