The Con Man and His Pet Columnist
When Greg Mortenson—the Montana nurse who earned worldwide fame with his campaign to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and then recounted the tale in his mammoth international bestseller Three Cups of Tea—was exposed as a fraud in April, there was one prominent media figure he could count on for support: the Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
“One of the people I’ve enormously admired in recent years is Greg Mortenson,” Kristof wrote in his April 20 column. While conceding that the accusations against Mortenson “raised serious questions,” Kristof countered that “it’s indisputable that Greg has educated many thousands of children, and he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.” He acknowledged that Mortenson gave “a blurb for my most recent book, Half the Sky, and I read his book Three Cups of Tea to my daughter.” As for Mortenson’s critics, Kristof had the following message: “Let’s not forget that, even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”
The accusations against Mortenson—unearthed by 60 Minutes in collaboration with the journalist and filmmaker Jon Krakauer in an e-book entitled Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way—are grave. Mortenson is said to have fabricated the very incident he says gave him the inspiration to launch his school-building charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI). According to the creation myth, Mortenson stumbled upon the Pakistani village Korphe following a failed attempt at climbing the world’s second highest mountain, K-2. After the villagers cared for him and restored him to health, Mortenson says, he promised to return and build them a school. As Krakauer shows, however, Mortenson did not stagger into Korphe following his descent from K-2; he pledged to build the school there more than a year later, on a second trip.
One of the book’s most dramatic incidents, which involved the Taliban’s kidnapping of Mortenson in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in 1996, also appears to have been fabricated. Not only were there no Taliban fighters in the area at the time, but the Pakistani man Mortenson accused of having kidnapped him, Mansur Khan Mahsud, did nothing more than provide him the hospitality for which the region is renowned. Mahsud has since threatened to sue Mortenson for defamation. “His chapter about Waziristan in his book Three Cups of Tea is nothing but lies from A to Z. Not a word of this is true,” Mahsud told the Daily Beast.
One galling fabrication involves a jaunt Mortenson allegedly took during a layover at Calcutta airport in September 2000. This was the home, the book recounts, of the recently deceased Mother Teresa, one of Mortenson’s heroes. Taking a taxi to Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse (“This sahib has come all the way from America to pay his respects!” he recalls the driver yelling at Indian hordes surrounding his car), Mortenson finds a nun who, as luck would have it, leads him past the building’s gates to see Mother Theresa’s corpse. “’I sat in the corner staring at this shrouded figure,” he says. “She looked so small, draped in her cloth. And I remember thinking how amazing it was that such a tiny person had such a huge effect on humanity.” The book tells of Mortenson’s kneeling on the floor and resting “his large palm over her small hand.”
Far-fetched to begin with, the story can’t be true: Mother Theresa died in 1997, three years before Mortenson supposedly stumbled upon her freshly decomposing body in that Calcutta slum.
The allegations about Mortenson’s financial impropriety—specifically, using CAI’s nonprofit status as part of a scheme to promote his books and enrich himself from their sale—are the most serious. Krakauer details how CAI paid for full-page advertisements of Mortenson’s books in publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker, covered the travel expenses for his book tour (including trips on private jets), and purchased his books in bulk at full price. Meanwhile, Mortenson pocketed not only the proceeds from his books, but also the hefty fees he earned on the lecture circuit (to the tune of $30,000 per engagement), all the while donating a pittance of this sum to CAI. A former employee charged Mortenson for using CAI as “his own private ATM.”
An internal auditor hired by the charity reported earlier this year that Mortenson might be liable for more than $23 million in unpaid taxes for the “excessive benefits” he earned using CAI resources. As for the schools Mortenson claimed he built and for which he earned so much praise by the likes of Kristof and others, Krakauer found that he exaggerated their actual number, and that some of them were empty.
Kristof’s apologies for the disgraced Mortenson come after a series of columns and blog posts, written over the course of several years, devoted to praising Mortenson and his work. “So a lone Montanan staying at the cheapest guest houses has done more to advance U.S. interests in the region than the entire military and foreign policy apparatus of the Bush administration,” Kristof wrote in one typically breathless column published in 2008. In an October 2010 column titled “Dr. Greg and Afghanistan,” Kristof described Mortenson as “an American who runs around in Afghan clothing building schools.” What this colorful description left out was that Mortenson appears to have spent more time flying around America on private jets earning millions of dollars.
But Kristof’s support for Mortenson arises from something deeper than a laudable impulse to highlight selfless work. For Kristof, Mortenson was much more than a man. He was an idea. “I also believe that Greg was profoundly right about some big things,” Kristof wrote on April 20. For him, Mortenson served as the living antithesis to America’s inflexibly militaristic policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Kristof claimed consisted of little more than “shower[ing] billions of dollars worth of military aid on President Musharraf, without doing much to support education.” Indeed, in his first column extolling Mortenson, Kristof began by stating, “Since 9/11, Westerners have tried two approaches to fight terrorism in Pakistan, President Bush’s and Greg Mortenson’s.”
Of course, the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism in Pakistan involved more than the use of “military force”; it featured billions of dollars for the very economic and humanitarian aid programs that Kristof supports. (It’s also hard to square Kristof’s dichotomy with the fact that the U.S. military had frequently consulted with Mortenson, a fact that has become part of the indictment against the Afghan surge issued by conservative skeptics who have turned on the war.) The possibility that a strategy for weakening Islamic extremism in Pakistan might exist somewhere between these falsely delineated paradigms—a combination of military force and humanitarian assistance—seems to have eluded Kristof. According to him, if only the United States built more schools, then the problem of Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan would disappear. “It takes a School, Not Missiles” and “More Schools, Not Troops” are the headlines of two Kristof columns praising Mortenson and his work, conscious echoes of the antiwar slogan “Books, Not Bombs,” which, to be sure, Kristof used to headline a 2008 column and Mortenson featured in the title of his second book, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kristof may not be the con artist that Mortenson is, but he is guilty of a similar form of intellectual fraudulence: peddling simplistic, feel-good nonsense to the credulous.
In his columns praising Mortenson, Kristof frequently reverted to an argumentative tic beloved by pacifists and other opponents of the so-called national security state: he would first cite the cost of a piece of military hardware and then state how much nonmilitary X, Y, or Z it could buy. “Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs at least $500,000. That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban,” he wrote in 2008. “It’s hard to do the calculation precisely, but for the cost of 40,000 troops over a few years—well, we could just about turn every Afghan into a Ph.D.,” he wrote in opposing President Obama’s 2009 troop surge. “And for the cost of a single American soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, it’s possible to build 20 schools.” For that same column, Kristof interviewed Mortenson, who suggested that “America hold a press conference here in Kabul and put just 243 of our 100,000 soldiers (each costing $1 million per year) on planes home. Then the U.S. could take the savings and hand over a check to pay for Afghanistan’s universities.”
Mortenson played Kristof for a sucker, and suckered Kristof remains. To him and others like him, the answers to the problems of a country such as Afghanistan are simple: just build more schools, be less “belligerent,” and you’ll solve the world’s problems. For the Mortensons and Kristofs of the world who evangelize their cause with a certainty that borders on the religious, there is scant room for complexity. As someone who lectures “hawks” about their unthinking reliance on a simplistic doctrine—for supposedly believing American military force can solve everything—Kristof displays little self-awareness.
The problem with such thinking is that it rarely acknowledges that worthy ends—educating girls in Third World countries, preventing genocide in Darfur, etc.—might occasionally warrant “militaristic” means. It’s hard to build schools to educate Afghan girls, after all, when religious fanatics threaten to burn them down. This reality doesn’t faze Nicholas Kristof. “My vote would be to scale back our military footprint: use a smaller troop presence to secure Kabul and a few other cities, step up training of the Afghan National Army, and worry less about the Taliban and more about Al Qaeda,” he wrote in his “Dr. Greg and Afghanistan” column last October.
But what does Kristof believe would happen to the Afghan girls, whose stories he admirably conveys on a regular basis, if the United States were to take his advice and “worry less about the Taliban”? Kristof disputed that the Taliban had to be physically weakened in order for more of Dr. Greg’s schools to see the light of day. “The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control,” he wrote. “That view is wrong.” A few lines later, Kristof tells an inspiring story about how “the Taliban recently ordered a halt to a school being built by Mr. Mortenson’s organization,” which was eventually saved when “the villagers rushed to the school’s defense.” Kristof sources this happy ending to Wakil Karimi, the head of the CAI office in Afghanistan.
That heartwarming anecdote, if true, hardly constitutes a norm. In April, the BBC interviewed Karimi, asking him about the number of schools CAI has actually built. Karimi said, “five other schools remain incomplete because of the threat posed by Taliban militants and because of official corruption.” Bombing Afghanistan with books will not stave off those Taliban militants, but Tomahawk missiles and American soldiers just might. If Kristof were willing to concede that unbuilt schools would be the cost of his preferred policy of American troop withdrawal, he would at least hold an honest position. As it stands, he wants it both ways.
Kristof’s leeriness of American power fits hand in glove with his meliorist view of radical Islam. That perspective was no better displayed than in his review last year of the Somali-born ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Nomad. Entitled “The Gadfly,” Kristof’s notice belittled this unimaginably brave woman, who lives under 24-hour security protection thanks to the death threats from Islamists, for having the gall to write about Islam as she experienced it. As to Hirsi Ali’s suggestion that it was her family’s Islamist beliefs that led them to abuse her (up to and including the mutilation of her clitoris and labia as a young girl), Kristof offered this astonishing riposte: “Perhaps Hirsi Ali’s family is dysfunctional because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: ‘I love you.’” He posited a moral equivalence between the liberal norms of the West and the violence that occurs all too often in Muslim countries. “Yes, corporal punishment is common in madrassas,” he admitted, adding, “as it was in the rural Oregon schools where I grew up, and as it continues to be in Texas.”
Mortenson and Kristof share not only a worldview, but also a personal style. Both men seem to view themselves as secular saints. They extol their own gallantry and compassion as much as, if not more than, the causes they trumpet. Most of Kristof’s columns involve him traveling to some benighted land, interviewing a native or two, bemoaning Americans’ lack of interest in said benighted land (an ignorance that Kristof, who can travel the world on his seemingly unlimited Times expense account, of course doesn’t share), and then demanding that the United States throw more money at the problem. He wears his compassion on his rolled-up sleeves and wants you to know it.
The downfall of Greg Mortenson—which should in no way discredit the worthy cause of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly for girls—implicates Kristof not only because he has so often praised this charlatan’s work. It has exposed the dangerous naïveté and near-childlike ignorance that lies at the heart of Kristof’s fundamental conceit: that it is charity, and charity alone, that will fix all our problems. Why deal with the complexities of the world when you can blame American indifference and greed?
It is comforting to believe that simple acts of kindness are enough to withstand the brute power of the Taliban. Comforting, and wrong. In his decades of work as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the country’s paper of record, Nicholas Kristof has accomplished a feat of remarkable irony: he has spent more time traveling the globe than perhaps any other living human being but has somehow retained the worldview of a high school sophomore proudly on his way to fix the world at a Model United Nations.