Tom Friedman Calls the Kettle Black

05/26/2010 05:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jonathan Weiler Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

In his op-ed column in today's Times, Tom Friedman says he's identified the ugliest political sight one can see:

I confess that when I first saw the May 17 picture of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms -- after their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear weapons program -- all I could think of was: Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?

No, that's about as ugly as it gets.

You want ugly?

Let's leave aside the United States' long history of supporting murderous dictators (including the one whose brutal rule paved the way for the Ayatollahs' take over of Iran), a fact that Friedman is required to implicitly ignore every time he arrogates to himself and to America the right to tell everyone else how to behave like real democrats and act on the "side of angels," as he clearly imagines himself to be.

Let's instead just focus on two of the many things that Tom Friedman himself has said over the years before we judge what is the ugliest thing one can imagine seeing from putative "democrats."

1) The first is Friedman's extraordinary interview with Charlie Rose in the months after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Friedman was explaining to Rose why the invasion, which had already resulted in the deaths of large numbers of civilians and whose main justifications had already been discredited -- that Iraq had WMD and had a role in 9/11 -- was nevertheless justified. Friedman acknowledged to Rose that some of those key justifications were no longer valid, but that the invasion was necessary in order to burst what Friedman described as "a terrorism bubble" that peaked on 9/11:

What they (people in the Middle East) 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 going to let it grow? Well, suck on this, ok. That Charlie, is what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth.

You need to watch the video to see the sneering, snarling bloodlust in Tom Friedman's withered soul to appreciate fully what ugliness really looks like, when a self-described democrat explains why it's OK to murder innocent civilians in a country that had nothing to do with the attack that Friedman says was the culminating justification for our invasion.

2) While the "suck on this" comment is extraordinary in its bloodthirsty contempt, a second less-well-known example deserves more attention in Friedman's long career as a purported democrat who's happy to advocate for or gloss over sickening violence, especially when directed at people who happen to live in the less white precincts of the planet.

In 2006, when Friedman was first discovering that unbridled global capitalism and resource consumption might have potentially negative consequences for, you know, the planet, he wrote a much-discussed article in Foreign Policy called "The First Law of Petro-Politics." (sub. req'd) I took issue with that article at the time, but there is one element of it that simply shocks the conscience and qualifies for the ugliness hall of fame. Friedman's basic argument in Foreign Policy was that from 1979 (the year of the Iranian revolution) to 2005, one could trace a clear correlation between oil prices and freedom. When oil prices were low, freedom was on the march. But as oil prices rose globally the hand of tyrants sitting astride large oil reserves like Chavez, Putin and Ahmadinejad, would be strengthened. This was especially germane in early 2006, given the soaring price of oil at the time and the increasingly tyrannical behavior of the above-named leaders.

This relationship between oil prices and freedom in oil-dependent states -- Friedman's first law -- was one of the reasons why we urgently needed to wean ourselves of our dependency on crude. The best year for this relationship -- the year at which oil prices were at their lowest during the era in question and, therefore, prospects for global democracy were at their highest -- was 1995. Friedman elaborated on this theory by focusing on the countries whose leaders I mentioned above -- Venezuela, Russia and Iran -- plus a fourth, oil-rich and endemically corrupt Nigeria.

Friedman argued that Nigeria, from 2003 forward, had seen setbacks in its on-again, off-again efforts to nurture democratic institutions, consistent with his larger argument that the global rise in oil prices was bad for democrats and freedom and good for tyrants. By contrast, Friedman believed, the mid-1990s were a promising time for freedom in Nigeria, consistent with the low global oil prices at the time. One harbinger of freedom in Nigeria in the 1990s that Friedman highlighted was that Nigeria privatized its first oil field in 1993 (in Friedman's understanding, privatizing an oil field is on a par as a measure of freedom with the emergence of a major pro-democracy movement).

I pointed out another significant development that took place in Nigeria during this golden age of global freedom, in 1995, which Friedman somehow overlooked:

That was the year that the renowned writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged, along with eight of his colleagues by the Nigerian government. His crime? Publicizing the extraordinary environmental degradation and suffering that Shell Oil activities were visiting on Saro-Wiwa's home region and his Ogoni tribespeople. Saro-Wiwa had waged a tireless, non-violent campaign against Shell. In turn, the British-based oil giant counted on Nigerian security forces to intimidate protesters and worse. Saro-Wiwa's execution caused an international outcry, but did little stop the march of economic "freedom" in Nigeria. High oil prices may be bad for freedom. But, major oil companies backed by brutal governments? Nah.

Tom Friedman spends a long article bally-hooing the relationship between low oil prices, freedom and democracy, specifically touts developments in Nigeria that support his thesis and omits the single most high profile attack on freedom and democracy that Nigeria had witnessed in a generation, all while touting himself as a supporter of freedom and democracy.

Talk about ugly.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at