A candid conversation with America’s most influential columnist about the war in Iraq, the future of the Middle East and why you need to go back to school
A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, New York Times writer Thomas L. Friedman is arguably America’s and possibly the world’s most influential columnist. As the National Review’s Jay Nordlinger put it, “He is the one to whom everyone’s turning. Friedman’s opinion is on everyone’s lips. I hear this from conservatives, from liberals–from everybody.”
Not only do Friedman’s opinions occupy a “globally important patch of journalistic real estate,” as media critic Howard Kurtz said, but the twice-weekly column is syndicated in more than 700 newspapers around the world. It is frequently (and often furiously) e-mailed and has been quoted in presidential press conferences.
Besides writing the column, Friedman, 52, has written a series of best-selling books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem, an essential text on the Middle East, and The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which established him as the leading popular commentator on globalization. His current book, The World Is Flat, charges that 9/11 distracted America from the most important transformation since the invention of the printing press: the technology revolution that has, in his words, “flattened the world” so that people in India and China can compete on a level playing field with people in the West.
Everyone who reads Friedman has an opinion about his opinions. Though he is a liberal on many issues, Harper’s has compared him to Newt Gingrich. Though he is a conservative on some issues, the right regularly lambastes him. Friedman has also been criticized for occasionally crossing the line from journalism to politics: In 2002 he wrote a series of columns that became central to the unfolding Middle East peace process. Ted Koppel declared, “Journalistic-fueled diplomacy is highly inappropriate,” but New York magazine media critic Michael Wolff cheered him on, describing Friedman as “a Hollywood character–Mr. Smith goes to Riyadh.”
Contributing Editor David Sheff, whose interview with CBS chief Leslie Moonves appeared in our April issue, cornered Friedman in Washington, D.C. and New York City. “It was eye-opening to see a print journalist with the kind of celebrity normally reserved for movie stars and TV anchormen,” observes Sheff. “Passersby who recognized him wanted to sound off. A lobbyist approached him with a scoop, and a longtime reader turned away from a U.S. district court judge in the middle of a conversation so that he could rush up to Friedman to praise that day’s column. One expects Friedman to be knowledgeable and opinionated, but I was surprised by his accessible, easy manner and self-deprecating sense of humor.”
Playboy: After years of leaning left, you shocked many of your readers with your support of the war in Iraq. Are you surprised to find yourself arguing the side of the Bush administration?
Friedman: I did what I thought and still think was right. I checked my politics at the door when I decided to support this war, but I resent that Bush and his people didn’t check theirs.
Friedman: Meaning they have used the war to push their agenda and to instill fear. They have made enormous mistakes and never acknowledged them. Donald Rumsfeld has performed so incompetently for so long, and the president hasn’t fired him. It’s shameful after Abu Ghraib and the deaths of Iraqi POWs. It is a travesty. You can’t win the war of ideas in a Muslim world when you are utterly indifferent to the murder of prisoners. The Republicans went on about the right to life of Terri Schiavo, and yet they couldn’t care less about our moral responsibility for the deaths of prisoners of war. It’s as if 9/11 were a shot of novocaine into our nation’s moral nerves. It was such a shock that we still haven’t gotten over it. It has made people indifferent to things that we should be outraged about.
Playboy: After all that, why do you continue to support the war, well after the definitive conclusion that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
Friedman: For me the war was never about weapons of mass destruction. I never believed that argument. Even if there were WMDs, the amount was piddling and easily deterrable. For me the reason to go to war was not WMDs but PMDs–people of mass destruction. The boys of 9/11 were produced by a political climate in the Arab world that was deeply toxic. For 50 years we treated the Arab world as if it were a collection of gas stations. All we cared about were three things: that they kept the pumps open and the prices low and were nice to the Jews. Basically we said, “Other than that you can do whatever you want out back.” They could treat their women however they wanted, educate their children in whatever intolerance they liked and describe us as the force of evil. They could be as corrupt as they wanted. On 9/11 we were hit with the distilled essence of everything going on out back. I wasn’t going to play that game anymore. George Bush wasn’t either, and he made the right decision. If we didn’t find a way to begin to change the context in the Arab world, we were inviting another 9/11.
There were four reasons for the war: the right reason, the stated reason, the moral reason and the real reason. The stated reason was WMDs. It was an excuse the president used. The moral reason was the genocidal regime responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of its own people. The right reason was regime change, to try to build a democratic context in the heart of the Arab world. But the real reason was to send the following message: “Ladies and gentlemen of the Arab world, we mean you no ill, but we noticed something on 9/11. Many Arabs and Muslims applauded it. So listen when I tell you the following: You are now going to see American boys and girls go from Basra to Baghdad. Which part of this don’t you understand? We will not sit here idly while you come over to our country, kill 3,000 of our brothers and sisters and then bake a cake–which some people in Saudi Arabia did–to celebrate. Try it again and we are going to come into the heart of your world and there will be vast and unpredictable consequences.”
Playboy: But Iraq didn’t attack us on September 11. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda did.
Friedman: Yes, but in my view terrorism is 98 percent about what governments let happen–the charities they allow to raise and funnel money, the lies they allow to be told about us in their press and the terrible intolerance they allow to be preached.
Playboy: Then why didn’t we attack Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia?
Friedman: We went to Iraq for one reason: We could.
Playboy: But if the real reason was to send a message and deter future attacks, how do you respond to the experts who say the war will create more, not fewer, terrorists because of increased resentment of and even hatred for the United States throughout the Arab world?
Friedman: I don’t believe it. I’m ready for somebody to prove it to me if it’s true. What the left has totally missed is how many people are quietly rooting for us to succeed. Look at Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine.
Playboy: Are you suggesting that people in those countries are our new fans?
Friedman: Do they like George Bush or even America? No. But we have unlocked something very important.
Playboy: Unlocked what, aside from increased anti-Americanism?
Friedman: We have unlocked a democracy movement in that region that has the potential to transform it. And that is how we will win the war on terrorism. Some things are true even if George Bush believes them. The only way to win against terrorism is to win the war of ideas, which can be fought only by Arabs and Muslims. American public diplomacy can’t do it. First of all, I don’t want them to like us. I’m not too fond of some of them some days, frankly. I’m not too fond of how they treat their women. I’m not too fond of how some of them preach intolerance. But I want them to like themselves. People who like themselves–who see hope and opportunity–don’t tend to wrap themselves in dynamite and blow themselves up. Young Taiwanese and young Koreans don’t like us very much either, but they aren’t strapping on dynamite and blowing themselves up. The war on terrorism is a war of ideas, so the question becomes, How do you create the context in which young people can fulfill their aspirations and potential and have a voice in their future? We have helped change the context in Iraq so that the people there may be able to.
Playboy: But the news from postwar Iraq doesn’t include much about people with hope and opportunity.
Friedman: We have taken the first step and are a million miles from the end point. However, the first Arab government has been formed as a result of a horizontal conversation between Arab people. There is a Kurdish president–the first Arab government with a leader from a political minority. There is a government that has a chance to fight the war of ideas inside its own country in its own language, inside its own religion and among its own people. That is a result of the war. We have helped create the context for this to happen. We have empowered progressive forces to fight the war of ideas from the inside. The second-largest Muslim country in the world is not Iran, not Saudi Arabia, not Pakistan. It is India. Here is an interesting statistic from 9/11: There are no Indian Muslims in Al Qaeda, as far as we know. There are no Indian Muslims in Guantánamo Bay. We know that Al Qaeda is a Noah’s ark of Muslims from all over the world, but none of them are from India.
Playboy: We don’t necessarily know if there are Al Qaeda cells in India.
Friedman: Maybe there are, but none have manifested themselves. Why is that? Could it be because the richest man in India is a Muslim software entrepreneur, Azim Premji, the chairman of Wipro, the biggest outsourcing firm in the world? Could it be because the president of India is a Muslim? Could it be because an Indian Muslim woman is on the Indian supreme court and Muslims have been governors of Indian states?
Playboy: How does this fight terrorism?
Friedman: Give me a context in which young people see that they have a chance to have an entrepreneurial idea and start one of the biggest companies in their world and become one of the 10 richest people on Forbes’s list. Give me a context in which anyone can aspire to the highest offices. Give me a context in which people who have a legal dispute can get it resolved in court–and not have to bribe the judge with a goat. And guess what–they don’t want to blow up the world; they want to be part of it. When I was in India after we invaded Afghanistan, there was a debate on Indian television between the leading Muslim cleric of New Delhi and the country’s leading female movie star. The cleric called on all Indian Muslims to rise up and join the jihad in Afghanistan against America. The leading Indian movie star basically told him to shove it, live on Indian national TV. Why did she do that? Because she could. She lives in a context that empowers her and protects her as an Indian Muslim woman to do that–to fight that war of ideas. She didn’t do it because she read American propaganda. It sprang from her own soul. That is what changes the world. Things will change if we have little Indias in every one of the Arab countries. And this is what motivated me to support the Bush administration, even with its flawed actors and flawed approach.
Playboy: But is a little India a possible outcome in Palestine?
Friedman: It’s our best hope. If Israel gets out of Gaza–and I think it will–for the first time we’re going to have a situation in which the Palestinians have their own place in the sun. It’s a miserable place–densely populated, underdeveloped, chopped up because of the settlements and security fences and roads–but it’s going to be their place in the sun. Next, if the Palestinians turn Gaza into something more like Dubai and less like Mogadishu, it will make a Palestinian state on the West Bank inevitable. In my view it’s incumbent on Israel for its own interest to help Palestinians make sure the state is more like Dubai and less like Mogadishu. It’s incumbent on the U.S. to help, and Lord knows it’s incumbent on the Arab states.
Playboy: What is the impact of the death of Yasir Arafat on the prospect of peace in the Middle East?
Friedman: Arafat was a real obstacle to peace. He wasn’t the only one, but he was an obstacle. He has gone to his maker, or maybe not. I saw a wonderful cartoon of Arafat at the gates of hell and the devil saying, “Wow, our first Nobel Prize winner.” [laughs] But wherever he is, he’s gone, and I think the Palestinians have a much better chance at a decent future as a result of that.
Playboy: Post-Arafat, what is the most likely scenario?
Friedman: One thing I learned about the Middle East is you get big changes when the big players do the right thing for the wrong reasons. If you wait for everyone to do the right things for the right reasons, you wait forever in that neighborhood. Israel is not getting out of Gaza because Ariel Sharon woke up and Arafat was gone and he said, “Whoa, now I get Palestinian nationalism!” Israel is getting out of Gaza because it faced a threat of an apartheid situation there.
Playboy: How was it becoming an apartheid situation?
Friedman: There will be more Palestinians than Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River if Israel doesn’t relinquish the Gaza Strip.
Playboy: Would Israel necessarily care if there were more Palestinians than Jews?
Friedman: Israel is a society that is swayed by that kind of moral pressure. They are getting out of Gaza ultimately to preserve the Jewish state. And on the other side, the Palestinians aren’t cooperating with this passively because they’ve suddenly adopted a new view of Ariel Sharon. So lo and behold, both sides are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. But it’s a big deal.
Playboy: The next hot spot in the Middle East is likely to be Iran. Is the Bush administration taking the correct approach there?
Friedman: Iran is vexing, but I believe in engagement. The best argument for it is our Cuba policy. How many presidents has Castro survived now? At what point do we say that the Cuba lab test has proved that the isolation policy is a failure? In Iran I believe in the Dr. Kevorkian solution of assisted suicide. More than anything else, the mullahs fear an American embassy back in Tehran. There should be one. I want to fill the veins of Iranians with Coca-Cola and Big Macs. I want to fill them with Microsoft Windows and Google. In the long run it’s the best way to bring about a peaceful transition inside Iran–one driven by Iranians from the inside.
Playboy: Fine, but the mullahs aren’t going to relinquish control if they don’t have to, and nuclear weapons, if they develop them, might be a persuasive argument.
Friedman: It’s a complicated situation, but generally we will get more and faster internally driven transformation in Iran by opening an American embassy and through trade and engagement than we will through a policy of isolation. Ultimately we’ll have more to say about even their nuclear program, if they decide to have one. It’s not a slam dunk. There are Iranians inside the country who say that isolation is better: “Don’t embrace these guys.” I take their view seriously, but we have to find a way to separate the bad guys at the top from the vast majority of Iranians who want to embrace modernity and the West–who want engagement. There are precedents throughout the Middle East to show what can happen. Throughout the region–in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt–some of the things are in place. That’s the challenge for Condoleezza Rice, the challenge for this administration. They’re only halfway home. Do not go on a victory lap yet.
Playboy: Are you optimistic about the parliamentary election and the withdrawal of Syria’s military from Lebanon?
Friedman: It’s enormously exciting. To some degree in Lebanon they saw what happened in Ukraine and Georgia, and they certainly see what happened in Iraq. These events are coming to their TVs via satellite and into their neighborhoods by e-mail and the web. It emboldens them, and they ask, “Why can’t we have it here?”
Playboy: Is the situation in Egypt similar?
Friedman: Yes. An Egyptian delegation was visiting Washington this week, and a guy came up to me at a reception and said, “Mr. Friedman, I run the biggest call center in Egypt for Microsoft.” It’s where democracy starts now that the world has flattened.
Playboy: Explain your concept of the flattened world.
Friedman: I became the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times in 1995 and covered international economics until September 11, 2001. After 9/11 I dropped the globalization stuff like a stone and went off and covered the 9/11 wars for three years. In the meantime I began doing a series of documentaries for the Discovery Channel. We planned one on how people abroad look at America, which was a big issue then. While we were costing it out, a certain Democratic presidential candidate named John Kerry came out with his blast against “Benedict Arnold executives” who were outsourcing. It elevated the issue, and we decided to do a show called The Other Side of Outsourcing, looking at it from the place that has benefited from much of the outsourcing, India, to get the perspective from that country. I dropped the 9/11 story, and we went to the Indian Silicon Valley and did about 60 hours of interviews. I got sicker and sicker.
Playboy: What made you sick?
Friedman: Because somewhere between the Indian entrepreneur who wanted to do my taxes from Bangalore and the one who wanted to write my software from Bangalore and the one who wanted to read my X-rays from Bangalore and the one who wanted to trace my lost luggage from Bangalore, I realized that while I was sleeping, something really big had happened. The world had changed and I’d missed it.
Playboy: What exactly had you missed?
Friedman: The flattening. We were so busy with 9/11 that we all missed it in this country–the administration did. We shifted resources, we shifted attention, and we shifted our energy. The idea crystallized during my last interview in India with Nandan Nilekani, an old friend who is the CEO of Infosys. Infosys is like the IBM of India, one of the gems of the Indian IT industry. He said to me, “Tom, I’ve got to tell you, the playing field is being leveled, and you Americans are not ready.” He explained how technology has leveled the playing field so that India can participate in the world economy as easily as the United States does. So can China. And now Egypt has a call center for Microsoft. Nandan said that this change is the great achievement of the 21st century. I didn’t completely understand it, but I knew that I had missed something and my framework badly needed updating. Back at my hotel I called my wife and told her, “Honey, I’m going to write a book called The World Is Flat.” I took three months off from my column before the election to do so.
Playboy: For 10 years, since Netscape went public and use of the Internet began to increase, we have been hearing that IT is going to change the world by leveling the playing field. Why is this different?
Friedman: A difference of degree becomes a difference of kind. Carly Fiorina, formerly of Hewlett-Packard, nailed it. She said that the IT revolution of the past 20 years was “the end of the beginning.” That is, everything we called the IT revolution–sorry, friends–was just the warm-up act. It was about the sharpening and distribution of the tools of collaboration so that people and companies could seamlessly collaborate across the globe. It’s why they can do my taxes or trace my luggage in India. Now we are going to see the real IT revolution. The Internet boom brought in huge investment. All that money was used to quickly build the global high-bandwidth Internet. Then after the bust, people’s capital shrank, and they had to look for cheaper and more efficient ways to innovate. Because the world is flat, they could go to India and China and other places to do whatever needed to be done cheaply and efficiently. So globalization was turbocharged. The bust also caused the big companies to pull back, opening the door for small companies around the world to take advantage of the highbandwidth pipelines. An Indian start-up could compete with an American giant.
Playboy: Why did we miss that?
Friedman: Our heads were in the sand because of a perfect storm. We were focusing on the war on terrorism and nothing else. And let’s be honest, it was a good political gig for the Bush administration. Number two, Enron made CEOs guilty until proven innocent. As a result, none of them wanted to talk out loud about what was going on. None of them wanted to ask for anything they needed to compete and collaborate effectively in this flat world. Believe it or not, after Enron, the Bush administration, which to all of us seemed slavishly pro-business, didn’t want to be seen with the CEOs of the most important companies. Then came the dot-com bust, and people assumed it was all over. As a result of the perfect storm, exactly at the inflection point, it was like when Gutenberg gave us the printing press. We were off fighting some medieval war with the knights in shining armor.
Playboy: With what implications? Isn’t America still well ahead of other countries in terms of technology and access to information?
Friedman: While our heads were in the sand, other countries caught up. It’s the reason our jobs have gone to India. They can do the same work for cheaper. One of my daughters is a sophomore in college and the other is in 11th grade. When I was growing up my parents used to say to me, “Tom, finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving.” Now I tell my girls, “Girls, go finish your homework. People in China and India are starving for your jobs.” The good news is that the top tech CEOs in the country–people like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Marc Andreessen, Craig Barrett and John Doerr–know what is going on. They are outsourcing, insourcing, offshoring–everything required to compete in the flat world. The bad news is that nobody has told the kids. That is, the country doesn’t know what’s going on. The national debate is not revolving around what we need to do as a country to strengthen our abilities–individuals’ abilities and the abilities of our companies–to thrive in this new flat world. Instead of talking about preparing America, during the last election we had the Democrats debating whether NAFTA was a good idea and the Republicans putting duct tape over the mouth of chief White House economist N. Gregory Mankiw when he said that outsourcing makes a lot of sense. They stashed him in Dick Cheney’s basement. There was a kind of conspiracy of silence. Now we are in this totally nuts situation with a president with a mandate whose great legacy project is unraveling the New Deal by trying to privatize Social Security.
Playboy: Do you disagree that the system will be bankrupt?
Friedman: We need to fix Social Security, but that’s a math problem. What we need is a new New Deal between companies, government and citizens.
Playboy: What would this new New Deal look like?
Friedman: It would include a package of policies to empower and strengthen Americans to compete in a flat world. When was the last time you heard George Bush talk about competitiveness? Instead he’s talking about keeping the first-round intellectual draft choices of the world out because their name is Mohammed or they may once have changed flights in Riyadh. We are talking about Band-Aids for education, ignoring the catastrophe of our educational system. Last year the Republican Congress and this administration cut the National Science Foundation budget by $100 million. I’m convinced there is a Chinese spy in the White House who whispered in the president’s ear, “Why don’t you cut the National Science Foundation budget by $100 million?” and he happily agreed. Why not really retard yourself, stop innovation? We are not doing the right things, and we are actively doing the wrong things. The issue of expensing stock options is a perfect example. They are trying to hamper companies so that it will be far more expensive to give stock options to their employees. As a result, entrepreneurs won’t be able to attract talent from India and China or even keep our own talent in the U.S. China is not expensing stock options. On the contrary, it is telling its companies to lavish them on people–to use them to get its best and brightest to come home from America back to China.
Playboy: Though some people in China and India are thriving, hundreds of millions of them aren’t. They remain impoverished.
Friedman: It has to start somewhere. Thirty-five years ago if you had the choice of being born a B-plus student in the Bronx or a genius in Bangalore, you would choose B-plus student in the Bronx because your life opportunities were so much greater. You couldn’t plug and play as a genius in Bangalore unless you got a visa, in which case you had to give up your culture, your native dress, your sari, your curry and your extended family and move. Now, when the world is flat, if you are a genius in Bangalore, your life chances are amazing.
Playboy: What do you say to a person whose job has been outsourced and who may not be as enthusiastic about the flat world as you are?
Friedman: Welcome to my world. I just wrote a 488-page book in 11 months. I’ll be the first to tell you I didn’t know a single thing in that book a year ago. I had to retool myself. In order to do my job, I had to go back to school. Everyone is going to have to do it. There is no choice. If I can’t explain the world to you in a way that makes sense, one day my editors at The New York Times are going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Tom, maybe you want to move on,” because I won’t be relevant.
Playboy: But many American workers don’t have the opportunity to go back to school. They want their government to protect their jobs.
Friedman: The government is failing them but not by not protecting their jobs. That’s why we need a different presidency. So to someone who has lost his job because it has been outsourced I say, “The world is flat. I didn’t flatten it. I didn’t start it. I can’t stop it.” As a nation maybe we could stop it at the cost of impoverishing everybody–of radically reducing our standard of living. But that is a loser model. The least globalized countries are the ones that put up walls: North Korea, Cuba, Sudan. They’re not doing well for their folks. Instead we can seize the challenge and opportunity. We must use the profits that we make to take care of the left-behinds. If someone has lost a job because it has been outsourced, we need options for him so he can improve his knowledge skills and move vertically into this world. It’s the only way forward. Anyone who argues differently is doing great harm to this country and to their children and to our future. Whining about the Indians who are taking our jobs doesn’t help the Americans who are losing jobs. What is the better alternative? Socialism is a wonderful system for making people equally poor. Capitalism makes people unequally rich but gives more people at the bottom a chance to become rich. Always remember: Poor people don’t resent rich people anywhere near as much as the left thinks. What they resent is having no chance to get rich themselves. Is capitalism brutal? You bet it is. It’s the most brutal, mean, nasty economic system in the world–except for all the others. So we need a different kind of political leadership. We have had too many leaders who are making us stupid and afraid. Rather than explaining the opportunities of the world, they are making us afraid of it. We have CNN running a business show that goes out of its way to make us more afraid–to hype all the downsides of the flat world.
Playboy: Are you referring to Lou Dobbs’s show?
Friedman: You might say that. I have no problem with a TV show or an author pointing out the downsides of globalization, but not when you suggest that globalization is bad only after a 20-year period when more people have been lifted out of poverty in India and China into the middle class and lower-middle class faster than at any time in the history of the planet. Not when you suggest that it’s all bad at a time when America has been part of so many incredible innovations and, excuse me, our standard of living has also steadily risen. Our unemployment rate is still only 5.2 percent. When you use your TV show as a forum for that dangerous perspective, it is irresponsible. I expect better from CNN. I don’t expect it to be slavishly pro-business–some might say that’s what that show was like during the dot-com bubble–but I expect a balanced perspective.
Playboy: Exactly what would you have President Bush telling Americans?
Friedman: I think he needs to explain the enormous challenges and opportunities of the flat world, that it poses as comprehensive and serious a challenge to us as communism did. The job of government is to prepare our people, but not for lifetime employment. I wish we could still have that world, but we don’t. What the government should be about is thinking through the policies that would make more and more Americans employable for life.
Playboy: Besides education, what policies are you thinking of?
Friedman: Portable health care for all Americans so they can move from job to job as new industries are born and others are destroyed. Portable pensions. I never want to see people having to stay at a dying company because their pension is locked there. I believe we need wage insurance. And in the new deal for the flat world, the government needs to guarantee every American tertiary education. It has to be not compulsory but available to every single American through subsidies, tax breaks and grants. My mantra is, Not a man on Mars–what a loopy idea! We need to get every man and woman onto a college campus in America. That’s the new New Deal.
Playboy: What would you have people trained to do? It’s no longer enough to be trained in information-technology jobs, since many of them are precisely the ones being outsourced to India, China and other countries.
Friedman: To me the galvanizing idea–the moon shot of our generation that could inspire and motivate young people to go into science and engineering in ways they haven’t been for almost two decades now–is energy independence. First of all, it would make us the moral leader of the world in ways that we can only dream of now. It would make us a shining example of reducing energy use and reducing climate change. It would make us independent of having to support some of the worst governments in the world. We never tell the truth to governments that we’re dependent on for oil just as addicts never tell the truth to their pushers. This new deal would be great for the dollar. It would be great for the budget deficit. As a friend says, it wouldn’t be win-win but win-win-win-win. That is the moon shot to galvanize our generation. It’s crying out for this president to pick it up, and if he doesn’t, then I hope the next one will.
Playboy: Meanwhile billions of people in the world–not only in India and China but in Africa and the Middle East–are unlikely to be reeducated anytime soon. They have little education in the first place. They don’t even have food, clean water or health care.
Friedman: Yes, and it’s a big problem. I’m convinced that 9/11 was about humiliation, not economics. When do people get enraged? Not when they don’t have enough money. It is when they feel deeply degraded and humiliated. A big part of the world feels humiliated from being left behind. The flat world is intensifying humiliation. You get your humiliation fiber-optically in the flat world. You get it at 56K. In the flat world you can see where the caravan is and how far behind you are. The humiliation that comes with that is what drives the rage that fueled not only 9/11 but the millions of Muslims who cheered it. They thought, We gave them a punch in the nose. God, that felt good, even though it was a futile exercise. Yes, much of the world is too sick and too poor; some countries have broken governments, and many have no access to the flattening world. The world isn’t flat for them. With all the progress in India, 700 million people are living in despair. So in India and Africa and other places like them, it’s an enormous problem. But in 1991, India–a country of a billion people–had about $100 million in the bank. It was going bankrupt after four decades of compassionate, warm, soft, caring socialist economics. In 1991 Manmohan Singh, now prime minister, then finance minister, oversaw the globalizing of the Indian economy. Today India has somewhere close to $120 billion in reserves, reserves it can now use to do exactly the retraining, infrastructure building, school building and more that is needed to lift people out of poverty and give them the tools to succeed in the modern world.
Playboy: Your theory sounds a lot like a global version of Reagan’s trickle-down economics. But throughout history we have seen that wealth doesn’t necessarily trickle down.
Friedman: It can trickle down if we do the right things. The national and global priorities should all be the same: Improve infrastructure–in some cases that means drinking water–and education. The rest follows. As I said, we’re millions of miles from where we need to be. These are the areas where we need leadership and political courage. Iraq was such a radical shake of the dice, against the wishes of a lot of President Bush’s most trusted advisors, that I know at some level he must have great political courage. I’d like to see him use that political courage.
Playboy: Rather than seeing it as political courage, some view Iraq as an example of Bush’s arrogance.
Friedman: Courage, arrogance–call it what you want, but you can’t say the guy is a political coward. He bet the farm. So where is his leadership on the issues that really matter? People always say that Karl Rove is a genius. There are so many questions to look at that relate to people’s future–making them employable in the future, providing a positive future for their children–but Rove got them to vote on whether gays can marry. That is a kind of genius. Instead of offering America a politics of opportunity and aspiration, it’s a politics based on fear.
Playboy: You’re a journalist who often sounds like a politician. Is your goal to affect public policy?
Friedman: I don’t mean to sound sappy, but the goal is to make the world a better place. I’m a sappy patriot. I am a big believer that we have the greatest country in the world and the greatest opportunities in the world, and I want to take care of this thing and pass it on–not just for my kids but because you take America out of the world and the world’s a very different place. What do you think would be going on between Japan and China right now if not for America’s influence on Asia? Do you think Germany and France would be in a common currency if America had not been in the picture? Would Israel exist without America? We are the straw that stirs the drink. When we do it well, the drink comes out well; when we do it maladroitly–and we do that sometimes–the drink suffers.
Playboy: Do you enjoy the power you have through your column?
Friedman: I do not wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, flex my muscles and say, “Wow, are you powerful.” It’s the opposite. The morning after a column, I agonize. Did I get it right? It starts even before anyone outside the house reads it. My wife reads almost every column, and I literally hold my breath for the white or dark smoke. If she says a column doesn’t work, which she is wont to do on occasion, I have to go upstairs, rip it up and start over.
Playboy: Do you ever dig in your heels?
Friedman: The best fights we have are over my column, but when she tells me it doesn’t work, I don’t say, “Tough, I’m going with it.” I go with my tail between my legs back up to my office and rework it. If you’re sitting around thinking how powerful you are–“I’m Zeus on Mount Olympus; I’m going to toss down a few thunderbolts”–you stop reporting. Why should you? Zeus doesn’t need to report. He is sending thunderbolts down from the mountain. He can say whatever he wants. If I were to do that, it would be all over.
Playboy: Do you look back at any of your columns and cringe? When were you completely wrong?
Friedman: I was roundly criticized by people I respect for a column in which I wrote that I didn’t care two cents about what happened in Bosnia. I was not actually writing about the massacre or the genocide. What I was writing about was that we needed to go in and help our British and French allies. I was making a point that what mattered was our alliances with Britain and France, not whether Bosnia is an independent country. Unfortunately I expressed it in a very poor way. It was just dumb. I take that one back.
Playboy: You have also taken heat for your Golden Arches theory–that two countries with McDonald’s restaurants would never get into a war with each other. The theory collapsed with Belgrade.
Friedman: When I wrote that, I specifically excluded civil wars. I said civil wars don’t count, because McDonald’s served both sides in the Russian, El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan civil wars. Then immediately after the book in which I wrote that came out, we bombed Belgrade, and Belgrade had 10 or 11 McDonald’s. Of course every international relations professor wrote saying,”Nah-nah-nah-naaah-nah. Belgrade has McDonald’s.” My view of Belgrade is that it is a civil war in which we intervened, but let’s leave that aside. Let’s say there is one exception to the rule. That means the rule holds up 99 out of 100 times. For social science, that ain’t too bad, okay? I wasn’t doing quantum mechanics. It doesn’t disprove the point I was trying to make that the more countries are integrated into the global economy, the more they develop a middle class that can sustain a network of McDonald’s, the less incentive there is to go to war and the higher the cost.
Playboy: You received criticism not for reporting but for making the news when in 2002 you floated Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Do you agree that you crossed the line?
Friedman: It all started at the Davos World Economic Summit that was held in New York City in the year after 9/11. I was talking to a Moroccan friend, bemoaning the state of the peace process. An Arab summit was coming up, and I said, “Why don’t the Arabs just make a simple statement to the Israelis: full peace–that is, total normalization of trade and diplomatic recognition–for full withdrawal?” He liked that and encouraged me to put it out there. I happened to bump into Amir Moussa, the head of the Arab League, who was also there. I tried it out on him, and he said, “You know, why don’t you put that out there?” Occasionally I do these letters from the president to Arab leaders as columns. I decided to write a letter from Bush to the Arab League, laying it all out. By coincidence I went to Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks later and interviewed Crown Prince Abdullah. I asked him about this proposal. He completely shocked me by saying, “Well, you’ve broken into my drawer, because that’s my idea. That has been the peace plan I’ve been thinking of proposing.” We were speaking off the record in his house in Riyadh, and I asked him to put it on the record. He was uncomfortable doing that. I tried to convince him until two in the morning. Finally he said, “I want to sleep on it.” It took awhile, but he decided to put it on the record. Abdullah stuck by it, and it took off. At the time, everything was frozen in the peace process, so it was a big deal.
Playboy: Might Abdullah have been using you?
Friedman: For what? Was some of this an effort to burnish the Saudi image after 9/11? Absolutely. But if an Arab leader wants to use me to present a breakthrough peace proposal that might break the logjam in Middle East peace, well, here’s my number. Call anytime. Abdullah eventually took it to the Arab League. It remains on the table as the only consensus Arab peace initiative.
Playboy: Ted Koppel criticized you. He said, “Journalistic-fueled diplomacy is highly inappropriate.”
Friedman: Yes, I did a terrible thing. I’m going to confess it now in Playboy. I went to Saudi Arabia. I interviewed the crown prince. I asked him what he thought of this peace proposal. I opened my notebook. I wrote down what he said. I told the world. The fact that it had diplomatic ramifications was totally out of my control. And by the way, I’m not on the news desk. I’m the one who wrote the thing. I made it up. It all came out of my head to begin with. The Columbia Journalism Review may have some issue with this, but as we all know, the journalism business is not without its jealousy factor. So some of that, I’m sure, is at play as well.
Playboy: Does criticism, whether from Ted Koppel or Harper’s, which compared you to Newt Gingrich, bother you?
Friedman: I missed that in Harper’s. It’s hard to keep track of them all. But look, I’m no more thin-skinned or thick-skinned than anybody else. People tell you, “It’s water off a duck’s back.” I haven’t yet met the person for whom that is true–whether it’s the president of the United States, the secretary of state or journalists. Nobody likes to be written about in a way that’s mocking or sneering. You’d prefer to have people support your ideas and approve of them. But I’ve certainly reached a stage in my life in which I understand they’ll come after you only if they think you count. I take it as a compliment that I’m in there stirring the pot. If you’re dishing it out–and I am dishing it out–you’ve got to be able to take it. That’s my attitude. Just keep it clean and take a number. We’ll get to everybody.
Playboy: Does your role change depending on the administration in the White House? Was your role during the Clinton years different from what it is now?
Friedman: I was Clinton’s biggest critic on NATO expansion. I was a complete pain in the butt for him. Now I’m Bush’s biggest critic on energy. I was Clinton’s biggest supporter on NAFTA, and I have probably been one of the people who have given the Democratic rationale for the war in Iraq. I am now a harsh critic of the current administration for its failure to prepare us for the flat world.
Playboy: We haven’t yet discussed the impact of the flattening of the world on sex. What will be different?
Friedman: Pornography and gambling have been two huge killer apps in terms of driving bandwidth around the world; anyone who traces the history of the development of the Internet knows that gambling and pornography played a huge role. Those, file swapping, and music and video downloads are probably the biggest. The overall point is that the flattening of the world is a friend of Infosys and of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is an open-source global supply chain, only a suicide supply chain. It is a friend of pornography and e-banking. It is a friend of trafficking in women and trafficking in AIDS drugs. The bad guys are always early adopters, whether it’s Al Qaeda or people who traffic in women or put up gambling sites from the Cayman Islands. The flattening of the world goes both ways. These technologies do only one thing: They enable you to reach farther faster. What you reach farther faster to do, whether it’s to alleviate poverty or promote prostitution, depends on your imagination.
Playboy: Given the dangers, do you advocate more or less regulation of technology?
Friedman: Regulation is important. Some solutions are technological, some are regulatory, and they are all evolving. People thought regulating music was impossible after Napster. Lo and behold, we found a solution to the problem, and everyone–or almost everyone, I think–is happy. Now we have a way to provide entertainment for people at a reasonable price and at the same time remunerate artists so they will go out and write songs and remunerate record companies so they will produce those songs in a way that we can all enjoy them. As a result we have iTunes and the iPod.
Playboy: Do you use them?
Friedman: I do.
Playboy: What’s on your iPod?
Friedman: My iPod has things like Simon and Garfunkel, Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Oh God, you’re really going to date me with these.
Playboy: It dates you to a childhood in the 1960s. Were you raised in a family that was engaged in politics?
Friedman: Politics and current events were discussed. My parents subscribed to Time magazine and the morning and afternoon newspapers. For whatever reason, I devoured them. I used to read the columnists.
Playboy: What did your parents do for a living?
Friedman: My father was the vice president of a ball-bearing company, and my mother was a part-time bookkeeper for a delicatessen. I grew up in a small suburb of Minneapolis called St. Louis Park. I grew up in a conservative Jewish family.
Playboy: When did you decide to become a journalist?
Friedman: In 10th grade I took journalism. The teacher was the opposite of cool, but we hung around her classroom like it was the malt shop and she was Wolfman Jack. She had a huge impact on me. I was on my high school paper, too, though not on my college paper. But while I was in London for college, I wrote and submitted a column to the op-ed page of The Des Moines Register. They paid me $50. I was hooked ever after. Throughout college I wrote several more op-ed pieces. Then I got a job at UPI even though I had never covered a fire or a city hall meeting. But I had these 10 or 12 op-ed columns. So I actually started journalism as a columnist out of London.
Playboy: How did your beat become the Middle East?
Friedman: The number two man at the UPI bureau in Beirut got nipped in the ear by a piece of flying glass or something when a man was robbing a jewelry store. He basically said, “I want out of here.” I was asked if I wanted to go to Beirut. I was always interested in the Middle East, and here was an opportunity of a lifetime.
Playboy: Back to your Golden Arches theory: Are you waiting for the time when we will see McDonald’s restaurants throughout the Middle East–in the new Palestinian state, in Baghdad?
Friedman: Believe me, it will be a wonderful sign. However, undeterred by the critics, in the new book I have evolved the Golden Arches theory into the Dell theory of conflict prevention. It says that two countries that are part of the same global supply chain will never fight a war.
Playboy: Yet pairs of Asian countries, including China and Taiwan and China and Japan, are part of the same global supply chain. Though unlikely, it’s conceivable that they could wind up in a war.
Friedman: Yes, China may invade Japan, if you’re listening to the rhetoric. China may invade Taiwan. But if they were to go to war, they’d have to weigh the price. If they lose their part of the supply chain–if the supply chain moves away from them because companies have decided they are no longer a reliable link–it would be like pouring cement down an oil well.
I’m trying to make a larger point about how foreign policy is written. I’m thinking about the conversations that must go on in these countries. Chinese leaders might be saying, “I think those Taiwanese are getting awfully uppity. Let’s invade them.” Maybe the generals come in and say, “We need to invade them. Yes, they are tearing the motherland asunder.” Others are saying, “Yeah, let’s invade them.” But the general goes out the door and the leaders start talking: “You know, my son’s a partner with a Taiwanese in a wafer factory.” Somebody else at the table says, “You know, my son is a partner in a semiconductor plant in Taiwan.” Suddenly after reflection they say, “You know, why don’t we give the Taiwanese another chance?
In my view, the India-Pakistan ceasefire after their nuclear crisis was brought to you not by General Powell but by General Electric. You know, “We bring good things to life.”
There is this idiotic view of geopolitics that the only conversation going on is one about armies. It says that these other issues–the supply chain, deficitto-GDP ratio, currency values and how we’re going to get the next generation of technology in order to thrive in the modern world–isn’t part of the conversation. Well, that’s nuts. It’s a very impoverished view of foreign affairs, and at the end of the day it can’t explain the world.
Playboy: Given that view’s prevalence, are you pessimistic?
Friedman: There is good news, too. No society on the planet is better positioned to keep its people upgrading their education and making good collaborators in this pluralistic society than the United States. We have the best research universities in the world, the most rule of law and the most efficient capital markets in the world by a factor of God knows how many. But we are not playing to our strengths. We are riding on a lot of inertia. It’s not too late–yet. I figured this out only in the past year or two. I was a complete ignoramus about the deep impact of technology. I retooled myself so that I could stay relevant, just as we all have to do. My framework needed updating. My 2.0 version needed to be updated to 3.0. Because if I didn’t update it, I was going to write something very stupid in The New York Times.