After Cheerleading for Invasion of Iraq, Tom Friedman Glorifies Saudi Arabia’s War Criminal

Thomas [Tom] Friedman, the supposedly liberal columnist of the New York Times and the "imperial messenger" of the US establishment, needs no introduction. This is the same man who was the leading cheerleader for the illegal and criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003 that set the Middle East on the path of bloodshed and destruction. This is the same man who called the invasion of Iraq "the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched." The is the same pundit who, about a month after George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" – and the mission, destruction of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, has indeed been accomplished – stated in an interview with Charlie Rose about that war,

"What they [presumably Muslim masses] 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.’ That, Charlie, is what this war is about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia; it was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could."

Friedman made this statement after telling Rose that invasion of Iraq was "unquestionably worth doing." But, years later, when he was called the leading cheerleader of invasion of Iraq, his response was that it is "stupid and obnoxious" to call him so.

The reason for Friedman’s Iraq amnesia and his role in it is twofold. One is that he has learned that it is toxic for the career of the so-called pundits, especially someone like him who is paid handsomely by the New York Times to act as a war cheerleader for war and propagandist for war criminals, to ever admit wrongdoing. So, what does he do instead? He blames everyone and everything, from the people of Iraq to Iran, Arabs, incompetence of the US occupying forces, etc., but never people like himself, even though the NY Times itself admitted that many of the reports, articles and analyses that it published leading up to the invasion of Iraq were questionable. Second, he would also like people to forget that Daesh [also known as the ISIS or ISIL] is one of the worst legacies of invasion of Iraq that he supported so enthusiastically. It was that war that gave rise to al-Qaeda in Iraq that later on morphed into Daesh.

In his crusade to provoke invasion of Iraq, Friedman was not alone, of course. He was not even the only NY Times journalist that had that "honor." He, along with other NY Times journalists, such as Bill Keller, Judith Miller, and Michael Gordon, as well as Kenneth Pollack and David Remnick of the New Yorker, "convinced" the liberals that they should support the invasion of Iraq. But, Friedman’s journalistic crimes are not limited to supporting the invasion of Iraq. Last April he suggested that the US should not fight Daesh in Syria, writing,

"Why should our goal right now be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria? Of course, ISIS is detestable and needs to be eradicated. But is it really in our interest to be focusing solely on defeating ISIS in Syria right now? ….. We could simply back off fighting territorial ISIS in Syria and make it entirely a problem for Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad. After all, they’re the ones overextended in Syria, not us. Make them fight a two-front war – the moderate rebels on one side and ISIS on the other. If we defeat territorial ISIS in Syria now, we will only reduce the pressure on Assad, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah and enable them to devote all their resources to crushing the last moderate rebels in Idlib [in northwest Syria], not sharing power with them."

In other words, in addition to perpetuating the myth of non-existing Syrian "moderate rebels," Friedman wants to use Daesh as US proxy to fight Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Lebanese Hezbollah. But, this was not even the only time he advocated the US to get in bed with Daesh. Back in March 2015 he wrote,

"Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?"

He then presented Daesh not as a product of invasion of Iraq that he supported, but as "the homegrown Sunni Arab response to this crushing defeat of Sunni Arabism [in Iraq and elsewhere]," giving legitimacy to a terrorist group that beheads innocent people.

Against this background, Friedman suddenly publishes a fictional story – more precisely, a "love letter" – about a "great" Arab "reformer," none other Mohammad bin Salman or MBS, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who is deeply in trouble, both internally and externally.

It was MBS that began attacking Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, in March 2015. To the tune of $200 million a day, Saudi Arabia has been bombing farms, bridges, factories, hospitals, mosques, and even funerals. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called the attacks "war crimes." According to the United Nations, at least 5,200 civilian have been killed, and 8,800 injured. In addition, at least 1,100 children have been killed, and another 3,000 have been injured. With the support of the Trump administration and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia has imposed a total blockade on Yemen. Before the war Yemen imported 90 percent of its food, and the blockade has put that nation on the verge of famine. Starvation, as well as cholera, is rampant, with one million people infected. The UN has warned that unless the blockade is lifted in the next few months, at least 150,000 children will die.

In his propaganda piece about MBS, Friedman only mentions Yemen in passing. Nothing substantive is mentioned about the human catastrophe that is going on there, and which country is primarily responsible for it. Practically every expert and analyst considers Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen as an abject failure, yet Friedman repeats MBS nonsense that the war is "tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there, which, he said is now in control of 85 percent of the country, but given the fact that pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who hold the rest, launched a missile at Riyadh airport, anything less than 100 percent is still problematic." The President of this "legitimate government," Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is under house arrest in Saudi Arabia, apparently because he wants to return to Yemen, but MBS is apparently afraid that if Mansour Hadi goes back to his country, he too will rebel against the Saudi war crimes.

But, that is not the end of MBS disastrous failures. His kidnapping of Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in addition to the house arrest of Mansour Hadi, forcing him to resign and denounce Iran and Hezbollah, not in Beirut but in Riyadh, badly backfired. His claim that the missile that the Yemeni resistance used against Saudi Arabia was given to them by Iran was disputed by both the UN and other experts. After supporting terrorist groups in Syria, which both Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton acknowledged, Saudi Arabia was soundly defeated in Syria by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia has given billions of dollars to the Egyptian regime that came to power after the 2013 coup, but Egypt does not support toppling Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Qatar did not bow to Saudi will to break its diplomatic relations with Iran, and in fact upgraded them, and is now supported by both Turkey and Iran. Occupation of Bahrain by Saudi forces has been a heavy burden on Saudi Arabia’s economy.

Internally, the Saudi regime is in deep trouble. After the oil price crashed, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. Seventy percent of people of Saudi Arabia are under the age of 30, and need jobs, housing, and education for their children, not to mention social and political freedom. Every year 35,000 young Saudis return home after getting their education abroad, and they also need these things.

So, under such conditions, what do MBS and his regime need? In addition to having warm relations with the Middle East’s two most dangerous men, Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, MBS needs lobbyists in Washington and influential propagandists and publicists like Friedman to prop up his image. His lobbyist in Washington is the UAE’s Ambassador Yousef al Otaiba, who arranges for planting articles in the Washington Post praising MBS.

Friedman’s lavish praise for such a failed war criminal was even more astonishing in view of his column in the NY Times two weeks earlier on November 7, in which he basically mocked MBS. After MBS arrested several rival princes and hundreds of their business associates, ostensibly to fight corruption, Friedman wrote in his column,

"I could only laugh reading that tweet. Hearing that Saudi princes were arrested for "corruption" is like reading that Donald Trump fired seven cabinet secretaries "for lying." You know it has to be something else. Trump obviously missed the story last year that M.B.S. impulsively bought a yacht while on vacation in the south of France – it just caught his fancy in the harbor – from its Russian owner for $550 million. Did that money come out of his piggy bank? Savings from his Riyadh lemonade stand? From his Saudi government 401(k)?"

But, in his 23 November piece on the same MBS Friedman wrote,

"The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style. Unlike the other Arab Springs – all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia – this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe."

Several points must be made clear. One is that the "Arab Spring" succeeded in Tunisia because the United States and its allies did not meddle in its affairs, and they did not do so because Tunisia does not have any strategic significance to them. The second point is that no Muslim, most likely even within Saudi Arabia, considers MBS as an Islamic leader to look to for leading reform of his/her religion. It is only in Friedman’s wild and sick imagination that MBS rises to the leadership of the Islamic World. Third, given his record of war crimes in Syria and Yemen, why would any Muslim take him seriously? After all, this is the same regime that spends billions of dollars around the Islamic world to make sure that the worst reactionary interpretations of the Islamic teachings are taught to the young minds as the "true" Islam. And, this is the same regime that, together with Israel, the UAE, and its old ally Qatar, supported the terrorists in Syria that have killed tens of thousands of people.

Friedman’s chronic amnesia about his journalistic nonsense and love for war shines once again in his second column about MBS. He writes, "After nearly four hours together, I surrendered at 1:15 a.m. to M.B.S.’s youth, pointing out that I was exactly twice his age. It’s been a long, long time, though, since any Arab leader wore me out." Really, Tom? How about your lovely "letter from Saudi Arabia" two years ago? Who did you meet then? Or, perhaps, the revelation about MBS as a "reformer" had not yet occurred to you two years ago, or you were not served the lamb dishes that you ate there this time around.

Apparently, the lamb dishes that he shared with MBS and other princes were so delicious that Friedman was compelled to lie about MBS’s education. In his column he claims that MBS is "a lawyer by training." As a practicing Muslim I know no one in the Islamic world is considered a lawyer for having a B.S. degree, even one in Islamic law that MBS supposedly has.

Friedman also lies when in his propaganda for MBS claims that he wants to "bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation – whence it diverted in 1979." First of all, there has never been any "more open and modern" Islam in Saudi Arabia. This is simply a lie. Wahhabism, the most reactionary ideological interpretation of the Islamic teaching and the ideological backbone of Daesh, has been dominant in Saudi Arabia for 300 years. Secondly, even if we accept the lie that such a version of Islam did exist in Saudi Arabia before 1979, the question is, who diverted it? It was the Royal family of Saudi Arabia, the same family from whom MBS derives his "legitimacy," that committed this diversion and, ultimately, a crime.

As a propagandist for MBS, Friedman’s goal in fabricating such nonsense is presenting a "moderate" MBS, now that we know Saudi Arabia’s role in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, its support for terrorist groups, and its war crimes in Yemen.

Are the arrest and detention of the Saudi princes and their associates really an "anticorruption" drive by MBS? Not really. The fact is ever since he emerged on the scene and began his reckless and criminal war in Yemen, and taking on Iran, there has been a huge capital flight out of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s foreign currency reserves has dwindled from $737 billion in August 2014 to $487 billion in July of this year, a reduction of $250 billion that some attribute to capital flight. This has shaken the already shaky economy of Saudi Arabia, and the so-called "anti-corruption" drive is nothing but a brazen effort to stem the flight; it has nothing to do with fighting corruption. A true anti-corruption drive in that country must begin, first and foremost, with toppling its monarchy, the most corrupt institution in Saudi Arabia with over 7,000 princes and their cronies.

But, MBS does not have to worry about people knowing the truth about his "anticorruption drive," because they do not dare to express what they know publicly. Under a new law approved this month, there are penalties of up to 10 years in jail for insulting the king and the crown prince. Even worse is the fact that according to the same law "terrorism" is punishable by the death penalty, except that a wide array of acts, including "disturbing public order," "shaking the security of the community and the stability of the State," and "exposing its national unity to danger," have all been interpreted as acts of "terrorism."

So, when Friedman declares in his column that, "Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive," he should first tell his readers to whom he spoke, where, and how many. How many of the people that he spoke to were the relatives of the arrested people, held in Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and reportedly tortured? Does Friedman know about the fate of Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani, two prominent Saudi human rights activists that are currently serving long jail sentences for their efforts on behalf of human rights of Saudi citizens? How about the systematic discrimination of the Saudi regime against its Shiite citizens who constitute 15 percent of the population? Does Friedman know about the complete destruction of the town Awamiyah, a center of Shiites’ protests against discriminations?

As Mohammed Ayoob of Michigan State University pointed out, MBS wants to do to all Shiites of the Middle East what the Umayyad Caliph, Yazid ibn Muawiyah, did to a small group of Muslims led by Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein ibn Ali in 680 A.D. Yazid killed them all because they refused to accept his legitimacy, an event known as the Ashura day in Shiite Islam. Slaughter of Hussein and his comrades, including his brother Abbas ibn Ali, led to the formation of Shiite branch of Islam. Now, Saudi Arabia wants to diminish Iran’s stature and forcing it and all Shiites to accept it as the hegemon of the Middle East, and particularly the Persian Gulf.

I do not know the true motivation of Friedman for propping up a fake image for a war criminal like MBS. Perhaps for Friedman, an avowed "liberal" Zionist and Israel supporter and someone who has always disparaged Iran and Iranians to the extent that he wants to use Daesh as a proxy against them, the fact that Saudi Arabia and Israel are now allies against Iran is a good enough reason. His cheerleading of the invasion of Iraq, which led to slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and indescribable destruction, did not have any consequence for him and his career. So, he probably does not think twice about the implication of his reckless propaganda on behalf of a war criminal.

Perhaps, FAIR’s Adam H. Johnson said it best about Friedman and his propaganda for MBS: "In Dante’s Inferno the second pit of the eighth circle of hell is occupied by sycophants, groveling in excrement that represents the insincere flattery of their words. There’s not, we will likely find out, a pit deep enough – nor feces potent enough – suitable for Thomas Friedman."

I would like to take this opportunity to wish the best and full recovery for Justin Raimondo, the editorial director of Antiwar.com. I have never met him, and our views regarding many important issues belong to two distinct parts of the political/economic spectra. But, his principled positions and antiwar stance have been an inspiration to me.

Muhammad Sahimi is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. For the past two decades he has published extensively on Iran’s political developments and its nuclear program. He was a founding lead political analyst for the website PBS/Frontline: Tehran Bureau, and has also published extensively in major websites and print media. He is also the editor and publisher of Iran News and Middle East Reports and produces a weekly commentary for broadcasting that can be watched at http://www.ifttv.com/muhammad-sahimi.

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Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.