Commentary Magazine


Tom Friedman, Autocratophile

Last week I was in Warsaw, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, when I saw a poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland. I asked the taxi driver but, alas, I speak no Polish and he spoke no English. We drove past the poster and next to it I saw a short, squat man with a mustache and I thought, “Every country seems to have short, squat men with mustaches. Poland had that guy and we have Tom Friedman.”

And that led me to consider: Poland was a land under Soviet domination, a country in which people struggled for freedom, and so I wondered, “What does Tom Friedman think about freedom?” Alas, that’s an easy question to answer, but not in a good way, sort of like when the “check engine” light went on in my 2003 Nissan and I wondered what that meant as my car sputtered to a halt.

Just as babies have a soft spot on their heads (or so my Polish taxi driver probably said, although I can’t be sure because of the language barrier), Friedman has a soft spot for dictatorship. His paeans to China are both legendary and embarrassing. When Friedman was a young student and journalist, he backpacked around the Middle East and was astute in his observations. From Beirut to Jerusalem was a good book. But there is a reason why a peace corps volunteer or backpacker in Haiti have a better idea of society than tourists who book five-star trips and tend not to learn much about the troubles and travails of the societies which they visit. Taking a Royal Caribbean cruise to a private beach in Haiti does not make one an expert on Haitian politics, corruption, or earthquake reconstruction. It simply suggests one is rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich—unless, of course, you are a senior Chinese Communist party functionary, in which case you likely got your money upon the blood of the tens of millions of people your party has murdered. But most rich people are smart enough to realize that luxury tourism doesn’t make them smart.

But then again, Tom Friedman isn’t most people. Any analyst or writer knows not to simply parachute into a country, talk to politicians for a few hours or a few days, and then wax eloquently about how enlightened and forward thinking that polity is. But, alas, Tom Friedman is not just any analyst. Earlier this month, Friedman visited Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician currently aspiring to the Iraqi presidency, if he can overcome the animosity of Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Iraq’s current first lady. Barham gave Friedman the royal treatment. They hiked in the mountains. Kurdish journalists wrote on Facebook about seeing the two in local restaurants. Friedman gave the keynote at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, an impressive university for which Barham deserves credit, even if it is not as free from politics as Friedman imagines.

Friedman then wrote a predictable column:

But it was the Kurds who used the window of freedom we opened for them to overcome internal divisions, start to reform their once Sopranos-like politics and create a vibrant economy that is now throwing up skyscrapers and colleges in major towns of Erbil and Sulaimani. Everywhere I’ve gone here, I’ve met “reverse immigrants,” Kurds who’ve come back to their homeland in northeastern Iraq because of all the opportunities.

Kurdistan represents everything that has not happened in Shiite-dominated Baghdad and the Sunni regions of Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has behaved like a visionless, pro-Shiite sectarian chief and violence remains rife. Maliki was “our guy.” So you could say that we left two big “gifts” behind in Iraq: an American-installed autocrat and an American university that is teaching the values of inclusiveness that Maliki doesn’t practice… Kurdistan is an island of decency in a still-roiling sea. But the power of example is a funny thing. You never know how it can spread. More American universities, please — not just drones.

Kurdistan has achieved a lot, but hagiography does not make it a beacon of freedom any more than Vogue’s profile of Asma al-Assad made the Syrian regime a beacon of progressivism. Kurdistan has not rid itself of its internal divisions; they are just more easily hidden. Both major political parties maintain their own separate security forces, much like Hamas and the PLO. Perhaps Friedman ignores this fact because he couldn’t figure out a way to blame settlements.

Friedman apparently doesn’t realize that the skyscrapers he so admires in Iraqi Kurdistan have occupancy rates of around 20 percent according to numerous Iraqi Kurds who live there. Much of the land they are built on was either appropriated by Barham’s political party or simply given as gifts to those who supported Barham’s political party. This wasn’t Barham’s fault, but it is the reality. The family of one of my former students—and, here, unlike Tom Friedman, I cannot mention name or age because in the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan, that can lead to a prison sentence—was forced from Kirkuk by Saddam, and then forced from their home by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—Barham’s party—so that a brother-in-law of party leader Jalal Talabani could speculate in real estate.

Nor is Kurdistan really that much of a democracy. How powerful it would have been had Friedman actually given a shout-out to the young journalists—theoretically his real protégés—whose families today mourn their sons because they had the courage to write about corruption and nepotism in Iraqi Kurdistan. Barham probably did not mention that the party that he presides over and that of Masud Barzani have run death squads. That may sound harsh, but that’s the proper word for the politicized security forces sent out to kidnap and kill those who disagree. Friedman may not have been aware that the same street he drove down to get to the American University campus was the scene of a shooting by Kurdish security forces on protestors during Barham’s premiership. Barham could have resigned rather than allow his reformist reputation to serve as cover for such action, but sometimes it is easier to talk about reform than actually implement it. Regardless, the perpetrators in each case remain at large. So much for “the values of inclusiveness” that Friedman observed.

Barham is smooth but he is a political player. There’s nothing wrong with that. Politics can be healthy, especially in a country which aspires to democracy. But dirty tricks are dirty tricks. Convince a visitor to bash Maliki in a widely-read American paper? That’s good politics for someone who has tied his fortunes to Maliki’s competitors. Last year, Barham invited another writer and convinced him to criticize Kirkuk, a town which the writer had not visited but which is booming economically and happens to be governed by a man from Barham’s party who happens to be one of Barham’s chief rivals. Kudos to Barham, because he gets his point across and his guests often do not seem to realize they are being used.

True, violence is worse in Baghdad but discrimination is as bad in Kurdistan. Just ask any non-Kurd humiliated at the region’s borders. In January, I drove from Tikrit to Erbil and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Corruption is rife in both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Even Friedman’s host has dabbled in business. And while Friedman castigates Maliki for taking the fight to al-Qaeda, what does he expect the prime minister to do? How luxurious it must be to criticize Baghdad’s leaders on one hand for insecurity and on the other hand for fighting to restore security. Maybe the drones would have been helpful after all.

What else did Friedman forget? In praising the Kurds, he appears unaware that rather than step down at the end of his second term, Kurdish President Masud Barzani simply extended his tenure. So much for democracy. Barzani can hire and fire ministers on a whim. They answer to him. He trumps the prime minister of Kurdistan, who happens to be his nephew, and the chief of Kurdish intelligence, who happens to be his son. Not so in Baghdad, where the nature of compromise and political pluralism means that the prime minister is saddled with ministers whom he may not trust and whom he cannot fire, even if they are incompetent, corrupt, or abusive. If he even tries, people label him autocratic. But for Friedman, autocratic in Baghdad is democratic in Kurdistan. Maliki has faults, indeed many. But at least he subjects himself to elections. But in Friedman’s world, democracy is about dictatorship and dictatorship is democracy.

Kurdistan is impressive and, I must admit that after spending time in Basra or Baghdad, it’s a pleasure to go to Sulaymani, sit in an outdoor café and have a beer or tea with friends. And to Barham’s credit, he (and current Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani) do tolerate more dissent than either Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Masud Barzani, Masour Barzani, Falah Mustafa, Fuad Hussein, or Karim Sinjari. But for all of Kurdistan’s success, it is on a trajectory to become not a new bastion of democracy, but yet just another dictatorship. But then again, that may be what attracts Tom Friedman—or at least his subconscious—to it the most. Friedman likes making up words and catchy phrases. Perhaps he illustrates one: Autocratophile, the love of dictators.

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