The Death of Jamal Khashoggi Demonstrates the Callous, Thoughtless Nature of Thomas Friedman

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The Death of Jamal Khashoggi Demonstrates the Callous, Thoughtless Nature of Thomas Friedman

Friedman is an admirer of Muhammad bin Salman who apparently ordered the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (who was dismembered alive by a 15-member hit squad).
—Wikipedia entry for “Thomas Friedman,” as of 10-17-18, 10:15 PM EST.

Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist, is probably dead. It seems likely that he was butchered by his own government. Columnist Tom Friedman was a colleague of Khashoggi’s—and a prominent defender of the Saudi regime. He has a lot to answer for.

Friedman’s paper, the New York Times, tells the tale:

Saudi agents were waiting when Jamal Khashoggi walked into their country’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago. Mr. Khashoggi was dead within minutes, beheaded, dismembered, his fingers severed, and within two hours the killers were gone, according to details from audio recordings described by a senior Turkish official on Wednesday. ... Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Ankara, in an escalation of pressure on both Saudi Arabia and the United States for answers about Mr. Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi dissident journalist who lived in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post.

Friedman has no culpability in this crime. But the likely death of Khashoggi demonstrates the callous, thoughtless nature of Friedman—and all the Friedmans in media. His influence is great, and so is his portion of the blame.

In his career, Friedman has given blank checks to the worst people on earth. Including the Saudi elites who probably killed Khashoggi. His death is a personal tragedy with international consequences. It also illustrates Friedman’s gullibility, intellectual laziness, and professional incompetence. The columnist is so unapologetic about his errors, and so incurious about his subject, that it amounts to journalistic malpractice on a vast scale.


Friedman defended the Saudi regime last year. The praise was embarrassing. He wrote: “I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia.”

Mohammed bin Salman, MBS for short, is the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. In 2017, the thirty-two-year-old was consolidating his authority in the Kingdom. Strongmen often use the cause of “fighting corruption” to purge their political rivals. That’s the “reform process” Friedman mentions.

External Saudi security depends on American approval. MBS’ ambition required the West’s blessing. The crown prince did a song-and-dance for Friedman. In November 2017, the columnist wrote what amounted to a PR release for the House of Saud. The Love Song of Thomas L. Friedman was a bit much:

But can M.B.S. and his team see this through? Again, I make no predictions. He has his flaws that he will have to control, insiders here tell me. They include relying on a very tight circle of advisers who don’t always challenge him sufficiently, and a tendency to start too many things that don’t get finished. There’s a whole list. But guess what? Perfect is not on the menu here. Someone had to do this job — wrench Saudi Arabia into the 21st century — and M.B.S. stepped up. I, for one, am rooting for him to succeed in his reform efforts.

When those words were published, here’s what Friedman’s imperfect menu amounted to: the Saudi and American governments were working together to kill the people of Yemen. During that same November, the site Relief Web stated: “Because of the ongoing armed conflict, an estimated 20.7 million people – three quarters of the population – require humanitarian assistance. At least 7 million people are also at risk of famine,” calling it “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”

So matters stood with Thomas Friedman and the Saudis. Mutual admiration. Then Khashoggi disappeared in October. There were unpleasant rumors. A pregnant hush filled the air. What would Friedman do?

On Oct. 8, the pundit wrote the first of two nauseating columns. In “Praying for Jamal Khashoggi,” Friedman noted “Saudi Arabia stands accused of killing him. If it did, it will be a disaster for the regime of Mohammed bin Salman.”

A disaster for who? Listen to how Friedman phrases that: A disaster. For. The. Regime. Not for the man who was supposedly disemboweled while still living. Just the regime.

Also, Friedman speaks of “the regime” and MBS, as if they were separate entities. Taken altogether, “Praying” is a shabby little exercise in blame-shifting. Friedman’s list of worries for the Kingdom: Investors will be driven out; MBS’ dark side is taking over; Saudi Arabia is not Denmark.

On Oct. 16, Friedman wrote a column titled “America’s Dilemma: Censuring M.B.S. and Not Halting Saudi Reforms: We have a national interest in Jamal Khashoggi’s saga.” By this point, things had become bleaker, so Friedman was more contrite.

After remembering Jamal as a “big teddy bear of a man” and describing Khashoggi’s likely murder as an exercise in “depravity and cowardice,” Friedman wrote:

And therefore, not as a journalist but as an American citizen, I am sickened to watch my own president and his secretary of state partnering with Saudi officials to concoct a cover story. The long-term ramifications of that for every journalist — or political critic in exile anywhere — are chilling. By the way, I don’t think they will get away with it.

Friedman, why are you “sickened” that Trump and Pompeo are concocting “a cover story?” Is it because they’re doing your job for you? Trump-Pompeo are borrowing the shtick you used during the Iraq War. They’re defending violent action against Middle Eastern citizens.

In 2012, after the Iraq War was responsible for a half-million to a million deaths, Friedman was still jazzed about it:

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.

And in 2003:

The failure of the Bush team to produce any weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.’s) in Iraq is becoming a big, big story. But is it the real story we should be concerned with? No. It was the wrong issue before the war, and it’s the wrong issue now. ... The only way to puncture that bubble was for American soldiers, men and women, to go into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, house to house, and make clear that we are ready to kill, and to die, to prevent our open society from being undermined by this terrorism bubble. Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it and because he was right in the heart of that world.

“Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine.”

Tom, if smashing them would have been fine, then what’s the harm in smashing one man? You were willing to let us be a “well-armed external midwife” for a better Iraq, after all. Didn’t you praise MBS as a reformer a year ago? Isn’t he a midwife too, Tom? When the Crown Prince allegedly orders a team of professional murderers to disembowel a regime critic, isn’t he following your suggestion, Tom? Isn’t MBS acting as a well-armed midwife, “whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition”?

Friedman has no shame cheerleading for mass slaughters. It’s what he’s doing with Yemen. It’s what he did last year for MBS. It’s what he’ll do in the future.

Writing for Mondoweiss, Donald Johnson noted:

To Friedman, the war crimes committed by the Saudis are still possible war crimes, not certainties. ... That is Friedman’s real value — he is so wrapped up in himself he just blurts these things out, showing how people in our elite class actually think, with the veil ripped away.

He really thinks murdering a friend of his is worse than a genocidal war.

Speaking of blurting, here is Friedman, struggling to extricate himself from the MBS fan club:

I always knew that M.B.S.’s reform agenda was a long shot to succeed, but I was rooting for its success — while urging the Trump administration to draw redlines around his dark side — for a very specific reason. It had nothing to do with M.B.S. personally. Personally, I don’t care if Saudi Arabia is ruled by M.B.S., S.O.S. or K.F.C.

Friedman brings up all the American imperial ambitions of the last twenty years. All of which he supported. Then he has the temerity to write “We have spent thousands of lives and some $2 trillion trying to defuse the threat of Muslim extremists — from Al Qaeda to ISIS — dollars that could have gone to so many other needs in our society.”

What our society “needs” is an honest accounting.

It’s weird. Dick Cheney is responsible for God knows how many deaths, and a multitude of gross indecencies. But what crime of his do we remember? That he shot his hunting buddy. That’s the way it goes. Nixon bombed the hell out of Cambodia. He prolonged the Vietnam War to win an election. What sticks in our heads, though? A third-rate break-in. Friedman defends every gruesome elite idea for three decades. He backs a war that destroys a county. He keeps his job.

And then this happens, and there’s no dodge for him.

Whether it’s supporting the Iraq War, advocating for the endless brutality of global capital, or advising us to keep “rootin’ for Putin,” Friedman will always support whatever American elites want. He doesn’t do so out of malice. Rather, Friedman is legitimately a gullible man, a sucker for tech CEOs and strongmen with PowerPoint skills. If Prince Joffrey and the Iron Throne were real, Tom Friedman would have filed a column talking about the wintry winds of change blowing into King’s Landing. No man has more bendable knees, or is easier to swindle. There are men sitting on Ozark porches with a deeper curiosity about the world than Pulitzer victor Tom Friedman.

This is one of the very few instances in life where Thomas Friedman does not deserve the courtesy of a condescending laugh. Without the Friedmans of the world, the Crown Princes of the world would not be possible.

If I sound angry, I mean every word. I take this matter personally. I have been a newspaperman, in one form or another, for much of my life. Khashoggi was doing what journalists should be doing: fearlessly questioning the unjust and powerful. He’s what journalists should be.

Friedman is what most journalists are.

I want to be as clear as possible:

Tom. You’re a naive fool—the patron saint of the comfortably housed and the easily duped. I hope you remember this for the rest of your life. You’re a disgrace to this profession. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Stop playing handmaiden for the hacksaw brigade. Return your awards and leave the Times. Mustache, resign.

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