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Tom Friedman as Midwife

This piece appeared at Jacobin magazine.

In the aftermath of Pulitzer champ Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times offering, “Syria Is Iraq,” commentators have begun to question whether Friedman himself has not discovered the joys of Friedman-parodying.

As Matt Taibbi remarked at Rolling Stone: “This column today is so crazy I have to think Friedman is kidding.”

To put it in Friedman-speak, this is a Friedman column on steroids, a distilled cornucopia of his signature journalistic maneuvers. In the first two paragraphs we learn:

[T]he lesson of Iraq is quite simple: You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America.

The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics. My gut tells me that Syria will require the same to have the same chance.

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'Thomas Friedman: The imperial messenger'

The following is an excerpt from my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released today by Verso. The excerpt, originally published at Al Jazeera, begins with late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s criticism of the Orientalist tendencies Friedman exhibits in his 1989 bestseller From Beirut to Jerusalem. All quotes appearing in this excerpt are properly cited in the work itself.

Edward Said has challenged Friedman’s superimposition of desert scenery onto the contemporary Middle East in his explanation of the Hama massacre of 1982, which Friedman attributes in part to the notion that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad viewed the Sunnis of Hama as “members of an alien tribe – strangers in the desert – who were trying to take his turkey”, something we are told happens in Bedouin legends. Said comments:

So astonishing a jump, from modern, predominantly urban Syria to the prehistoric desert, is of course the purest Orientalism, and is of a piece with the moronic and hopelessly false dictum offered later in the book that the Arab political tradition has produced only two types: the merchant and the messiah.”

It should be noted, however, that Said’s original conception of Orientalism as Eurocentric prejudice must be amended slightly in Friedman’s case to incorporate his generalisations about Europeans themselves, collectively denounced as “Eurowimps” when they do not exhibit sufficient enthusiasm for US military endeavours against Arabo-Islamic peoples. Friedman alternately cajoles particularly intransigent language groups with persuasive slogans like “Ich bin ein New Yorker”, advocates removing France from the UN Security Council because, “as they say in kindergarten, [it] does not play well with others”, and warns Spain that a withdrawal from Iraq in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings of 2004 is a potential modern-day equivalent of the European appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

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The NATO weapons repository, aka the Republic of Turkey

Find the Mavi Marmara. (DAILY NEWS graphic, Emine YILMAZ; SOURCE: Daily News research)

News from Turkey on this first day of 2011: Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has characterized NATO plans for a missile defense system as being in the interest of Turkish national security.

Today’s issue of Today’s Zaman provides a summary of negotiations leading up to the Turkish declaration of support for the project:

Turkey formally backed the planned system during a summit of NATO leaders in Lisbon in November. The summit came after months of discussions between Turkey and mainly the US over some aspects of the planned shield, most notably whether countries such as Turkey’s neighbors Iran and Syria will be named as potential threats. Ankara insisted that the proposed system should provide protection for all territories of member states and that reference to any country would undermine the defensive nature of the planned shield by antagonizing the country or countries singled out as a threat. Turkish insistence paid off in the end as the NATO summit endorsed the missile defense system plans without naming any country as a potential threat.”

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On digital martyrs

Time stops for Hariri (Photo: Belén Fernández)

During my last visit to Beirut, I asked a Lebanese friend why the digital billboard downtown marking the number of days since the February 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had been switched off if Hariri was still dead. My friend suggested that stopping the clock gave the appearance that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, charged with prosecuting Hariri’s murderers, was actually accomplishing its task.

Were Lebanon not plagued by severe electrical shortages, digital billboards might be set up to count a number of things, such as the number of political assassinations that have gone unsolved since the start of the Lebanese civil war, the number of days suspects in the Hariri case were imprisoned without charges, or the number of visits current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has made to Syria after accusing that country of killing his father.

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