Tom Friedman’s Journal: Trip to the Persian Gulf and Berlin
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RAY SUAREZ: “Tom’s Journal” today covers his recent trip to the Persian Gulf nations of Qatar and Bahrain, and the German capital, Berlin. Well, American attention has been focused toward the Gulf, Tom. What did you hear when you were there?
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I was in Qatar, which is a small peninsula off Saudi Arabia, to attend a conference Brookings put on on Islam in America.
Whenever I’m at these conferences, Ray, and this was no exception, you do get this sense that Americans are from Mars and Arabs are from Venus. You get this sense of incredible cultural gap between the two. You know, the Americans say Iraq, the Arabs said Israel. The Americans say Saddam Hussein. The Arabs said Ariel Sharon. The Americans say the need for democracy, they say, why have you supported all our dictatorships all these years? And sometimes, you know, you can breakthrough but often it’s enormously frustrating. You still feel a year after 9/11 a deep sense, a deepening sense of cultural divide.
RAY SUAREZ: So that’s in a public forum. Is there a back story and a back conversation that maybe you wouldn’t hear in a conference like…
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I had an interesting experience while I was in Qatar where the famous now al Jazeera TV is based. I participated in a debate — they have a show, their own Crossfire — on democracy. And the Jordanian intellectual I was up against began the show by declaring that America was the greatest dictatorship in the history of the world, responsible for killing millions of people over the years. That unfortunately is the level of discourse you can get out there. And alas and alack many people called in to support what he had to say.
But because this show is widely watched in the Gulf, I was fortunate that it proved to be kind of a magnet. So many people came up to me one on one to tell me what they thought. I went on to Bahrain from Qatar. I’m in the lobby at the hotel the first morning. A man comes up to me and says, “Mr. Friedman, I saw you on al Jazeera. I want you to know that that man you’re on with was speaking nonsense.” He said, “without democracy we’ll never be able to grow.” And then he said the most remarkable thing to me – he said, Israel, 100 billion; Syria, seven billion. Those are the relative GDP figures of the two countries. Another man said to me in the lobby later the same day and said, “Mr. Friedman, I’m from Kuwait. I saw you on al Jazeera. Without democracy we’re lost.”
I had the most remarkable experience as I was flying from Bahrain to London and the reserve pilot on the plane walked back and came up to me and said, “I just want you to know I watched that al Jazeera show twice. I want you to know two things, without educational reform, we’re never going to be able to develop.” Then he leaned closer to my ear and he said our other problem is our regimes. So beneath the surface, you know, on the surface you’d think nothing is going on, there’s a total cultural gap but beneath the surface you realize that since 9/11 a big, big conversation has begun in that part of the world.
RAY SUAREZ: And if nothing else, it was a confirmation of the reach of that one channel.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Absolutely.
RAY SUAREZ: Your q rating rose …
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. I was at a dinner in Bahrain too at the time of the Chechen theater massacre or shootout, whatever it was in Moscow and also the arrest here in Washington of John Paul Muhammad, and a Bahrainian man I was sitting next to, a big Bahrainian businessman, he said, “you know, my wife and I were home last night. And we saw this guy arrested in Washington. We said why did his name have to be Muhammad? Then we saw this scene from the theater in Moscow where these guys with – God is Great — on their foreheads and we said, you know, what’s going on here? What is the issue? What is the problem?”
You can see people are pained by this. They know there’s a problem. And they’re really struggling with it.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, in Bahrain, your next stop, you got to see an election, a fairly rare event.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: A truly rare event in that part of the world and really the first real election in that part of the world in the sense that women could vote, women could run, but more importantly, Ray, they actually prepared the ground work first. They changed the constitution. They let the political prisoners out of jail. They invited the exiles back, and most importantly they allowed an independent, free newspaper to open.
And it was… I love watching people vote for the first time. It’s one of the coolest things in the world especially when it’s women completely veiled from head to toe except with that slit across their eyes. And, boy, you see them take that ballot and put the slit in the box, you know, dump it into that voting box.
What was striking about this election the first lady of Bahrain, the wife of the king did something that is not done in that culture. She went out and campaigned for people to vote. Women stood up and said, Your Highness, I just to tell you because we have the vote now our husbands are actually asking us what we think and listening to us.
So there’s more to democracy and democratization than voting. I stood in one voting booth watched a little boy must have been seven or eight in a soccer outfit pointing to his even younger siblings at the voting booth and clearly explaining to them what a voting booth was. And all I could think of was, kid, from your lips to God’s ears. This is how it starts.
I went to the newspaper there, new independent newspaper. What’s striking is they’re writing real stories. They exposed the fact that six Bahrainis including a member ruling family was in Guantanamo Bay. They’re doing such aggressive reporting that the ministries, which do a lot of the local advertising are threatening to boycott their paper. That’s a good sign that they’re doing real journalism. All of that is to the good, Ray. It should only spread.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, how should we think about this first attempt at democracy in a place like Bahrain? I was reading one report from an election observer organization on the Bahraini election that talked about gerrymandering to give Sunni Muslims a comparative heavy strength versus Shiites. That’s one of the big problems in that country — read about lack of transparency when it came to returns and voting in the broken-down districts and parts of the country. Is some democracy better than none? Should people who are rooting for that part of the world be cheered by at least a first attempt?
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Very much so. I mean, someone there said another American observer that, you know, if we had Bahrain run our elections in Florida, we’d be doing okay. Yeah, there was gerrymandering. I know we don’t do that here in this advanced democracy. But, yeah, I’m sure that in some voting booths there were irregularities but for the most part even the opposition there– remember the opposition called for a boycott which was largely rejected by the rank-and-file. Even the opposition was basically saying for the most part it was a free and fair election. And I think it’s a good start. I think it’s an important start. And people were watching.
I ran into a Saudi contractor in Bahrain airport as I was leaving. And I was struck by two things he said to me. One I asked him how is your business in Saudi Arabia? He’s in the building supply business. He said business is booming, because so many Saudis aren’t going to America now. Or they’re bringing the money back from America and adding a room or a wing to their house. But the second thing he said to me was this election thing in Bahrain, do you think it might spread to Saudi Arabia? So people were watching. Remember Bahrain is to Saudi Arabia what Hong Kong is to China. It’s kind of a vassal. And so the Saudis really had to give the Bahrainis permission to have this election and they did. I think that’s a good thing and I think they’re watching.
RAY SUAREZ: And your last stop, very different. Berlin.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Berlin — very, very different. Although the same in one sense, Ray — the sense of anti-Americanism that you feel in the Gulf, the sense of Americans, you know, are from Mars and Germans are from Venus — very, very profound there. You really felt two things coming together in Germany. One is anti-Americanism. The kind that really is spread all over Europe today, which I think is a lot about what Joe Joffe, the editor of De Zeit, calls the axis of envy, this kind of resentment and envy of America’s overwhelming power.
You also have another thing; you have anti-Bushism – a real resentment of the unilateral anti-green, anti-Kyoto, anti-world court, pugnaciousness of this administration. It’s the two together. I was struck three weeks before I came… President Clinton had come to Berlin to open the Brandenburg Gate that was being refurbished. And he was absolutely swarmed by Germans everywhere he went. I mean it was Madonna does Berlin. And it was striking to me. It’s a reminder that, yeah, Europeans, they like our leaders when they’re out of power, when they’re not throwing America’s weight around. That’s true to some extent.
Maybe they sided more with Clinton’s pro green and pro multi-lateral policies. But at the end of the day, I think they identify something in Clinton that they don’t see in the Bush administration. And that’s a certain sense of American optimism — a sense that the future can be better than the past. I think that Clinton is a good and powerful carrier of that. It’s an important thing. It’s a real asset for us in the world. I think there’s a sense in Europe at least that this administration really projects a certain pessimism about the world and about the future. And people pick up on that as well.
RAY SUAREZ: So, briefly, when the chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said we’re not going to back the United States, not no way, not no how in whatever happens in Iraq, he wasn’t out there on his own?
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Oh, no, not at all. The scary thing about Schroeder’s position, which was taking Iraq completely out of not just I mean war but almost out of the U.N. when it comes to dealing with Iraq was how popular it was.
I had a young German student who took me around and told me five years ago she studied in France and the French kind of had this attitude toward America as a hyper power and whatnot but it really wasn’t among German youth. But she said that’s changed today. It’s really spread. So you have that going on and also the East German factor, all these East Germans voting for the first time. They don’t have warm memories of America and American democracy either.
RAY SUAREZ: Tom, good to see you. Thanks for stopping by.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Great to be back, Ray.