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Interview: Journalist and Author Tom Friedman Discusses his Views on How The U.S. Administration Should Prepare Before Preemptively Attacking Iraq

Weekend Edition Saturday: September 7, 2002

Tom Friedman


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Bush administration has begun to fortify its case for ousting Saddam Hussein from Iraq to the nation and the world. President Bush is meeting today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who supports military action against Iraq. But most other US allies have been skeptical, as indeed have several leading Republicans in the House and Senate and even, according to reports, US Secretary of State Colin Powell. The president will address the United Nations on September 12th, the day after the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Probably no newspaper columnist is read with more serious attention among policy-makers than Tom Friedman of The New York Times. Mr. Friedman's essays and columns on Iraq, the Middle East and another topics have been collected into a new volume titled "Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11th." Tom Friedman joins us in our studio.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. TOM FRIEDMAN (The New York Times): Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: First, you've said that the administration has to have a policy towards ousting Saddam Hussein that can fit on a bumper sticker. We've had the vice president and other administration officials begin to speak up publicly. Can you see a slogan coming into focus?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It's big--unless they've got a very big bumper to fit all the slogans that have come out of this administration, which are human rights justifications, oil justifications, nuclear and biological weapons justifications and democracy justifications. But, you know, my feeling where they got themselves in trouble, Scott, is that this administration, not the higher-ups, but somebody there leaked the war plans on Iraq before they leaked the justification.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: And I think that was really the beginning of their troubles, because when you kind of had the war already on its way--and they hadn't really persuaded the American people, the Congress or the world yet of the justification--what that did was allow a lot of people outside the administration to define what they were really about. Oh, it's really about oil. It's really about wag the dog. It's really about these other things.

I think there is a shorthand for what this is about. It's a bad guy, Saddam Hussein, who is in possession of some really bad weapons, which he's already used to rape one country next door, Kuwait, and to threaten others, not to mention his own people, and the world would be a better place without him. To me the question is: Do we have the means, the support, the energy and the staying power to actually make the world a better place by removing him? And I think that's really what the president has got to convince the American people and the world of.

SIMON: If the slogan is something like `Hit him before he hits us'...


SIMON: ...has the administration made that case in the way that the United States and, for that matter, other countries around the world feel that if something isn't done within the next few months, next year, Iraq's in a position to hurt them?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I don't think they've made that case yet; not in a persuasive way because a lot of people have said, you know, `Wait a minute now. Saddam Hussein--he is homicidal, but he ain't suicidal. OK? Even if he has the kind of weapons you're talking about, what makes you in anyway believe either he's going to use them or he would give some terrorist group the right to use them with his return address on them?' And that is a legitimate argument. It's a legitimate argument in favor of containment as opposed to an aggressive policy of removal. I think there are counterarguments to that. There are legitimate counterarguments to that. But I think the administration's got to make them. And I personally am waiting to hear that. And I hope they do.

SIMON: The Economist a few weeks ago made some people a very compelling argument when they said, `Every argument about Iraq's present weakness or Saddam Hussein's disinclination to use those weapons is an argument for destroying the regime now when it's possible.'

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Mm-hmm. I mean, I think that's the case. I also think it's the case that if you could do this right, which is a very big question, you know, what is the Arab Muslim world lacking since September 11th? What have we come to realize that it's so lacking? I'll tell you what it's lacking, Scott. It's lacking a model that works; a democratic, progressive, forward-looking model with a secular but Arab-Muslim population that is comfortable with its religious identity and with modernity and with democracy. Now producing that out of Iraq would be a huge, huge project and not something that would happen in a year. But Lord knows if we could do that, that is something that would transform the Arab-Muslim world in, I think, a positive direction more than anything else we could possibly do.

This is a region of the world without a working model that people say, `Jeez, I want to be like that.' And that is really important. We just had an Arab League meeting--What?--a couple months ago, 22 countries, leaders, represented, not a single one democratically elected. There is no region in the world from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America to East Asia where you could get all the regional leaders together and not a single one would have been democratically elected in a free and fair election.

SIMON: It seems to me that both Republican and Democratic administrations have every now and then said, `You know, what Middle Eastern leaders say in public and private is different. That they might complain about US policy in the Middle East, particularly in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, certainly in regards what they consider, or at least identify, as bellicosity about Iraq,' but they say, `Look, in private they'll say, "Get rid of the guy." In private, "Sure we can live with Israel."' Has that been your experience?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I think when it comes to Iraq it's a much more complicated picture. I mean, if you're Saudi Arabia, think about--let's just look at it from Saudi Arabia's perspective.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Saddam Hussein, if he didn't exist, they'd want to invent him. First of all, he holds Iraq together with an iron fist, particularly throttling the Shiite majority in Iraq. I mean, how many Americans realize that, you know, the largest population group in Iraq are Shiites like in Iran and like in northeast Saudi Arabia? And so Saddam plays a very important role in collaring them.

Secondly, because Saddam is a pariah and is unable to pump the full potential of Iraq's oil onto the world stage, Saudi Arabia remains the swing producer and doesn't have to worry about Iraq eating its markets. Right now the last thing Saudi Arabia wants is a nice leader in Baghdad who can pump all the oil he wants and set an example basically of democracy, tolerance, pluralism and secularism on Saudi Arabia's doorstep.

SIMON: Trying to sweep aside all sentimentality and even political correctness, how important are allies to the United States at the moment, politically, militarily, strategically?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It's a really good question. I'd answer it this way. The Bush administration, the United States of America today, has the power to destroy the Taliban regime in Afghanistan all by itself. That's what we demonstrated in this war. We told NATO, `Guys, thank you very much. Stay on the bench. We'll take care of it.' We actually have the power today to destroy the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein all by ourselves. But you know what we don't have the power for, Scott? We don't have the power to rebuild Afghanistan by ourself, and we don't have the power to rebuild Iraq by ourselves.

You know, I kind of have a Pottery Barn view of this issue. You know, you go into the Pottery Barn--there's a sign that always says, `Break it and you own it.' OK. You break Afghanistan, and you own Afghanistan. You break Iraq, and you own Iraq. And owning Iraq, a country of--I don't know--20-odd million people with three contentious ethnic groups that have been vying with one another for many years, since they've been thrown together in these artificial borders. That's a big project. And that's why I want there to be a congressional debate. I want there to be a congressional vote. Because if we do decide to do this, I want every American to know what the price is going to be; that we hold hands going forward.

It can be a worthy project. It can be a very important project. But we have to have the staying power. But it's also why I want allies. And you're not going to have allies on the landing if you don't have them on the takeoff.

SIMON: There was an assassination attempt against Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week. And, of course, a couple of bombings elsewhere in the country that killed more than a score of people. You mentioned that the United States had been able to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, but there is, obviously, a lot of reason to believe that, might they be formerly al-Qaeda or other forces, but certainly part of that movement certainly are operating in other areas of the country. Is that a job undone? What does it suggest about the length of commitment?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: What it suggests is we're dealing with Afghanistan. It's a metaphor for tribal warfare, you know, in a mountainous region and warlordism. You know, I was in Kabul, Scott, I don't know--it must have been four months ago. My wife collects postcards. And she said, `When you're in Kabul, bring me home some postcards, dear.' So I said, `Honey, where am I going to find postcards in Kabul?' Well, sure enough, at the Intercontinental Hotel bookshop the drug...

SIMON: At the little gift store down there.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: They had postcards.

SIMON: That's, actually, a good bookstore, actually. Yeah.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: And that bookstore--I tell you, it made a big impression on me for two reasons.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: First of all, I went in, I grabbed a fistful of postcards. Gave the guy the money. Threw them in my suitcase and I came home. And I when I got home, I gave them to my wife. Here's Kabul by day. Here's Kabul by night. Here's Kabul on weekends. I got to a postcard, and it was a postcard of rubble. And I said, `What the heck is this?' I turned it over, and in the back, you know, in the upper left-hand corner where it identifies, you know, `Eiffel Tower by night,' it said, `The ruins of the Afghan National Museum.' And I thought, `My God, they've made a postcard of rubble.' It's like the punch line to a joke. How do you know when you've been at war too long? When they're making postcards of rubble. So you realize what you're dealing with here.

And these are not countries where you would start the first great American project of real nation-building, you know, since Germany and Japan. It's a really difficult task. So for me the threshold has to be very low. I just want to be able to look the world and the Afghans in the eye and say a year from now that we made Afghan stand a little more stable, a little more prosperous, a little more woman friendly and a little more democratic than it was under the Taliban. Denmark it ain't gonna be, OK? Not this year, not next year and not in 50 years. But if we can, at least, say we found it and improved it from what it was under the Taliban, then we think we've at least fulfilled some moral obligation we have.

SIMON: You wouldn't mind a quick question about your book, would you?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Oh, twist my arm, Scott. If we can sneak it in.

SIMON: This is not just a collection of columns.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Right. Basically what this is, is all my columns from September 11th forward in chronological order.

SIMON: I should explain, not that there would be anything wrong with a mere collection of your columns, but...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. And at the same time, I kept a diary basically this last year of all my travels to Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan. And it was partly because there was--I was picking up so much stuff, you know, that I couldn't squeeze into 740-word column and, at the same time, I wanted to have a diary that tried to connect the dots. You know, the columns are kind of the dots of how I felt and reacted on this day and this week. And they do provide a kind of chronological tale of this last year, but the diary is my attempt to really say, `What was this all about?' and to tie it all together.

SIMON: American allies around the world sometimes suggest that the American public, broadly speaking, just isn't interested in foreign policy. Being a foreign affairs columnist has that changed for you over the past year?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Unbelievably so. You know, in the old days, Scott, the CEO said, `Hey, Tom, love your column.' Now his secretary says it. In the old days your dentist said, `Hey, enjoyed you on NPR last week.' Now his hygienist says it. You know, that is the number of people reading foreign affairs, you know, has just exploded. And there's a very simple explanation. I wish I could say that I got better. It's because people understand now this is about them, their lives and their kids.

SIMON: Thank you very much.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: My pleasure.

SIMON: Tom Friedman of The New York Times. His new book is entitled "Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11th."

And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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