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Tom’s Journal

April 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Tom Friedman is just back from a reporting trip through the Middle East that took him to many of his old haunts, including Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Kuwait, and southern Iraq. He joins us now. Tom, since you’re being quoted all over the program tonight, I want to take you back before we get to that whole section of where you were in the Middle East let’s talk about, you went to Europe first. You went to France and to Brussels.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Went to France and Brussels, Gwen. What struck me in France, first of all, was people were unapologetic. They felt they stood on principle. They were proud their government stood on principle, but at the same time you sensed just a tinge of embarrassment especially as the war was unfolding, as we were cutting through Iraq and as it was clear what kind of evil regime was being exposed. And I sensed especially from the people in the business community I heard, they’re very disquieted by the notion of a long-term tension between the United States and France that could affect Franco-American investment and business.

GWEN IFILL: In Brussels, you were at NATO.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: In Brussels, I was at NATO headquarters. There’s a revolution going on at NATO — quite striking. NATO is moving to the South. This is no longer going to be an organization sitting on the eastern front with the Soviet Union. NATO is going to move into Kabul to take over the security operation in Kabul. I’ll bet you before we’re done in Iraq you’re going to see NATO in Iraq as well. I think in three or four years you’re going to see NATO be kind of a NATO-Russia organization, focused really on the instability from the South and no longer be an East-West alliance.

GWEN IFILL: You went to Cairo, you went to Egypt and visited with old friends there and some new friends, and talked a little bit about the Arab world’s reaction to everything that was going on exactly at the same time in Iraq. What did you pick up?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: What was striking, Gwen, I met with a class of American studies students from Cairo University one of the few American studies classes in the whole Arab world. And what was interesting talking to them is everyone has kind of the worst impression of what we’re doing. “We’re there for oil in Iraq. We’re there to defend Israel. We’re there for bases.” But at the same time, Gwen, you know, I heard from all of these young people curiosity because what they understand is that they’re seeing something they’ve never seen before in their lifetime. And that is American power being used in the Arab world not to sustain the status quo, not to buttress some Arab oil sheik and not to just protect Israel. They’re seeing the revolutionary side of American power — America coming to the region not just with its military might, but with its ideas. And at some level, they’re really curious to see if we’re true to our ideas and we really do develop a kind of progressive forward-looking Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: But in countries outside of Iraq, Saddam was not… people weren’t necessarily weeping at the passing out of power of Saddam. It was Saddam-ism you say that Americans should be aware of.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. There is something called Saddam-ism. It really is something that you see in this kind of post- colonial, somewhat humiliated part of the world, where people rally around these kinds of dictators just because they stick a thumb in our eye. You know, I met with a group of opposition Egyptian journalists one day over tea. It was really striking how much… I mean, they were rooting for Saddam to defend Baghdad, to hold the fort. One of things I said to them was “wait a minute, guys, don’t you see how you would benefit most from a freer Iraq? I mean, imagine,” I said to them, “if in two years Iraq held a free and fair election; Jimmy Carter came and certified a free and fair election in Iraq.” Who else is holding an election in two years? Egypt is holding an election in two years. So can anyone imagine that if Iraq held a free and fair election that wouldn’t also affect the kind of election Egypt would almost have to hold? I tried to show them the positive side of this. But for now that outlook of Saddam-ism, because it’s so many feeling that they are being defeated, they are being humiliated. Even though rallying behind guys like Saddam, they know it’s like a bad addiction. It’s very much still there.

GWEN IFILL: You went to Tel Aviv, where people must be kind of holding their breaths waiting to see what the ultimate outcome is for Israeli-Palestinian relations.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: As soon as the Israelis realized that they wouldn’t need their gas masks, that Saddam was not going to attack them, on the one hand they’re relieved and happy that the United States is changing the regime in Baghdad which is a regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction. At the same time though I certainly sensed among Israeli officials, Gwen, an awareness that this story is going to loop back to their door just as the Gulf War One ended up in a Madrid peace conference I think there is an awareness and we’re seeing that played out today that we are going to follow up this war with Iraq– we, the United States– with, I think, a much more aggressive effort to promote some kind of Israeli- Palestinian peace settlement.

GWEN IFILL: After taking the long way around you finally… you’ve come to southern Iraq and visited a hospital in Umm Qasr.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Umm Qasr, which was the first city liberated by the war. I went in with Kuwaiti Red Cross, which was quite interesting really, and gave me more freedom to Rome and talk to people. Three things struck me from that three things struck me from that visit. First of all was how abjectly poor this town was. This was a major port city. This was more poor than some of the worst sub-Saharan African villages I’ve ever visited. It was unimaginably and shamefully poor when you think how rich this country is in natural resources. It tells you a little bit of what Saddam did. Another thing that struck me in talk to go people in the hospital, doctors and nurses, after you talked to about the situation at the moment, every person I talked to had a story about Saddam having taken a son, a brother, a cousin or a relative. But the third thing that struck me in talking to them because I kind of expected garlands and flowers, was how suspicious they were of us. “You’re here for the oil, right?” I mean, that was kind of the mood of a lot of people. It was a reminder that there’s a… they have their narrative and we have ours. Our narrative was the statue coming down on… and the liberation of Baghdad. That’s certainly part of the truth of what happened there. It’s a big part of the truth. But there is another narrative going on from their point of view. One that comes from watching the Arab satellite TVs, al Jazeera — that this is some kind of American occupation. You are going to see a kind of struggle between those two. We have to remember they haven’t been watching Fox TV down there. They’ve been watching Arab TV, and it’s bombarded them with a very different set of images than we have. As the previous segment really alluded to, everything really depends now, Gwen, on what we build there. We can talk all we want. We can say we’re here for these motives. They can say we’re there for these motives. If we build a decent Iraq, if we help Iraqis build a decent Iraq, I think a lot of this can go away.

GWEN IFILL: There’s the rub. Exactly how does the United States go about that in an environment where people were suspicious even before, happy to be liberated but not necessarily happy to have the liberators stay.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I think the key thing is to focus on two things, Gwen. One is process — that we develop a fair, transparent process for bringing Iraqis forward to run their own country. If we start anointing X, Y or Z or pushing aside X, Y or Z, we’re in trouble. The other thing is a lesson I learned after Israel. I went to the West Bank and looked at the Israeli occupation from Ramallah there and the problems it’s run into. One of the real lessons of the Israeli occupation is what happens when the mainstream– in this case the Israeli mainstream– doesn’t have a clear view of what it wants to do with this territory. When the mainstream doesn’t have a clear view, trust me, the extremes will. And the extremes will drive the agenda. I think it’s so important that President Bush focus as much with blinders and a laser beam on building that kind of decent accountable rule-of-law Iraq that he fought the war with that he now fights the post war with.

GWEN IFILL: You write about the series of walls which the United States must overcome, not just the obvious ones, but all kinds of lurking barriers which still exist to getting this goal that you say the United States should be aiming for.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, one of those walls is clearly the wall between Israelis and Palestinians. Why is it important for us to be seen to be working to break down that wall? We’re now in kind of a pre- political moment in Iraq, Gwen but very soon as you heard earlier here people are going to be jockeying for power. Now say you’re one of the pro- American people and you want to run for mayor of Baghdad or for governor of Baghdad province or whatever. But I’m a Shiite cleric and I want that job, what’s the quickest way for me to de-legitimize you? It’s to say, oh, you’re working with the Americans who are lackeys of Ariel Sharon. These stories will all get tied together. We won the ground war, but there was an air war — an air war in the air waves. It’s still going on. That’s why it’s so important for us to address in a fair way– not bashing any side or other– the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as we try to move forward on Iraq because they’ll intersect.

GWEN IFILL: With so many people within and without Iraq who have a vested interest in the outcome how do you stop someone from hijacking the peace process?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: You stop them from hijacking it by hijacking it yourself, that is, by keeping a laser focus of your eye on the prize. What is the prize we’re trying to go create? We’re trying to create an Iraq that will allow for the emergence of Iraqis who are Iraqi nationalists who don’t want to be occupied who are true Muslims, true to their faith but at the same time have a progressive, modernizing agenda and are willing and ready to work with us. That’s the Iraq we want. And everything we do in the region, in the Arab-Israeli context and in Iraq has to keep a laser focus on will it support that prize.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Tom, thanks again for taking us along on your trip.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Thanks so much, Gwen. Thank you.