Friedman's 'Longitudes': 9 / 11 in context

September 01, 2002|By Mark Matthews | By Mark Matthews,Sun Staff

Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11, by Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 400 pages. $26.

Few writers have a better grasp than Thomas L. Friedman of the dimensions of America's war on terrorism. A student of the Middle East since the 1970s, he made his mark in journalism reporting from Lebanon. As the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, he enjoys access to a number of Mideast leaders and a range of contacts among the region's intellectuals, business professionals and journalists.

For Friedman, Osama bin Laden poses not so much a military challenge as a huge political and cultural one.

As he describes it, the problem starts with frightened autocratic regimes, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere, that divert attention to problems at home by allowing their opponents to vent their anger against the United States. It moves to clerics fearful of Western modernity who serve up a diet of grievances. And it settles among a growing population of young adults, idled by lack of opportunity, whose bitterness is inflamed by satellite-TV images of Israeli reprisals against Palestinians.

There are less-known influences: a competition for dominance in the Muslim world between Iran's Shiite Muslim rulers and Saudi Arabia's equally rigid Sunni Muslim establishment; feelings of isolation and resentment among Europe's growing Muslim population, from which the leaders of the Sept. 11 hijackings emerged; and the way the Internet and satellite news broadcasts, instead of educating and breaking down East-West barriers, tend to feed the Middle East penchant for conspiracy theories.

Friedman serves this up with a large helping of outrage and distress -- but no animus. We read of how he walked out of a meeting with Saudi editors and columnists after a poet in the group told him the source of all the problems in the Middle East today was that America was "controlled by the Jews." But he also writes admiringly of Saudi women who challenged him on how Islam is portrayed in the United States.

Friedman's insights alone make this collection of columns written before and after Sept. 11--- plus an 88-page journal of his travels and interviews after the attacks -- a valuable work.

The book is also readable. With his punchy, conversational prose, Friedman has revolutionized foreign-affairs punditry.

But oh, the vanity. Friedman uses the first-person singular so much it's funny, and relishes quoting his own pronouncements. He repeats, in the journal section, many theories that also appear in his columns. We read about what he thinks, and then we read about him telling others what he thinks.

His ideas are commendably bold. He understands how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inextricably bound up with so many of the West's problems in the Arab world. So we have him calling on NATO to separate the two sides.

But he also treads naively into power politics. Thus we see him promoting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah his idea of full normalization between the Arab world and Israel, in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from land seized in 1967. Abdullah endorsed the idea, only to have it wither on the vine at the White House.

Obviously, there are limits to the clout of a columnist. Friedman should perhaps play to his own strengths. He is a brilliant reporter. If he expounded less and dug deeper, his next book might be even more enlightening than this one.

Mark Matthews has been The Sun's diplomatic correspondent, based in Washington, since 1990, except for serving as the paper's Mideast bureau chief, in Jerusalem, from 1999 to 2001. He has been with The Sun for 22 years.

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